The Green Bay Packers captured their fourth Super Bowl title and 13th world championship on Sunday night in front of 103,219 at Cowboys Stadium with a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. This final triumph concludes a memorable playoff run that featured three road wins over the NFC's top three seeds and now a down-to-the-wire victory against a Pittsburgh team that had won two of the previous five Super Bowls.
A little over a year ago, the Packers ended their season with an overtime playoff defeat that left them feeling an opportunity was squandered. Every opportunity was seized this time around.
"This journey started Monday after the Arizona playoff loss," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "We took a different path than expected, but that's life. We always thought we'd be here. We're here and we finished it. It's a great feeling."
Amidst the falling confetti and joyous locker room, there was an inescapable feeling that these four quarters possessed a strong resemblance in four specific ways to this entire season for the Packers.
First, injuries to key performers were overcome, extending that "different path" McCarthy mentioned. The offense lost veteran receiver Donald Driver to an ankle injury in the second quarter, plus star defender and inspirational leader Charles Woodson to a fractured collarbone shortly thereafter as well as rookie nickelback Sam Shields to a shoulder injury for notable stretches. But a career night from receiver Jordy Nelson, who had nine catches for 140 yards and the game's first touchdown, was just one example of this team's depth shining through once again.
Second, the turnover battle that needed to be won was, and those turnovers were turned into scores, which is when these Packers are at their best. Three Pittsburgh giveaways led to 21 Green Bay points, including a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown by safety Nick Collins and an interception by reserve cornerback Jarrett Bush – who played more than expected due to the absences of Woodson and Shields – that set up another score for an early 21-3 lead.
Third, stellar quarterback play once again carried the day, as Aaron Rodgers earned game MVP honors by completing 24-of-39 passes for 304 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 111.5 rating. His 21-yard dart over the middle through an incredibly tight window to receiver Greg Jennings for a second-quarter touchdown capped that 21-3 fast start and was one of a handful of stunningly accurate throws on the night.
And last but certainly not least, the defense got the stop that was needed at the end of the game to seal it. The only difference from three of the previous five must-win games dating back to Christmas weekend was that the clinching stop wasn't an interception. It was a less dramatic, but no less important, pass breakup by Tramon Williams against receiver Mike Wallace as Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tried to keep the Steelers' final drive alive on fourth-and-5.
"This represented our season pretty well I'd say, especially with how the game ended," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "The defense being on the field, finding a way to get a stop and win. It's something special."
It wasn't without plenty of nervous moments, though, but that was customary for this team, too.
The Steelers battled back from that early 21-3 deficit with a pair of touchdowns on either side of halftime. Roethlisberger (25-of-40, 263 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 77.4 rating) hit receiver Hines Ward for an 8-yard touchdown pass just before halftime, and then running back Rashard Mendenhall capped an early third-quarter drive with an 8-yard TD run to make it 21-17.
Pittsburgh had a couple of chances to move closer, if not into the lead, but the Packers wouldn't buckle. A third-down sack by linebacker Frank Zombo helped lead to a long 52-yard field goal attempt, which Shaun Suisham missed badly to the left late in the third.
Then on the first play of the fourth quarter, with the Steelers on the edge of field-goal range again, Mendenhall took a big hit from linebacker Clay Matthews and coughed up the ball. Fellow linebacker Desmond Bishop recovered at the Green Bay 45, and the Packers not only dodged another bullet but took advantage of a turnover for the third time in the game.
Having begun the second half with a number of dropped passes, all of which would have picked up first downs and one by James Jones that might have gone for a long score, the offense needed to bounce back.
"It's what you have to do," said Nelson, who had some drops of his own despite his huge game. "If you play this game long enough at this position, you're going to drop the ball, and you have to move on. We've level-headed. We don't get too high we don't get too low as a whole wide receiver corps.
"We weren't panicking at all when Pittsburgh started coming back. We just kept telling ourselves, all right, we have to go make plays. We knew it was going to be on us."
First, Jones atoned with a diving catch for 12 yards to convert a third down. Then a big-time throw to Nelson on third-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 40, plus a nice run after the catch, made it first-and-goal on the 2. Two plays later Jennings caught his second TD pass of the game, this one from 8 yards out to finish the 55-yard drive for a 28-17 lead.
"That's what we've been doing all season long is creating turnovers, and we know if we can create turnovers and give the ball back to our offense, it's going to be hard to beat us," Matthews said. "You notice those points … were the difference in the game.
"Defense wins championships and I don't think it was any different today."
Only the defense's work wasn't done, because Pittsburgh responded with a 66-yard drive for a touchdown, with Wallace hauling in a 25-yard scoring pass from Roethlisberger. An option pitch to Antwaan Randle El got the 2-point conversion, making it 28-25 with 7:34 left.
But Rodgers had one more drive in him, and one more big third-down throw. This time, he fired deep over the middle to Jennings (four catches, 64 yards) on third-and-10 from his own 25, and the 31-yard pickup helped set up a 23-yard Mason Crosby field goal with 2:07 to go.
That sent the defense back out needing one last stop. After a costly personal foul on Keyaron Fox on the kickoff return backed the Steelers up to their own 13, Roethlisberger went to work in familiar territory – having led the Steelers to a game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl two years ago, and having directed a similar 2-minute drive to beat the Packers on the final play of the game in Week 15 last season.
"It's a helpless feeling," Rodgers said. "I was just praying our guys would come up with one more stop."
The defense wasn't praying, just keeping its poise, as it had done with the game on the line many times before.
"No one said anything crazy (in the huddle)," Hawk said. "We knew at that point, the pressure was on them. It was not on us. They needed to go down and score. There were 2 minutes left in the game, they had one timeout. We knew if we tackled – and that's all we had to do, get the guy on the ground, keep him in bounds – and we're going to win this thing."
Roethlisberger completed his first two throws, for 15 yards to tight end Heath Miller and 5 yards to Ward. But then Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers came with pressure calls on three straight snaps, and Roethlisberger went 0-for-3. Williams got a hand in on a high pass to Wallace on fourth-and-5 from the Pittsburgh 33 with 49 seconds left, and it was over.
The Packers were Super Bowl champions once again, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
"The name on that trophy, that means a lot to us," nose tackle B.J. Raji said, "and we can't wait to bring it back to Green Bay."
They've been waiting to do so for a long time. Not just the 14 years since the historic triumph in New Orleans in Super Bowl XXXI, but also within the past year, knowing what they had a chance to accomplish.
"Since March, since the first day of training camp, we always believed because we know who we are, we know the caliber talent we have on this team," Bishop said. "We just had to figure out a way to put it all together."
They did it the way the best do, collectively and with a character that continually brought them closer – closer to each other and, step by step, closer to their goal.
"I feel a sense of pride in the guys in this locker room," General Manager Ted Thompson said. "I've said this over and over – a team is something very, very special, and a championship team that goes through all the things this one went through is remarkably special."