Whoa, Pack, Whoa!
The Green Bay Packers, the storied franchise from the NFL's smallest town, came through in the biggest of ways Sunday, reaching the mountaintop yet again with a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
With a crowd of 103,219 filling every nook of Cowboys Stadium — and that familiar chant of "Go, Pack, Go!" as a soundtrack — Packers Coach Mike McCarthy cradled the glistening prize, finally able to return it back to its rightful home.
"It's great to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay," said McCarthy, leader of a franchise that has won four Super Bowls, and at last the first in 14 years.
Powered by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw three touchdown passes and was named the game's most valuable player, the Packers joined the 2005 Steelers as the only sixth-seeded teams to win it all. That required winning four playoff games away from home, counting the Super Bowl, where the crowd seemed evenly divided between the cheesehead wearers and the Terrible Towel twirlers.
Rodgers became the second Green Bay quarterback selected Super Bowl MVP, following in the cleat-steps of Bart Starr, who earned the honor after victories in Super Bowls I and II.
Rocketing pass after pass through mailbox-sized windows, Rodgers completed 24 of 39 for 304 yards and three touchdowns, finishing with a passer rating of 111.5.
Turns out, though, the most meaningful pass that paved the way to this Super Bowl victory came in 2008, when the Packers passed the torch from Brett Favre to Rodgers. That was a bold move by the Green Bay brass, namely team President Mark Murphy, General Manager Ted Thompson and McCarthy.
"I told Ted back in 2005 he wouldn't be sorry with this pick," said Rodgers, who famously waited for hours in the green room at the draft before the Packers selected him with the 24th pick. "I told him in '08 that I was going to repay their trust and get us this opportunity."
Who would question that decision now? Certainly no one in Green Bay, where the fans follow their team anywhere and everywhere.
"Our fans have been so supportive," Rodgers said. "It's been incredible to end four playoff games now with 'Go, Pack, Go' chants. . . . It's a first-name basis when we see them out. It's a special place to play."
And now, he's bringing home something they haven't had for 14 years.
"It's named the Lombardi Trophy for a reason," Rodgers said. "Because we play and live in Titletown."
In proving that, the Packers denied the Steelers their quest for a record seventh Super Bowl victory — "Stairway to Seven," their fans coined it — and turned back another potentially thrilling comeback by Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
It was two years ago that Roethlisberger directed the Steelers to a last-minute Super Bowl victory over Arizona. This time, however, the Packers were able to slam the door on those hopes.
Trailing by six, the Steelers started their last-gasp drive at their 13 with 1 minute 59 seconds to play. Roethlisberger completed a couple passes for a total of 20 yards, but then saw four in a row fall incomplete. Two kneels later, and the Packers were champions.
It was a wire-to-wire performance by Green Bay, which built a 14-0 lead in the first quarter with rapid-fire touchdowns — a beautiful throw by Rodgers, and an interception return for a score by safety Nick Collins — then held on for the victory despite some key losses.
The Packers won without cornerback Charles Woodson, the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2009, and without receiver Donald Driver, the club's leader in career receptions. Woodson suffered a collarbone injury, and Driver had a bum ankle, both injuries occurring in the first half.
It's only fitting that the Packers would have players take up the slack; they rose to the top this season despite putting a jaw-dropping 15 players on injured reserve.
Pittsburgh cut the deficit to four in the third quarter, then to 28-25 with a 25-yard touchdown reception by Mike Wallace and a two-point conversion in the fourth.
The Steelers led in total yards, first downs and time of possession, but their three turnovers — compared to zero by Green Bay — led to their undoing.
"We're a team of fighters," Roethlisberger said. "We don't quit. We believe in each other. We were going to fight all the way to the last second, which I think we did. If I had played a little better, I feel like we would have had a better chance to win."
A lot of the Packers said they were most inspired about what they heard from a player who wasn't on the field. An injured Woodson, one of three team members who had ever been on a Super Bowl roster before this season, spoke to his teammates before they went out for the second half.
"They understand how much I wanted it," Woodson said. "I was pretty emotional so I didn't get a whole lot out, but just to tell them to get it done. And they did."