He has always been the other quarterback.
Even dating back to the 2005 NFL draft, when he was overshadowed by Alex Smith. (Alex Smith?) He fell all the way to No. 23, and when he was chosen, he was forced to sit behind Brett Favre for three interminable years. In the 2011 NFC Championship, it was a hobbled Jay Cutler who drew all the headlines. And in the week leading up to Super Bowl XLV, he was the sidebar to the breathlessly anticipated Ben Roethlisberger Redemption Tour.
But now, finally, Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback.
On Sunday, the Green Bay signal-caller put the capper on a fantastic postseason by leading the Packers to a 31-25 win over the Steelers (click here for the full recap). Rodgers was 24-for-39 for 304 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 111.5. He became the fourth quarterback in Super Bowl history to throw for at least 300 yards with at least three touchdowns in a Super Bowl, joining Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jake Delhomme. It was good enough for the 27-year-old to capture Super Bowl MVP honors and the first of what could be multiple rings.
“It’s a dream come true,” Rodgers said. “It’s what I dreamt about as a little kid watching Joe Montana and Steve Young, and we just won the Super Bowl.”
On a night where the Packers needed Rodgers to be at his absolute best — Green Bay had three times as many pass attempts as it did rushing attempts — the Cal product was stellar. Even though he lost Donald Driver, he found Greg Jennings for a pair of touchdown passes and Jordy Nelson for a third. Despite some inconsistencies in the third quarter, he rallied the offense and helped produce a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives to seal the win.
The victory — as well as a sizzling hot postseason — is sweet vindication for a quarterback who had just 35 pass attempts in his first three seasons in the NFL as his well-known predecessor maddeningly vacillated back and forth between playing and retirement.
But after Sunday’s win, Rodgers isn’t going down that road.
“I’ve never felt like there’s been a monkey on my back,” Rodgers said in a moment of reflection. “The organization stood behind me, believed in me. That’s what I did on the podium; I thanked [GM] Ted (Thompson) and [team president] Mark [Murphy] and Mike (McCarthy) really for believing in me and giving me an opportunity. I told Ted back in 2005 he wouldn’t be sorry with this pick. I told him in ‘08 that I was going to repay their trust and get us this opportunity.”
“I think it tells the world that Aaron is real,” said Green Bay center Scott Wells. “There were a lot of questions this postseason coming from the exterior, outside of our own locker room. We always had confidence in him, and what he’s been able to do. He’s our guy, we love him, and I think this man has silenced some of the doubters out there that were trying to make the comparison between him and his predecessor.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday in Dallas:
JORDY NELSON? YES, JORDY NELSON
To paraphrase the estimable Troy Brown: Just because you don’t know the guy’s name on the back of the jersey doesn’t mean he’s not a good player. To that end in a memorable year for wide receivers, the Kansas State product had the most eventful game of any receiver on the biggest stage.
The six-foot-two, 217-pound Nelson had 55 catches and four TDs his first two years, and was considered the fourth receiver on a depth chart that includes Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. But on Sunday, Nelson was targeted 15 times, came away with nine catches for a game-high 140 yards and a touchdown, the bulk of those against cornerback William Gay. (According to ESPN, in all, Nelson had seven targets 10 or more yards downfield, his single-game high this season.) If it wasn’t for the performance of Rodgers, Nelson would have almost certainly come away with the MVP honors. In the end, he set a Packers record for receiving yards in a Super Bowl set by Max McGee, who had 138 yards in Super Bowl I.
However, that’s not to say it was all sunshine and lollipops for the receiver. The 25-year-old had three dropped balls — bad drops that would have almost certainly left him facing a long offseason in the Steelers had somehow come back to win the game. But even with the drops, Rogers returned to Nelson time and again, and in the end, the receiver found a way to rise to the occasion, coming up big when Green Bay’s season was on the line.
If you play this game long enough in this position, you are going to drop the ball. You have to move on. We are level headed. We don’t get too high and we don’t get too low as a whole wide receiver core. We weren’t panicking at all when Pittsburgh started coming back. We just said, okay we have to go make plays. We knew it was going to be on us and that is why we stepped up and made plays. “
YOU GET A PICK-SIX, CHANCES ARE GOOD YOU’RE GOING TO WIN THE SUPER BOWL
History tells us that if your team is able to get its hands on an interception and take it to the house, you’re probably going to win the game — last season, it was Tracy Porter making magic against the Colts. The year before that, Pittsburgh’s James Harrison did it to the Cardinals. There were no pick-sixes in Super Bowl XLII, but Indy’s Kelvin Hayden turned the trick against the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
On Sunday, Green Bay defensive back Nick Collins delivered a jolt of electricity when he stepped in front of a Roethlisberger pass with 3:20 left the first quarter and returned it 37 yards to the end zone. The pass was a floater, thanks in large part to Green Bay defensive lineman Howard Green, who got terrific pressure up the middle and delivered a shot to Roethlisbeger’s shoulder that changed the direction of the pass. (The Packers became the first time in NFL history to score a touchdown on an interception return in three straight postseason games.)
