While they may be one of the NFL’s flagship franchises, the Green Bay Packers never seemed quite on course in the 2011 season.
Only two days after a strong Week One win over the Eagles, The Pack placed starting running back Ryan Grant, primed for a big season as the team’s No. 1 rusher, on injured reserve. A month later, linebacker Nick Barnett, a crucial cornerstone of Green Bay’s defense, had his season cut short as well. Before the end of October, starting tight end Jermichael Finley, safety Morgan Burnett, defensive end Mike Neal and linebackers Brady Poppinga and Brad Jones were all placed on IR.
The roster took another hit on November 7th when the team had no choice but to release two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris, who had been on the physically unable to perform list for the duration of the season. Along with former Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson, Harris was a part of one of the league’s best corner tandems and a valued veteran leader in the locker room.
The roster GM Ted Thompson had assembled during the offseason with the drafting of offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga and the re-signing of fellow tackle Chad Clifton, guard Daryn Colledge and defensive backs Atari Bigby, Tramon Williams and Nick Collins looked like it might not even be able to compete in the NFC North.
Throughout the season, the weakened roster showed its holes and many weaknesses. In Weeks Five and Six, Green Bay suffered back-to-back overtime losses to Washington and Miami, two teams who ended the season with a combined 19 losses. On the road against Detroit in Week 14, the Pack managed only a field goal in an abysmal 7-3 defeat at the hands of the Lions — a team who, at that point, had only two wins on the year: both home contests against the equally mediocre St. Louis Rams and Redskins.
After the up-and-down (but mostly down) year, Green Bay pulled out two wins to end the season and just managed to sneak into the playoffs as the NFC’s sixth-seed. Three weeks later, they’re going to the Super Bowl.
After being unable to defeat the Drew Stanton-led Lions, the Packers went on the road in the wild card round to take down the NFL’s most exciting offensive duo (Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia) and then the virtually unbeatable-at-home Matt Ryan during the divisional round. After finishing the season 24th in the league in rushing yards, Green Bay was victorious in another meeting of the NFL’s oldest, most traditional, ground-and-pound rivalry in Chicago.
On paper, the Packers simply don’t seem like a Super Bowl team. In addition to the devastating injuries, the running game has been practically nonexistent. The run defense has been somewhat porous as well, allowing a disappointing 115 yards per game on the ground to opposing offenses on a shocking 4.7 yards per run average.
What has kept Green Bay afloat throughout the year, as well as powered them through a tough playoff road schedule, has been the performance of several uber-talented star players and team leaders. Perennial Pro-Bowler Woodson has not missed a beat since his stellar season last year and the release of cornerback colleague Harris. Linebacker Clay Matthews is fourth in the league in sacks and a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. Safety Nick Collins finished the regular season with 70 tackles, four picks, 12 pass deflections and a spot on the All-Pro second-team. While overshadowed by some more decorated quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers is as good a passer as any in the league. He is in the Top-10 in practically every significant passing statistic, and is also one of the more mobile quarterbacks in the league. He has been arguably the best quarterback of the postseason, going to Dallas with a league best 109.2 playoff passer rating.
Against the Packers, teams have had to completely avoid Woodson’s side of the field, double- or triple-team Matthews and create elaborate schemes to slow down Rodgers. In a league where game preparation has become a 24/7 obsession for coaches and players, the raw talent of the Packers’ elite has quite simply been too much to handle.
When the Packers and Steelers meet in Dallas, the No. 6 seed Pack will actually be a slight favorite over Pittsburgh with likely one of the closest point spreads in Super Bowl history. In such a close matchup, the play of a few star players could very well make all the difference.