Great teams are led to big games by big-time players, there’s no question about that. When teams make deep runs into playoffs they are always equipped with great amounts of talent, a capable quarterback that knows how to manage a game in difficult situations and that makes the right decisions even under pressure, a defense that knows how to stop the opponents limiting their respective offense or creating turnovers with blitzes or interceptions, and normally a running game that permits to manage the clock and the time of possession.
We all know how well Aaron Rodgers has performed successfully cementing his franchise-qb status succeeding to Brett Favre. Everyone can recognize Greg Jennings and Donald Drive as high-profile receivers. Clay Matthews has become the new face of the heavy-pressure defense managed by a veteran coach like Dom Capers, and finished second in the Defensive Player Of The Year award ballot won by Troy Polamalu. And we know that Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, AJ Hawk and many other well-known faces all did a great job carrying the Packers on their way to Dallas.
However, many contributions arrived from a small group of lesser-known players, that made enough big plays to change their low-profile status, emerging out of nowhere. Here they are.
There was a time when Walden could definitely not find a permanent home in the NFL. Chosen by Dallas in the 2008 Draft sixth round, he never made the team after being cut right before the regular season start, and was then signed by Kansas City, who got rid of him in November. He ended up with Miami to finish the season, and played there until current campaign's early weeks.
He was signed by Green Bay on October 27, 2010, playing sparingly in sub-packages as an outside linebacker in Green Bay’s 3-4. His name suddenly blew up in Packers’ most important game of the season with a playoff berth on the line, the season's finale against the already-qualified Chicago Bears.
He played the best game of his young career sacking Jay Cutler two times and notching up a career-high 16 tackles performance, that earned him his first-ever NFC Defensive Player Of The Week award. He gave his best in a must-win situation, in a cold, defensive battle where the Packers limited Chicago to 227 offensive yards and 3 points.
Once upon a time Shields was a promising wide receiver at the University of Miami, until he switched to defensive back before his senior year to fulfill his team’s needs. The coaching staff made that decision also because he showed little improvement since his freshman year and was almost exclusively relegated to special teams duties in his junior campaign.
The defensive transition was successful, and Shields won his team’s most improved player award. However, he went undrafted, but the Packers decided to give him a shot to make their roster, after they took note of his great quickness and of his above-average ball skills. He slowly climbed the Packers’ defensive depth chart and made strides in camp, becoming a steady presence in Dom Capers’ nickel package, providing depth in a vital position.
In the NFC Championship he showcased all of his skills providing two interceptions and one sack, becoming the first-ever rookie to register that statistics in a playoff game. His second interception sent the Packers to Super Bowl, sealing the game against the Bears.
Under Mike McCarthy the Green Packers has always been recognized as a pass-oriented offense. Many players tried to provide the rushing game some life, but results were mixed and unsatisfactory, and the roster clearly missed a homerun hitter that could explode for an improvising big play, landing so much pressure on Rodgers’ shoulders. Things got worse when Ryan Grant was carted off the field in the first week of the season, already knowing that he wouldn’t be back in 2010.
No one would’ve thought that a low-profile running back from MAC Conference would change McCarthy offensive approach this much. Neither opposing defensive coordinators. James Starks was a little-known sixth round pick out of Buffalo, that made the final roster but had to watch the majority of games without dressing since he wasn’t fully committed in practices, and since he was nursing a shoulder injury, playing limited snaps in only three regular season games.
In playoffs contention, he literally exploded, surprisingly becoming Green Bay’s featured back. During regular season he collected 29 carries for 101 yards, but his postseason statistics were really different: 73 rushes, 263 yards, a touchdown. All of a sudden, the Packers morphed into a physical clock-managing offense, confusing other teams’ defensive gameplan and giving their offense some much-needed unpredictability. Starks was activated on November 9. Sunday he will start in Super Bowl XLV.
There was a time when Bishop had to fight every single day to keep his roster spot. He was chosen in the sixth round of 2007 Draft by Green Bay, and went unnoticed for the most part of his career, playing well in preseason games only to end up at the depth chart bottom on Sundays. He worked harder and harder, avoided cuts every year, and finally had the occasion that he'd been waited for a very long time.
At the start of this season he even thought about asking a trade, since the team was committed to AJ Hawk and Nick Barnett, the starting inside linebackers, but Barnett’s injury that sidelined him for the remaining of the year was a crucial moment for Bishop, because it paved the way for him to start alongside to Hawk, an unique chance to prove that he could handle that assignment.
Bishop made the most out of it finishing regular season with 100-plus tackles, and made a vital play in Wild Card win against Philadephia, when he tackled DeSean Jackson, his California-roommate, in open field inside the last two minutes preventing him from scoring an almost certain game-winning touchdown.
Masthay went from a tutoring job at Kentucky, his alma mater, to professional football, his lifelong dream. After being axed during Colts roster cuts, he received a chance from Green Bay, who signed him as an unrestricted free agent in one of football’s most delicate spots. He performed very well in regular season, playing an outstanding game against the New York Jets helping his team to protect a 9-0 lead, putting opponents in bad field positions.
In postseason, he did even better. In Wild Card round against the Eagles he preserved the Packers 21-16 lead in the defining moments of the fourth quarter, punting the ball on Philadelphia’s 34 yard-line. His masterpiece was the NFC Championship against the division rivals Bears, where he kicked for 334 yards obtaining a 34.5 net average, neutralizing the most dangerous returner in the game, Devin Hester.
This was not the first time that Masthay played so well in critical games against Chicago, since his high-level performance was equally crucial in the regular season finale clash between the two teams, where the Packers clinched their last-minute playoff spot.
Many unsung heroes made several clutch plays, but Masthay's contribution was fundamental.