“Oh man, that was the highlight of my day right there,” Collins said. “I was able to read Big Ben (Roethlisberger) and got a nice jump on the ball. I made a couple cuts to get into the end zone.”
The return for a touchdown made this the third straight Super Bowl (and the seventh in the last 11) in which an interception was returned for a score. The Packers kept alive a historic streak — teams that return an interception for a touchdown in the Super Bowl are now 11-0.
The interception was the first of three key turnovers for the Steelers. Roethlisberger was picked off a second time late in the second quarter when defensive back Jarrett Bush got one of his own. That set up another Green Bay touchdown — four plays later, Rodgers hit Greg Jennings down the middle to make it 21-3 with 2:31 left in the second quarter.
The third turnover came on the first play from scrimmage in the fourth quarter when Clay Matthews delivered a great shot to Rashard Mendenhall, knocking the ball loose and setting up another Packers score, this one another Rodgers-to-Jennings touchdown strike from eight yards out to make it 28-17 with just over 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
FOR A BIG-GAME QUARTERBACK, BEN ROETHLISBERGER HAS AVERAGE NUMBERS IN SUPER BOWLS
On Sunday, Roethlisberger was 25-for-40 for 263 yards, one sack, two touchdowns and two interceptions — arguably his finest Super Bowl effort of the three he’s played in. Those numbers, combined with his efforts in Super Bowl XL and XLIII, have him at 55-for-91 for 642 yards, three touchdowns, five interceptions (tied for fifth-most in Super Bowl history) and four sacks in three Super Bowl games. That’s a per game average of 18-for-30 for 214 yards, one touchdown, nearly two picks and one sack. He’s in the game, which certainly counts for something, but his numbers when he gets there are mediocre at best.
Roethlisberger certainly had the opportunity to put his stamp on this game and join Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the three-rings club. Green Bay left the door wide open with an awful third quarter, but Roethlieberger and the Steelers just couldn’t get over the hump, thanks in part to some badly thrown balls from Roethlisberger, particularly two meant for Mike Wallace.
And when he had the game in his hands — down by six, ball on the Pittsburgh 13-yard-line, 1:59 remaining in regulation with one timeout in his back pocket — the opportunity was there again, but an incomplete pass for Wallace on fourth down turned the ball over to the Packers.
“He’s a warrior. He stayed in there,” said his teammate Hines Ward. “I think somebody went at his knees, twisted his knee. His ankle was already bum, but he’s always going to be a competitor to the end.”
“It’s disappointing to lose,” Roethlisberger said. “For me, it’s even more disappointing because you let a lot of people down.”
Roethlisberger may still get his chance to join Brady — he is only 28, and figures to have several good years left with a franchise that will almost certainly allow him to get another shot at glory. But Sunday’s missed opportunity provides a memorable ending to a roller-coaster season for the Pittsburgh quarterback, one that will no doubt leave him open to doubters going forward.
THE STEELERS FORMULA FOR PLAYOFF SUCCESS FELL SHORT
Throughout the postseason, the Steelers were at their best when they took advantage of their opponents’ mistakes and letdowns. They parlayed the Ravens’ second-half brainlock to a win in the divisional playoffs. When the Jets came in flat in the first half of the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers again seized the opportunity, giving themselves the cushion needed to win.
And that opportunity was there on Sunday. After the Packers played a sharp first half, they struggled to mount any sort of offensive consistency throughout the third quarter. Green Bay started the second half with three penalties and a punt, and Pittsburgh went 50 yards in five plays, capped off by an eight-yard rumble by Mendenhall to make 21-17.
The Steelers had a chance to get closer, but Shaun Suisham was wide left on a 52-yard field goal attempt late in the third quarter. And after Mendenhall fumbled to start the fourth quarter, the window of opportunity had passed. From that point on, it was clear the Packers got their game together. Green Bay pushed out to a 28-17 lead after the fumble, and that was that.
“They made plays,” Tomlin said. “It’s probably less about what we were unable to do and more about what they were able to do. Such is the case in the greatest game in this game. We can sit here and make excuses, you guys can and I will not. What I will do is say that Green Bay played a really good football game and made the necessary plays to be World Champs, that’s what I will say.”
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BALL, THE PACKERS TOOK ADVANTAGE OF THEIR CHANCES
Green Bay scored three touchdowns off of Pittsburgh turnovers — and teams committing the fewer turnovers of the two teams are now 33-3 in Super Bowls — but it went beyond that. You have to have some luck and good timing if you are going to win a Super Bowl, and the Packers got that.
