ARLINGTON, Texas -- In the happy child's dream, of course, the pass is always complete. That's how it works with kids playing football in the backyard. It's always third-and-10, it's the fourth quarter, it's the Super Bowl. In the dream, every receiver is covered, but throwing the ball away is not an option, and taking a sack is not an option, and the sound of footsteps grows louder, they are getting closer, time runs out. In the dream -- but wait! There's an glimmer of something. A tiny opening. A receiver's hand. Something to aim at. The throw will have to be perfect. But if it's thrown just right ...
In the dream, the pass is always completed. Success is so easy to imagine when you're a kid. And maybe that was Aaron Rodgers' secret Sunday night under the world's largest television screen in America's biggest game. Maybe even after everything that comes with being an adult and the Green Bay Packers quarterback -- even after dealing with the absurd pressure of replacing the most popular man in the history of Wisconsin, even after Rodgers' first dreadful season, after absorbing the thrashings of a league-high 50 sacks in the second season, after this wonderful and trying Packers season with two concussions, beat up teammates and a five-week series of must-win games -- maybe even after all that he still had enough of that little kid in him to believe.
For a long night in Super Bowl XLV, the Green Bay Packers always seemed one great play away from finishing off Pittsburgh. There were all sorts of clashing theories going into the game, like always, but one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that the game would be close. There did not seem a reasonable scenario for a blowout. Both teams came in with terrific quarterbacks and terrific defenses and a certain faith in their own team's history. The Steelers have won six Super Bowl trophies, more than any other team, and those Super Bowl trophies are named for the Packers legendary coach Vince Lombardi. Players on both teams are taught from their first day that winning is sewn into their uniforms.
Still ... for a good while this game looked to be a Packers runaway. They built a 21-3 lead late in the second quarter, largely thanks to two Pittsburgh turnovers (an unforeseen development -- the Steelers were plus-17 on turnovers during the season). At that moment, the Steelers seemed muddled; they looked uncertain how to attack the Packers defense (they came in with a game plan of quick outs to wide receivers but were being neutralized), and they looked even more uncertain on how to deal with Rodgers.
"He's an incredibly accurate quarterback," Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu said, and Polamalu is right, and it seemed for much of the game the Steelers best plan of defense was to hope for Packers receivers to drop passes. Lucky for them, the Packers receivers often obliged. Jordy Nelson, who caught nine passes for 140 yards and a touchdown, also dropped at least two critical passes. James Jones dropped a pass over the middle at the beginning of the third quarter that might have turned into a 75-yard touchdown -- there wasn't a defender anywhere near him. Brett Swain dropped a critical third down pass late in the third quarter.
Well, it had to be that way: Winning just couldn't be that easy, not for Green Bay, not after this crazy season when the Packers had all kinds of injuries and overtime losses. The Packers were 8-6 with two weeks left in the season, and at that point they knew that to get where they expected to go they would have to win every game for the rest of the season. This included a three-week playoff road trip, first to Michael Vick's Philadelphia, then to Atlanta and the 13-3 Falcons, then finally to familiar Chicago. Of course, they won five in a row.
But none of it was easy (well, the Atlanta victory was surprisingly easy), and this wouldn't be easy either. The Steelers scored a touchdown at the end of the first half, another at the start of the second, and the score was 21-17, and for the rest of the way the game was as tight and tense and violent and unpredictable as expected. The Steelers turned the ball over a third time, and the Packers scored another touchdown -- Aaron Rodgers to a wide open Greg Jennings crossing the back of the end zone. Polamalu was the culprit there ("That was completely my fault. Earlier in the game they ran Jennings down the middle and I was anticipating the same play, and I guessed wrong.")
Then, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger -- who has already been quarterback on two Super Bowl winners -- brought the Steelers back on a convincing seven-play, 66-yard touchdown drive. His 25-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace came with 7:34 left. The Steelers had to feel good about their chances. Their offense seemed to be humming, finally. Green Bay led by only three. The Packers don't have the running game to run out the clock in the fourth quarter -- it's the one noticeable flaw in an almost complete team. The Packers and Rodgers had to keep throwing it, and everybody knew it.
