The difference between the top and bottom teams in the NFL is closer than it has ever been before. Free agency and the salary cap have helped to create a league where dominance is rare and parity prevails.
For this reason, the Super Bowl usually features two teams who have made it through the regular season with most (if not all) of their starters intact.
Because NFL teams are separated by such a narrow margin, it is very unusual to describe a playoff team’s season as “injury-riddled.”
However, on the final week of the regular season, the injury-riddled Green Bay Packers clinched a playoff berth when they beat the Chicago Bears, 10-3, at Lambeau Field.
Making it to the playoffs is one thing, but getting to the Super Bowl as the No. 6 seed is a much greater challenge. Ironically, the only No. 6 seed to ever win a Super Bowl is the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Packers’ opponent in Super Bowl XLV.
Despite all of their injuries, and the fact that the sixth-seeded Packers didn’t qualify for the playoffs until the final week of the season, they were never looked at as a long shot in the NFC.
In their Wild Card playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, the Packers were only a 2.5-point underdog.
In their Divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, the Packers were only a 2.5-point underdog.
The Packers were only underdogs in these games because they were the road team. If the games had been played on a neutral field, the Packers would have been slight favorites.
In yesterday’s NFC Championship Game, the Packers were actually favored over the Bears at Soldier Field by 3.5 points, despite the fact that the Bears beat the Packers in Chicago earlier in the season.
All season long, the NFC has been considered a much weaker conference than the AFC, yet somehow the NFC’s sixth-seeded Packers have opened up as 2.5-point favorites over the AFC’s second-seeded Steelers.
This would be understandable if the Packers were on a long winning streak, and if the Steelers struggled at the end of the season and in their playoff matchups, but this is not the case.
On Nov. 14, 2010, the Steelers lost to the New England Patriots. From that point on, they won six out of their last seven games. A 22-17 home loss to the Jets while playing without Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller was the only thing that derailed a potential seven-game winning streak for the Steelers as they entered the playoffs.
During that same stretch, the Packers were an up and down team with a 4-3 record.
On Dec. 12, 2010, the Packers played their worst game of the season, losing 7-3 to the Detroit Lions in a game where QB Aaron Rodgers was knocked out in the second quarter with a concussion.
The following week, with backup QB Matt Flynn starting in Rodgers’ place, the Packers came close to beating the Patriots in a prime-time game in Foxbrough, Mass.
While many thought of it as a moral victory for the banged-up Packers, head coach Mike McCarthy took no solace in the loss.
Even though McCarthy didn’t take any comfort in how his team battled the Patriots under adverse conditions, it showed that they were capable of playing with any team in the league in any stadium.
It seems counter-intuitive, but the Packers used that close loss as the springboard to launch them all the way into the Super Bowl as unlikely favorites against a higher-ranked Steelers team with Super Bowl experience.
When Rodgers returned after the loss to the Patriots, he led the Packers to a dominating 45-17 victory over the New York Giants at home, in a game where the Giants needed to win to clinch a playoff spot and eliminate the Packers at the same time.
Rodgers has continued to get the job done every week since then. Sometimes in spectacular fashion and other times just coming up with a big play when his team needed it.
Are the Packers destined to be the first NFC team to win the Super Bowl as the No. 6 seed? The odds makers seem to think so, as they have made them 2.5-point favorites in the game.
The stars seem to be in alignment for a Packer victory and not just because they are favored to win.
The Packers have suffered as many or more injuries than most teams in the league, and yet they are one game away from completing a near miraculous season, largely due to the play of Rodgers and the ability of backups to thrive in a starting role.
One particular play by Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game stands out as the reason that the Packers may very well be a team destined to win it all.
With the Packers threatening to put the game out of reach by going up 21-0 before the half, Rodgers threw an ill-advised pass which ended up in the waiting arms of Bears LB Brian Urlacher near his own end zone.
As Urlacher sprinted down the field, the only one who had a chance to stop him in the open field was Rodgers. It wasn’t pretty, but Rodgers threw his arm out and tripped up Urlacher to prevent a sure touchdown.
If Urlacher had scored a touchdown on that play, the momentum would have shifted all the way back to the Bears. Who knows what would have happened in the second half if the Bears only trailed 14-7 after being dominated for the first 30 minutes of the game?
Logically speaking, the Steelers should be favored in the Super Bowl. However, at this point, it seems that the only team who can stop the Packers from winning the game, is the Packers themselves.