There were some key Steeler penalties (including an awful unnecessary roughness call on Pittsburgh’s Keyaron Fox on Green Bay’s final kickoff that lost them 13 yards at the start of their final drive) and some otherwise poor execution by Pittsburgh. That, combined with a strong first half by the Packers, allowed Green Bay to seize command when the opportunity presented itself. Consequently, they had enough of a cushion when things got tight down the stretch.
“We just kept battling,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. ”We had some adversity, we lost some guys to injury and we had some rough plays there. In the third quarter with the penalties, our guys just kept fighting. I can’t say enough about them.”
THE PATRIOTS CAN CLAIM SOMETHING SPECIAL
The last team to have beaten Green Bay? Your New England Patriots, who narrowly edged the Packers back on Dec. 19 at Gillette Stadium, 31-27. The Packers talked about that loss several times over the course of Super Bowl week — what it did for them as a team, galvanizing them and helping them realize just how good they were.
It was a point re-iterated by Rodgers last night on ESPN following the game.
“The New England game was a big game for us,” Rodgers said on ESPN. “We lost that game, a game we were double-digit underdogs. That was a game where it was like ‘we have a pretty good team, let’s not lose this opportunity.’”
TROY POLAMALU WASN’T HIMSELF ON SUNDAY
The great safety, who has struggled with an Achilles injury as of late, was a shell of his former self on Sunday, struggling to help out in coverage against the Green Bay passing attack. He was rarely seen, and certainly didn’t appear to be the sort of player he usually is when he’s healthy.
“Our approach was just to know where he was every play,” Nelson said of Polamalu, who had seven interceptions over the course of the regular season. “He’s a dynamic player, he is a game changer, especially in a game like this. We wanted to keep an eye on where he was. There wasn’t anything we were trying to single out or go away from, we just needed to know where he was. Aaron made great decisions all day.”
Early on, Polamalu swung and missed on what would have been a big tackle on James Starks, and delivered perhaps his biggest hit on the night on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Jennings … after Jennings had crossed the goal line. He finished the game with three tackles, a disappointing evening for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“I had some opportunities to make some plays, I was just off a step here or there,” Polamalu said. “We weren’t able to get any turnovers on defense — that was the difference. They were able to make plays on defense. We didn’t.”
SEAN KUGLER CONTINUED TO WORK MAGIC
Without four of the five offensive linemen they opened the year with not starting Super Bowl XLV because of injury, Kugler (the Steelers’ offensive line coach) and the Pittsburgh o-line continued to find a magic formula that kept opposing pass rushers at bay. On Sunday against the Packers, the only sack of the Pittsburgh came late in the fourth quarter when Frank Zombo dropped Roethlisberger, thanks in large part to Clay Matthews clogging up the rushing lanes.
When you consider the weakened state of the Pittsburgh offensive line and you add the 126 rushing yards the Steelers finished with, it left you amazed that the Pittsburgh offense had as much success over the course of the postseason that it did. It certainly wasn’t perfect — in the divisional playoffs against Baltimore, Roethlisberger was sacked six times, and there were a handful of breakdowns up front on Sunday — but the Steelers still made it to the final drive of a Super Bowl with a chance to win with an offensive line that was held together with bubble gum and bailing wire.
THE SECOND HALF OF SUNDAY’S GAME WAS THE LONGEST 30 MINUTES OF CHARLES WOODSON’S LIFE
The veteran cornerback was sidelined after diving for a long pass meant for Mike Wallace late in the second quarter, and it was later determined he had broken his collarbone. Woodson, who is the emotional centerpiece of the Packers — he’s the last to speak to the team before games — was out for the duration of the second half, stuck on the sidelines. He apparently tried to talk to the team at halftime, but couldn’t get much out.
“I told the guys, before they went back out, they understand how much I wanted it,” the 34-year-old Woodson said. “I was pretty emotional so I didn’t get a whole lot out, but just to tell them to get it done and they did.”
The Packers had made a habit of overcoming injuries all season — they placed an NFC-most 16 players end the season on injured reserve, including key contributors like Ryan Grant. And with Woodson and fellow cornerback Sam Shields (who missed a sizable chunk of the action with a shoulder injury) out, the Green Bay secondary was thin against the Pittsburgh passing attack for much of the evening.
But sparked in part by Woodson’s emotional delivery at halftime, the Green Bay defense responded, winning the turnover battle and coming away with a pair of interceptions and a fumble, as well as a pass breakup by defensive back Tramon Williams on a fourth-down play from Pittsburgh that forced the Steelers to turn the ball over on downs.
“I’ve got to give credit to our defense,” Rodgers said. “[They were] incredible tonight. They’ve been great all season, carrying us, getting us turnovers, scoring off turnovers.”
“[I’m] very proud,” said Woodson of his defensive teammates. “[Pittsburgh] came out and made some plays, and got on the board, but when we needed stops we came up with a few turnovers today, which were huge. The last play of the game was great break-up by Tramon, who’s had an unbelievable season. We won the biggest game of them all, so it feels good.”