Super Bowl XLV is set at last, with the Green Bay Packers casting aside their position as sixth seed to win through to meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in Dallas on February 6. Rarely have two teams with such storied histories and fanatical supports met in the big game, so another memorable showpiece awaits at the Cowboys magnificent new stadium.
But neither Green Bay nor Pittsburgh coasted through to the Super Bowl, with both having some hairy moments along the way. In each of their play-off games to date there have been crucial plays or costly mistakes that maybe didn’t show up in the box score or the highlights package but were significant shifts in momentum that were vital to their progress.
1. Green Bay @ Atlanta – NFC Divisional round
The No.1 seeded Falcons had seen Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers dice them up with an 7-play, 80-yard drive to take their first lead in a closely fought opening half, 21-14, and with 42 seconds before the break had their eyes on a field goal to trim their deficit to four. QB Matt Ryan advanced them to the GB 35, well within kicker Matt Bryant’s range, with 10 seconds left, but instead of playing it safe, Ryan threw a loose ball in the direction of top receiver Roddy White and paid the price when eagle-eyed cornerback Tramon Williams picked the pass off and took it all the way back for a TD as time expired. That left the score 28-14 at half-time and Green Bay never looked back, adding another touchdown on the opening drive of the second half to put the Falcons away.
2. Pittsburgh v Baltimore, AFC Divisional round
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Pittsburgh were on the rack a couple of minutes into the third quarter of their battle with hated foes Baltimore – down 21-7 at half-time after being stunned by two touchdowns in less than 30 seconds, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under relentless pressure and having punted away their first possession of the second half. The Ravens had the chance to go three scores ahead, a massive margin in a rivalry that had seen each of the previous four games decided by three points, but this fumble from running back Ray Rice (his first of the entire season) gave Pittsburgh hope and began a monumental collapse by their visitors. The Steelers found the endzone and did so again following a Joe Flacco interception. A botched Ravens snap provided a third turnover in the space of nine minutes and the Steelers kicked a field goal to take the lead before the end of a third quarter that saw the Ravens held to minus-4 yards of offence. The Ravens did level through a Billy Cundiff field goal, but their offence was in disarray as the Steelers pulled out a 31-24 win.
3. Green Bay @ Chicago, NFC Championship game
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Aaron Rodgers came out firing at Soldier Field and had Green Bay up 14-0 early in the second quarter of what was expected to be low scoring slugfest between NFC North rivals (their Week 3 game was decided by a field goal, while the Packers only edged the Bears 10-3 in a Week 17 affair that meant nothing to the Chicago but was crucial to Green Bay reaching the play-offs). Chicago’s defence did begin to slow Rodgers down, however, with quarterback Jay Cutler done for the day after tearing his MCL, there seemed little hope on the offensive side of the ball. As has so often been the case for the Bears, it was going to be up to the defence to get them back into the game, and linebacker Brian Urlacher duly obliged when he picked off a third-quarter pass and took off down the field. With only the QB to beat, Urlacher looked set to cut Chicago’s deficit in half, but Rodgers heroically put his body on the line to trip his man up near midfield. The Packers’ defence held firm, forcing a Chicago punt as the Green Bay went on to win 21-14. Much has been made of Rodgers’ gaudy postseason stats, but this tackle may well have been his most important contribution to his team’s Super Bowl run.
4. Pittsburgh v New York Jets, AFC Championship
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Much like in Chicago, the AFC decider saw one team sprint out to an early advantage before being pegged back in the second half. The Steelers were completely dominant before the interval, racking up a 24-3 lead, but the Jets came out fighting and cut the gap to 24-10 before embarking on an eight-minute drive that took them all the way to the Steelers 2-yard line. Running back Shonn Greene ploughed forward to the 1 on first down before things started to go wrong. Offensive co-ordinator Brian Schottenheimer had a breakdown in communication with QB Mark Sanchez, leading to a rushed incomplete pass, before calling another pass on third down. Pittsburgh had the play sniffed out and Sanchez was lucky the pass was not intercepted. This, from a team that finished fourth in the NFL in rushing and possesses a man in the backfield, LaDainian Tomlinson, who has already shown that in the twilight of his career he still has the hops to LEAP over the the line of scrimmage and into the endzone. Finally, on fourth down, Tomlinson was given his chance but was stopped at the goalline, giving Pittsburgh back the ball. The Steelers may have been the league’s best rushing defence in the regular season, but if you are the Jets, a team that prides itself on running the ball, you should be confident enough to play to your strengths, the opposition be damned. If they stop you, you hold your hands up. Score and they are only seven points behind with eight minutes remaining and the wind in their sails. Plenty of time. The Jets did get the ball back after forcing Pittsburgh into a safety, but there was too little on the clock to pull back the 14-point deficit.