Ever since the salary cap era began in the NFL, one of the most common characteristics of Super Bowl champions was the ability to remain relatively healthy upon entering the playoffs.
It is a given that all NFL teams are banged up by the time that the playoffs begin. However, those teams who enter the playoffs with their key players able to take the field are considered to be “healthy” by NFL standards.
The Green Bay Packers, with 16 players on injured reserve, defied all preconceived notions about what it takes to win a championship. They won games all season long with back-ups filling in for key injured players. As a result, they were crowned Super Bowl XLV champions in front of a near-record crowd at Cowboys Stadium last night.
In the second quarter, Donald Driver hobbled off of the field and into the locker room for x-rays. The Packers most experienced wide receiver never got back in the game due to a high ankle sprain.
With an 18-point lead, and a deep wide receiving corps, there was no reason for the Packers to lose control of the game without Driver. However, when the defense started losing key players, the experienced Steelers had a golden opportunity to get back into the game.
First, rookie sensation CB Sam Shields went down with a shoulder injury. He sat out the rest of the first half and the entire third quarter. Although he returned very briefly in the fourth quarter, he was too banged up to be effective.
On the very next play after Shields went down, veteran CB Charles Woodson was injured. The injury turned out to be a broken collarbone and Woodson never returned to the game.
Trailing by 18-points near the end of the first half, the Steelers were able to score their first touchdown of the game against the suddenly depleted Packers secondary.
The Packers seemed a bit shell-shocked by the slew of injuries that they sustained in the second quarter, which allowed the Steelers to swing the momentum of the game back in their favor.
With his arm in a sling, and in obvious pain, Woodson tried to deliver a motivational halftime speech to his teammates, but was unable to get the words out because he was too emotional.
By the end of the third quarter, the Packers’ 18-point lead was gone. They went into the fourth quarter with a mere four-point lead. More importantly, they seemed to be on their heels and unable to counter the intensity of the suddenly rejuvenated Steelers.
The Steelers seemed poised to stage yet another Super Bowl comeback, until All-Pro LB Clay Matthews dislodged the ball from RB Rashard Mendenhall with a perfectly placed hit.
As they had done twice before in the game, the Packers converted the turnover into a touchdown, bringing their lead back up to 11-points.
The rest of the game was back and forth. The Steelers had a chance to win the game on their final drive despite giving up three turnovers and creating none of their own.
With two key starters missing from the secondary, all Packer fans could do was hold their breath and hope that the back-ups would once again rise to the occasion as they had done all season long.
After stopping the Steelers on second and third down, it came down to fourth-and-five for the Steelers at their own 33-yard line. Roethlisberger’s pass to Mike Wallace came up short.
When the ball hit the ground on the Steelers’ final play of the game, the Packers had completed the highly unlikely, rarely traveled road to becoming Super Bowl champions.
It is very difficult for a team to repeat as champions in the NFL today, but no team in recent history has been in the position that the Packers will be in when the season begins next year.
Most Super Bowl champions cannot count on the good fortune of having two healthy seasons in a row. The Packers didn’t even have one.
All NFL teams will try and improve in the off-season through the draft and free agency (including the Packers). However, the defending champions will have the luxury of getting 16 proven players back to help improve their roster.
When you consider the fact that the Packers held on to win the Super Bowl with all of those missing players, in addition to the ones who were injured during the game, it is easy to see why they should be favored to repeat as champions next year.
It also doesn’t hurt that they will be lead by one of the best quarterbacks in the game today. The only thing that had kept Aaron Rodgers out of the discussion for top NFL quarterback was his lack of playoff success.
The Super Bowl MVP dominated this postseason. If not for a handful of dropped balls by his wide receivers, Rodgers’ Super Bowl performance would likely be compared to Steve Young’s domination of the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.
An All-Pro QB in his prime combined with a deep, talented, battle-tested roster, will make the Packers the team to beat next season (provided that a new CBA is worked out).
The other 31 NFL teams have their work cut out for them if they plan on dethroning the defending Super Bowl champions.