NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

Aaron Rodgers Dragged Green Bay's Broken-Down Carcass to a Championship
The stadium scene.
Feb. 7 2011 5:57 AM

NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

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Green Bay Packers celebrating. Click image to expand.
Green Bay Packers celebrate their Super Bowl win

Back when I was still eligible for punt, pass, and kick contests, the Super Bowl was an annual disappointment—that game at the end of the season where somebody beat the Bills 52-17. So, let us not be jaded about the eighth consecutive non-terrible NFL title game. The Packers' 31-25 win over the Steelers brought the 2010-11 season to a dramatic end, with Green Bay clinching its 13th NFL title only in the final minute. This being pro football, Sunday night's game also threatened to leave every player on both teams with missing limbs. While this didn't turn out to be the Concussion Bowl —though, really, who knows … it's possible the whole Packers offensive line is seeing stars right now—Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders, cornerback Bryant McFadden, and offensive lineman Flozell Adams all came out for varying stretches of time while most of Green Bay's starting secondary was in the locker room by the end of the first half.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

The Packers' season, in particular, has been one long injury report interrupted by the occasional Aaron Rodgers-to-Greg Jennings touchdown pass. Star running back Ryan Grant didn't make it through the first game before busting his ankle. Rodgers, who started 19 of 20 regular season and playoff games despite two confirmed brain injuries, left a game in December when his teammate Donald Driver advised the woozy quarterback to take a seat. Though Rodgers survived the season, 16 of his fellow Packers weren't so lucky; as ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert pointed out on Sunday, seven of the team's 22 Super Bowl starters started the year as substitutes.

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The team's pain and suffering also included hurt feelings. Two weeks ago, a pair of out-of-commission Packers, Nick Barnett and Jermichael Finley, complained that they were being left out of the team's Super Bowl photo. While the shutterbug imbroglio was dismissed by the AP as a "Twitter-driven mini-controversy," I actually found it revelatory. As far as fans and beat writers are concerned, injured players aren't so much human beings as obstacles to be overcome. "Resiliency key to Packers' surge in playoff race," USA Today argued. "Tough, resilient Packers earn trip to Super Bowl XLV," said the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "When Injuries Flared, Packers Had Able Spares," wrote the New York Times' Karen Crouse, detailing how Green Bay beat the Steelers. "When Injuries Flared, Steelers Stopped Trying Like a Bunch of Losers," reported the Wall Street Journal. (OK, I made up that last one.)

Crouse's Super Bowl story focused on Charles Woodson, the Packers star who shattered his collarbone in Sunday's game while trying to break up a pass. "I didn't hear anything, but I know when things are broken," Woodson said. The cornerback knows from broken things because he cracked his fibula in 2002, an injury that held him back in the Oakland Raiders' Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs. This time around, according to the pre-game narratives, the 34-year-old gridiron veteran was going to find redemption. Instead, he had to settle for inspiring his teammates with tear-stained halftime rhetoric. By the end of Super Bowl XLV, Charles Woodson (and Donald Driver, for that matter) was just another guy who revealed the resiliency of all the Packers who were lucky enough not to get hurt.

Putting resiliency and stick-to-it-ive-ness to the side, the Packers' defensive scheming helped Green Bay cover up its weaknesses in pass coverage. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers' amoeba defense, in which rushers mill about rather than put their hands down, seemed to confuse the Steelers offensive line (which was missing injured center Maurkice Pouncey) and allowed Green Bay to get blitzers in Ben Roethlisberger's face. Clay Matthews' spying on Roethlisberger, too, prevented the Steelers quarterback from breaking out of the pocket in the second half.

More than any other players, Matthews—who forced a fumble in the fourth quarter after Pittsburgh had closed to 21-17—and Aaron Rodgers dragged Green Bay's broken-down carcass to a championship. When he's at his best, the Packers quarterback—like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Joe Montana—makes football seem unfair. His release is too quick, his throws too accurate, and his vision too impeccable for any defense that isn't blessed with precognition. When your quarterback is that good, every other football cliché is rendered moot. The Packers, who had 13 rushes for 50 yards, didn't need to establish the run. Green Bay's receivers, despite Troy Aikman's clucking that "You've got to be able to make those kinds of plays," didn't even need to catch every one of Rodgers' zipping spirals. The Packers' wideouts made just enough catches, and the Steelers' Troy Polamalu—who typically plays like he has second sight—didn't outthink Rodgers on Sunday. In the fourth quarter, the safety jumped on a seam route in the end zone. The Packers' Greg Jennings, however, ran a corner, and his touchdown gave Green Bay an 11-point lead that was too big for the Steelers and Roethlisberger to overcome.

As Tom put it recently, Roethlisberger is less Joe Montana than a "schoolyard Superman." The Steelers quarterback marauds toward glory, shrugging off wounded knees and ankles, bouncing off puny cornerbacks, and pump-faking so relentlessly that he looks like he's doing the tomahawk chop. Sure, he might take a few sacks, but then he comes back and throws a perfect touch pass for a touchdown. That's why Big Ben is the guy you pick first in a pickup game. It's not that you want him on your team; it's that you know if he's on the other side, he's going to find some agonizing way to beat you at the end.

As an empiricist rather than a football mystic, I find it comforting when a guy like Rodgers wins the big game. It's confirmation that talent is tangible, not some unseen force that compels "winners" to victory. When the Steelers got the ball down by six with two minutes to go, Roethlisberger had the chance to be a Super Bowl hero once again. But as is often the case with the Steelers quarterback, his late-game heroism was needed to overcome his lack of early-game heroism. Pittsburgh was losing in large part because Roethlisberger tossed a couple of interceptions and overthrew the allegedly un-overthrow-able Mike Wallace on a deep route.

Nate has written convincingly that it's foolish to reduce games to turning points after the fact, so I won't do that here. But in the NFL, where every quarterback has the talent to make a throw that's impossible to defend, consistency throughout drives, games, and seasons is what separates the great from the almost-great. In the Super Bowl, Rodgers was great. Roethlisberger was not great enough, both when his team was falling into an early hole and when he failed to dig the Steelers out of that same abyss. Based on the small sample size of my Super Bowl party, I'm guessing there aren't many non-Steelers fans who are feeling bad for him this morning.

I do have to give the Steelers credit for running the best play of the Super Bowl. Sure, Roethlisberger's option pitch to Antwaan Randle El for a two-point conversion wasn't as important as Randle El's touchdown pass to Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL, but Big Ben's Tommie Frazier impression was just as pleasingly ludicrous as the Fridge's Super Bowl avocation. Another bizarre sight was Cowboys owner Jerry Jones' luxury suite, wherein a texting John Madden—my guess is that he was writing "Boom!" to Pat Summerall, over and over and over again—occupied the seat next to George W. Bush. Potential conversation topic: how the Middle East is like a turducken.

Tom, while I try to erase the memory of Cameron Diaz feeding popcorn to Alex Rodriguez, I'd like you to explain to me why sack dances are legal but celebrations after touchdowns are deemed excessive. Why is this the one case where the rules don't favor the offense? And what are we to make of the news that Packers coach Mike McCarthy had his players measured for Super Bowl rings in the run-up to the game? Shouldn't that be a 1,500-yard penalty?

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