It was no small statement being made when the Green Bay Packers strolled into a pre-season banquet this past summer clad in cowboy hats, a not-so veiled allusion to being ready to punch their ticket to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV.
The Aaron Rodgers-led symbolic gesture was particularly bold for a team coming off a stunning divisional round play-off exit from the previous season, a heart-breaking overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals which ended on a Rodgers fumble in overtime that then-Cardinal Karlos Dansby returned 17 yards for a touchdown. That the rival Minnesota Vikings and Brett “Turncoat’ Favre reached the NFC championship game in the same year was simply salt in a rather deep wound.
Lost amidst the headlines of the Rodgers’ fumble was his otherwise exceptional postseason debut. The then-26 year old completed 28 of 42 passes for 423 yards, including four touchdown passes in the offense-heavy 51-45 tilt.
But it was the fumble that sealed the Packers’ 2010 fate, making the need to move forward critical for both Rodgers and his teammates.
Rodgers came into the 2010-11 season as an already-established elite QB, but one that was still learning and faced questions over whether he was ready to lead the Super Bowl charge. Heading into just his third campaign as the starting pivot, he was seen as a star on the rise who had yet to reach the coveted elite level status of some of his veteran peers like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees (all of whom boast Super Bowl rings).
If Rodgers was being second-guessed, his defensive mates were being outright doubted. They had, after all, surrendered 51 points at home in their playoff loss and featured pieces perceived to possibly be too old (CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris) and too young (LB Clay Matthews, NT B.J. Raji and rookie T Bryan Bulaga). Believe it or not, being too good for much of the previous year also provided cause for concern, as some questioned whether the unit could repeat an effort that saw them ranked second in the league.
If only the critics had been as confident in the team as the cowboy hat-wearing Packers, themselves, were.
Rodgers continued his march to the elite QB level with another offensively dominant effort, albeit 78 yards short of a third consecutive 4,000-yard campaign thanks to missing a late December visit to New England. He did, however, recover to throw for a combined 633 yards to help Green Bay close out the season with a pair of postseason-clinching wins.
The defense, meanwhile, held to their 2009 level of play, ranking second in scoring defense, interceptions and sacks, as well as first in opposing quarterback passer rating. Matthews and his long, blond mane were front and center, ranking fourth in the league with 13.5 stats and offering hope that he could be the second Packer in as many years to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors (Woodson claimed the award last season).
Even with strong individual performances, Green Bay squeaked into the NFC play-off picture as a No. 5 seed thanks to an unexceptional 10-6 record and losses to Conference foes (Chicago and Detroit) and sub-.500 teams (Miami and Washington). It would be up to Rodgers and co. to prove themselves in the NFL’s second season, something they had failed to do the previous year.
Through three rounds, it’s so far, so good for the Pack.
Rodgers has done his part, leading his contemporaries with 790 passing yards while outplaying Michael Vick, Matt Ryan and Jay Cutler along the way (although the win over an injured Cutler and the Bears was hardly a masterpiece on the part of No. 12). His teammates – most notably play-off rushing leader James Starks, receiving yards leader Greg Jennings and interceptions leader Tramon Williams – are also stepping up as they grow closer to the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
But with just 60 minutes separating the Packers from a title celebration befitting monstrous Cowboys Stadium, they remain underdogs against the experienced Pittsburgh Steelers and two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger. For a team that has believed in their Super Bowl destiny all season long, now surely is not the time to start listening to the critics.
About the Author
Written by Ben Fisher