"We put the game on Aaron Rodgers shoulders," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said rather bluntly.
On first down, Rodgers was sacked. On third down, the Packers were called for a false start. And so, that left the Aaron Rodgers in the happy child's dream scenario -- it was third-and-10, it was the fourth quarter, it was the Super Bowl. Rodgers dropped back and scanned the field and he saw that every receiver was covered. But throwing the ball away was not an option, taking a sack was not an option, not in this moment. The Packers could not give the ball back to the Steelers now. The sound of footsteps grew louder, the Steelers defenders were getting closer, time was running out. One of the Steelers' plans to win was to hit Aaron Rodgers. They had hit him often throughout the game.
Then Rodgers saw something -- call it a glimmer. On replays, from any angle, it is actually hard to see what he saw. Greg Jennings was double covered -- Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor was in front and the defensive player of the year Troy Polamalu was behind. From the camera angle behind the quarterback, Jennings looked to be completely hidden by Taylor. But Rodgers saw that little something. He has run this play a thousand times. He's thought about it a million times. He grew up near San Francisco, where he watched Joe Montana and Steve Young fit passes into impossibly tight spaces when the moment was big. He spent countless hours in the backyard pretending to be them. Now, he wasn't pretending. He pulled back and he unleashed a throw over the middle.
The ball skimmed an inch over Taylor's hands, maybe less than an inch. And it zipped into Jennings' hands. Jennings caught it ran forward and gained 31 yards, a first down, put the Packers in Pittsburgh territory.
"The ball just got over the top of [Taylor's hands]," Jennings would say.
"He put the ball in a really tight space," Polamalu said.
"I trust Greg there to make a play," Rodgers said. "I'm just trying to give him a chance."
The pass did not score a touchdown. It did not give Green Bay an insurmountable lead. It did not put away the Pittsburgh Steelers. But in many ways, it was the play of the game. In that moment, there was simply nothing Pittsburgh could do. After the game, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said what coaches say: "They made plays." But he undoubtedly meant this play. The Steelers had the defense. They had the momentum. They had the quarterback in their sights. Aaron Rodgers made a play.
The rest is anticlimax. The Packers were able to run the clock down to almost two minutes, and they settled for a field goal to take a 31-25 lead (even with that Rodgers was furious that his team did not punch it into the end zone and finally close it out). Then the Steelers had one last hope -- they got the ball at their own 13 with 1:59 left. Roethlisberger hit one pass for 15, but then the drive stalled. And when the Steelers faced fourth-and-five, well, this was not Big Ben's day for childhood dreams. His throw was high. And the game was finally over.
Rodgers was the game's MVP, of course. His numbers -- 24 of 39, 304 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions -- are impressive enough but would have been even better with more reliable pass catching. Anyway, with Rodgers it has always been about more than his impressive numbers.
When he came out of California, he was talked about as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Instead, he plummeted to No. 24 and Green Bay. When he went to the Packers, he found himself sitting behind the legend, Brett Favre. He was basically a nonentity. And then before the 2008 season, the Packers and Favre parted ways, and it wasn't a clean departure, and it left a lot of anger and disappointment and disarray. And suddenly Aaron Rodgers was the starting quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, and he was asked to pick up the pieces.
"I've never felt like there was a monkey on my back," Rodgers would say after the game ended. "The organization stood behind me. They believed in me. That's all I needed." But it's easy to say that when covered in confetti. Rodgers endured through a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication to the game, and by continuing to believe in himself even when it seemed crazy.
And that's why it was so touching when on Sunday night, after winning the Super Bowl, he remembered being young. Players often talk about those childhood moments in the backyard pretending to hit home runs like Hank Aaron or hit long shots like Reggie Miller or throw touchdowns like Joe Montana. A choice few get their moment. But until they get that moment, they never know for sure if it's real or still a dream.
"How do you feel?" someone asked Aaron Rodgers.
"I'm not sure," he said, and he smiled. "It hasn't sunk in yet." You got the feeling that once it does sink in, he will feel pretty good.