Green Bay Packers 31 Pittsburgh Steelers 25
The Vince Lombardi trophy is returning to its spiritual home, as the Green Bay Packers held off a ferocious comeback by the Pittsburgh Steelers to win an enthralling game and claim their fourth Super Bowl title.
The Packers jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead after Nick Collins intercepted Ben Roethlisberger and scored on a 37-yard return. Touchdowns either side of half-time allowed the Steelers to close a yawning 21-3 deficit to just four points. However, Greg Jennings‘ second touchdown and a late field goal proved too much for Pittsburgh to overcome.
I won’t go into the play-by-play detail in this post, but here are my six key talking points from Super Bowl XLV.
1. Aaron Rodgers is one hell of a quarterback
It seems odd to be saying this about the NFL’s current career leader in passer rating – ahead of such luminaries as Drew Brees and Steve Young – but this postseason run finally confirmed Aaron Rodgers as a truly great quarterback. But then Rodgers knows what it is like to have been underestimated throughout his career.
Aaron Rodgers underlined his standing as the NFL's career leader in passer rating with a flawless 3 TD performance (image courtesy of nfl.com)
Despite an outstanding high school career, Rodgers was initially passed over for scholarships by all the major colleges on account of his relatively small stature. After opting for community college, he was picked up by the University of California. At Cal he enjoyed a stellar career which showcased his accuracy and poise, including tying the NCAA record of 23 consecutive pass completions in a single game. Nonetheless, despite being talked about as a potential overall top pick in the 2005 NFL draft, he slipped to 22nd before Green Bay selected him. At Lambeau Field, he sat patiently for three years behind future Hall of Famer Brett Favre before finally being handed the reins in 2008.
Since then, Rodgers’ accurate arm and mobility have seen him pass for over 12,000 yards in his three seasons as a starter, completing over 64% of his passes and accumulating an impressive 87-32 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
In Super Bowl XLV, Rodgers’ numbers were merely good by his high standards, but brilliant by anyone else’s: 24 completions in 39 attempts, 304 yards, 3 touchdowns and most importantly no interceptions. Now put that into the context of playing in his first Super Bowl against the league’s top-ranked defense while missing his top receiver, Donald Driver, for most of the game, and with a young and talented but inconsistent receiving corps – who dropped at least four catchable balls last night – and you cannot help but be impressed.
He did just about everything right, as he had done throughout the playoffs. He picked the right options, threw with power and accuracy – perhaps two or three balls were off-target in the entire game – used his mobility to escape pressure and completed big passes down the field at critical moments.
Rodgers walked away with the Super Bowl MVP award, and rightly so. He was the game’s outstanding player by a country mile.
2. Turnovers are king
Although Pittsburgh moved the ball well throughout and dominated most of the major statistics – total yards, rushing yards, first downs, time of possession – this game was won and lost on turnovers. On this vital measure, Green Bay won hands down.
Rashard Mendenhall's fourth quarter fumble was the game's turning point (image courtesy of nfl.com)
The comparison could not be more stark. The Steelers, owner of the league’s number one defense – which had 35 takeaways in the regular season – did not generate a single turnover. The Packers forced three, and scored touchdowns – 21 of their 31 points – off each of them.
There were long spells in the game, particularly in the middle two quarters, where Green Bay’s offense repeatedly stalled. But it was their ability to take the ball away from Pittsburgh that kept them ahead.
Never was this more dramatically displayed than when Collins picked off a deep heave from Roethlisberger and returned it 37 yards for a score just 24 seconds after Rodgers’ 29-yarder to Jordy Nelson had put the Packers 7-0 up.
Late in the second quarter, with Pittsburgh gathering momentum, Jarrett Bush stepped in front of Mike Wallace to stifle the threat. Four plays later, Rodgers hit Greg Jennings on a seam route to make it 21-3.
And finally – and most critically – on the opening play of the fourth quarter, with the Steelers having closed to 21-17 and threatening to take the lead, All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews smashed into Rashard Mendenhall in the backfield, jarring the ball loose for Desmond Bishop to recover. Rodgers found Jennings in the corner of the endzone, and although the Steelers responded valiantly the 11-point deficit was just too much for them to recover.
The fact that the turnover battle proved to be so pivotal should have come as no surprise. In Super Bowls, teams with a positive turnover differential are 33-3 all-time.
3. Even in the modern pass-happy NFL, you need a running game
There is no denying that the NFL has become an increasingly pass-orientated league over the years. A succession of small tweaks to the rules have gradually tilted the balance in favour of the aerial game.
It used to be a prerequisite of a Super Bowl winner that they have at least a good running game. Indeed, several teams have won Super Bowls with a great defense, a top-notch running game and little more than a token aerial threat – think of the 1985 Chicago Bears, for starters.
Increasingly, though, recent Super Bowl winners have triumphed with little more than a token running game – the 2006 Indianapolis Colts and the 2008 Steelers spring readily to mind – with big-play receivers and defenders able to compensate for the shortfall.
