ARLINGTON (AP) – Aaron Rodgers grew up in Northern California watching Joe Montana and Steve Young have their best games on the biggest stage.
Welcome to the club, kid.
Rodgers carried a patchwork lineup into the Super Bowl, then kept things calm when Green Bay’s depth was tested further. His most accomplished receiver and the heart-and-soul of his defense were knocked out by halftime, yet Rodgers still guided the Packers to a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.
So now the Vince Lombardi Trophy is headed back to Titletown for the first time in 14 years, and Rodgers can lead the championship parade with the shiny hardware riding shotgun in the red convertible he received as Super Bowl MVP.
“It’s the top of the mountain in my sport, my profession,” Rodgers said. “It’s what you dream about as a kid and think about in high school, junior college, D-I — getting this opportunity and what would you do?”
Here’s what Rodgers did: He put his team ahead on their second drive and made sure they never trailed. He went back to receivers even after they dropped passes, sometimes on the very next snap. He threw three touchdowns and had no turnovers.
He also proved Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson was right to draft him and to trade Brett Favre so he could become the starter. Favre led the Packers to their last championship, but was never the Super Bowl MVP.
“I told Ted back in 2005 he wouldn’t be sorry with this pick,” Rodgers said. “I told him in ’08 that I was going to repay their trust and get us this opportunity.”
Thompson was right about a lot of guys.
No matter how many players the Packers lost this season — and they put 16 on injured reserve, including a half-dozen starters — someone else was always ready to step in. Holes were still being plugged in this game.
Consider these contributions by guys who weren’t being counted on when the season began.
— On Pittsburgh’s first snap after Green Bay made it 7-0, lineman Howard Green, a midseason pickup, bolted through the line and hit Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger just as he was throwing. The ball fluttered to safety Nick Collins and he returned the interception 37 yards for a touchdown, making it 14-0.
— The Packers sacked Big Ben only once. The play was made by Frank Zombo, an undrafted rookie linebacker who became a starter only after an injury, then became a reserve again when Erik Walden did a solid job in his place. But Walden was inactive because of an ankle injury, so Zombo got the start.
— Jarrett Bush and Pat Lee filled in for Charles Woodson and Sam Shields at cornerback. Bush had an interception and came tantalizingly close to another on the play that sealed the game. Bush only remembered playing two games in the secondary this season, Lee just one.
“I don’t know if we’re just well-coached or what it is,” Zombo said. “We just make plays.”
Green Bay led 21-3 with a few minutes left until halftime, but the championship-steeled guys from Pittsburgh had plenty of resolve of their own.
Roethlisberger got a quick touchdown before the intermission, then another early in the third quarter. The Steelers were driving in search of a go-ahead touchdown when Rashard Mendenhall fumbled on a hit by Clay Matthews at the start of the fourth quarter.
Rodgers marched from there to a touchdown, stretching the lead and making the Packers 3-for-3 in scoring touchdowns off turnovers.
But Roethlisberger brought Pittsburgh back again, throwing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace and following with a nifty 2-point conversion on an option. Green Bay’s 18-point lead was down to a field goal.
Rodgers got to the Pittsburgh 5-yard line on the next series, only to see Jordy Nelson fail to make what would’ve been a tough catch in the end zone. Mason Crosby kicked a short field goal, but the six-point lead left the Packers and their fans uneasy, even if Roethlisberger had to go 87 yards in 1:59 with only one timeout.
Some thought about last year’s game against Pittsburgh, when Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass on the final play of the game and they lost by one point. Others thought about the Super Bowl two years ago, when Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass in the final minute to beat Arizona.
“This time,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, “it was our turn.”
Roethlisberger got a first down on the first play, then threw three straight incompletions. His season that began with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy ended with his head down, hands on his hips, feeling something he never experienced: defeat in a Super Bowl.
“I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down, the fans, my coaches and my teammates and it’s not a good feeling,” Roethlisberger said.
Defensive Player of the Year safety Troy Polamalu and outside linebacker James Harrison rarely did anything to give a decidedly black-and-gold crowd reasons to twirl their Terrible Towels.
“I had some opportunities to make some plays,” Polamalu said. “I was just off a step here or there.”
Woodson wept in the Packers’ locker room at halftime. His left collarbone broken, he tried to give a motivational speech but the words couldn’t come out, trapped by his pain and emotion.
Still, players got the message — just like coach Mike McCarthy’s gambit of having players’ ring sizes measured on Saturday night.
“Subconsciously, it motivated us,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “Another great tactic by our head coach.”
The Packers became only the second No. 6 seed to win the championship. The other was the 2005 Steelers, led by Roethlisberger. Several players kissed the Lombardi Trophy as Cowboys great Roger Staubach walked through a line of green and gold to present the prize to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who in turn handed it to the team.
“Wow! It’s a great day to be great, baby,” said Greg Jennings, who caught two of Rodgers’ three touchdown passes.
About an hour after the game, Roethlisberger was dressed in a suit heading down a hallway on his way out of the building. He came within a few feet of Rodgers, who was still wearing his new championship T-shirt and cap, surrounded by reporters and others hanging on every word from the new star.
Already considered an up-and-comer, Rodgers broke through with two late-season victories just to make the playoffs as a wild card, then guided Green Bay to wins at Philadelphia, Atlanta and archrival Chicago.
Facing a Pittsburgh team that gave up the fewest points in the league this season, Rodgers threw for 304 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown to Nelson, who had nine catches for 140 yards to make up for three big drops. Rodgers found Jennings, normally his favorite target, for scores of 21 and 8 yards. Veteran standout Donald Driver was lost to an ankle injury in the first half.
The Packers upped their record of NFL titles to 13, nine before the Super Bowl era. The Steelers still own the most Super Bowl rings — six in eight tries.
The game capped an interesting week in Dallas for the teams and fans alike.
Snow and ice caused traffic snarls, canceled flights and injuries to several people when it fell from the roof of the stadium. Sunny skies and milder temperatures returned Sunday, but issues arose with seats at the game. In all, 1,250 fans with tickets needed to be re-seated or put elsewhere because temporary seats were not ready in time for kickoff.
As that was being settled, Christina Aguilera botched the lyrics to the national anthem. At least the Packers and Steelers put on a terrific show after that.
“Obviously throughout childhood, you dream of having the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl. And being afforded this opportunity to fulfill it, it speaks volumes not only about this organization but about the guys that made up this team this year,” Jennings said. “We were able to overcome a lot of adversity, even throughout this game, and we got it done.”
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