James Starks ran 11 times for 52 yards, just enough to keep the Steelers' defense honest (image courtesy of nfl.com)
The 2010 Packers come from a similar mould. Ranked just 24th (out of 32 teams) in terms of rushing yards, none of Green Bay’s running backs achieved more than 3.7 yards per carry, a fairly dismal average.
But a key component of the Packers’ postseason run had been their ability to run a balanced offense, with rookie running back James Starks carrying an increasing workload. This allowed them to control the clock in hostile road games and prevent opposing defenses from keying solely on Rodgers.
Against the Steelers, it was important that they presented enough of a ground game to keep their opponents honest. They succeeded in this early on, running the ball on five of 15 first quarter plays. Starks made some good gains and prevented Pittsburgh from going solely into pass rush mode.
However, as the Steelers worked their way back into the contest, the Packers abandoned the running game too quickly and became one-dimensional. Across the second and third quarters Green Bay rushed on just four of 17 plays, including embarking on a sequence of 16 straight passing downs. It was no accident that this coincided with a period where the Steelers registered two of their three sacks and generally hassled and harried Rodgers on pretty much every down.
However, when they did switch briefly back to the ground game it paid immediate dividends. Stark ripped off a 14-yard gain around right end, moving them into position for Mason Crosby to pad their lead with what proved to be a decisive field goal.
It wasn’t much – with just 13 rushing attempts, the Packers tied the Super Bowl low – but they did just enough on the ground to eke out the victory. If they had stayed with it earlier in the game, arguably their victory would have been more comfortable still, as Starks finished with a strong 52 yards on 11 carries.
4. Big plays win big games
Particularly when playing against defenses as stingy as Pittsburgh’s and Green Bay’s – the NFL’s two top-ranked teams in terms of points allowed during the regular season – you cannot rely on long drives of nickel and dime gains to win the game. Big plays are essential.
Green Bay’s gameplan took this into account right off the bat, taking several shots down the field in the first quarter. They ended with six plays of 20 yards or more – all passes – with all but one of those contributing to a scoring drive. Or, looking at it another way, each of the Packers’ four offensive scoring drives featured at least one play of 20 yards, including both of Greg Jennings’ touchdown grabs.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, largely tried to mix the run with the short pass, looking to set up the deep ball later in the game – a ploy which eventually resulted in Mike Wallace’s 25-yard, fourth quarter touchdown. Their only other play over 20 yards was a 37-yard completion to Antwaan Randle El, which set up the Steelers’ first six-pointer just before half-time. Their other touchdown drive featured long 17 and 16-yard runs by Mendenhall and Isaac Redman.
Between the two teams’ six touchdown drives, the longest lasted just nine plays and none consumed more than 4:33 off the clock. This was not a day for ball-control offenses.
Critically, the Packers also made all the big plays on defense. In addition to their three turnovers, Frank Zombo’s sack of Roethlisberger killed a threatening third quarter drive and pushed Pittsburgh to the ragged edge of Scott Suisham’s range. The kicker’s resultant shank from 52 yards prevented the Steelers from drawing within a point at a time when they had all the momentum.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, did not come up trumps on defense. Their best shot at forcing a turnover came after they had punted the ball away on the opening possession of the game and Tramon Williams muffed the catch. But Williams recovered his own drop, and the chance was gone.
5. Playoff seeding is not all-important
A lot is made of the importance of home-field advantage in the playoffs, or at least gaining a top two seeding to ensure a bye in the wild card round, reducing player fatigue. There is certainly a large element of truth in this, but it is far from being the be-all and end-all of determining the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Green Bay needed to win their last two regular season games to even qualify for the playoffs, and when they did they did so as the sixth and final seed in the NFC. But after a 3-3 start they were arguably the strongest in the entire NFL down the stretch, and they carried that form right the way through the playoffs, winning on the road against the NFC’s top three seeds: Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago.
In defeating Pittsburgh, the Packers joined the 2005 Steelers as the only number six seeds to win a Super Bowl. They are also the sixth wild card team to win a Super Bowl, and the third to do so after winning three road playoff games. Sure, the odds are against wild card qualifiers – it’s tough to win week after week on the road in the playoffs – but in a league where there is so little to separate the best teams, it is also far from impossible. Form is far more important than seeding in this respect.
6. The start of a dynasty?
We say this about every Super Bowl winner every year. And the NFC is a particularly competitive conference, having sent ten different teams to the Super Bowl in the last ten seasons. But the Packers have a genuine shot at building an era of dominance over the next few years.
This is a squad which lost players to injury with alarming frequency over the course of the season, but somehow maintained the strength in depth they needed to see the campaign through to its very end. In what is increasingly a young man’s game, 44 of their players are aged 30 or under. And Rodgers, who only turned 27 in December, still has his peak years in front of him.
Will Green Bay be back next year seeking a repeat Super Bowl win? I wouldn’t count against them.
Previous 2010 NFL playoff articles
NFL wild-card playoffs: Manning shows why he isn’t the greatest ever
NFL divisional playoffs: Quarterbacks and defenses key to Conference finalists
NFC Championship: ‘Freezer’ puts Bears on ice, Packers head for Super Bowl
AFC Championship: Steelers’ goalline stand denies Jets’ fightback
Super Bowl XLV preview in numbers