The future is bright for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Sure, Green Bay is the NFL's defending champion. The thrill of victory always feels good. But more importantly for its future, the team is statistically built to contend for years to come -- thanks to its dominance of the passing lanes on both sides of the ball.
Last week, we went into great detail about what we call Passer Rating Differential, a Cold, Hard Football Facts "Quality Stat" because it has a direct correlation to winning football games.
We called it "the most important stat in football" because it moves in lockstep with wins and losses. Teams that dominate Passer Rating Differential -- the difference between a team's offensive and defensive passer ratings -- dominate on the field.
The numbers are startling: 40 of 71 NFL champions since 1940 (56 percent) finished No. 1 or No. 2 in Passer Rating Differential.
The 2010 Packers simply provided further proof: they finished the season No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential. As a result, they finished No. 1 on the field in Super Bowl XLV.
(At the other end of the spectrum, the Panthers finished 32nd in Passer Rating Differential last year. They finished 32nd in the standings, too, with a dismal 2-14 record.)
Green Bay's dominance of Passer Rating Differential during its 2010 championship season is not an isolated incident.
In fact, no franchise provides better evidence that Passer Rating Differential is indeed the most important stat in football: the Packers have finished No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential seven times since 1960. They won NFL championships in six of those seven seasons, and nearly won the seventh.
Green Bay was the NFL's dynasty of the 1960s -- arguably the greatest decade of dominance in NFL history.
Vince Lombardi's Packers are widely remembered as a team that won the "old-fashioned" way by dominating on the ground. That reputation certainly makes for great imagery on NFL Films: Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer leading Jim Taylor or Paul Hornung around the end on yet another muddy scoring run before Lombardi is carried off the field in triumph.
But the reality was quite a bit different.
Lombardi's Packers did not win championships because they dominated on the ground. Lombardi's Packers won championships for the same reason that Mike McCarthy's Packers won a championship last season: because they dominated the passing lanes on both sides of the ball.
Green Bay finished No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential in 1961, 1962, 1965 and 1966. They won NFL titles all four years. (Despite their rep, the Packers often struggled to run the ball and to stop the run, at least in the latter half of the dynasty.)
The Packers added another NFL (and Super Bowl) championship in 1967. That team won it all despite finishing the year No. 3 in Passer Rating Differential (+22.2).
But even this 1967 example is the proverbial exception that proves the rule: the top two teams in Passer Rating Differential in 1967 were the Rams (+36.9) and Colts (+29.2).
Not coincidentally, the Rams and Colts were also the top two teams in football that year, with identical 11-1-2 records.
Here's where a couple quirks of history stepped in and paved the way for the Packers to win a third straight title -- despite the fact other teams were more dominant in 1967.
Through 1966, there was no playoff system in the NFL. The winner of each conference simply met in the NFL title game. The Packers, Colts and Rams were all rivals in the NFL's Western Conference through 1966.
But that all changed in 1967, when the NFL introduced four four-team divisions and a playoff tournament pitting the winners of each of the four divisions.
The Rams and Colts were moved to the brand-new Coastal Division. The two-time defending champion Packers were part of the Central Division with the Bears, Lions and Vikings (the old Black & Blue Division, today's NFC North).
The Rams and Colts formed the toughest tandem any division has produced since. As stated, both teams went 11-1-2. But the Rams won the division, thanks to their 34-10 win over the Colts in the final week of the season (they tied earlier in the year).
So Don Shula, Johnny Unitas & Co. didn't even make the playoffs despite the fact they lost just one game all year and went 11-0-1 against teams other than their division-rival Rams. The 1967 Colts remain the greatest team that never reached the playoffs.
Green Bay, meanwhile, struggled through a 9-4-1 season, which was good enough to beat out the Bears by two games in the Central Division.
It's quite reasonable to assume, had the NFL still utilized the 1966 alignment, that Green Bay might have missed the playoffs having finished no better than third behind the powerhouse Rams and Colts in the Western Conference.
Another quirk of fate intervened in the playoffs. The NFL did not award home-field advantage to the team with the best record back then. Home field was given on a rotating basis.
So the 9-4-1 Packers hosted the 11-1-2 Rams at Green Bay's second home at Milwaukee County Stadium, while the 11-1-2 Colts sat home and watched. Even worse? The Rams beat the Packers just two weeks earlier in Los Angeles. The Colts beat the Packers that year, too.
Green Bay, to its credit, rekindled the old magic and destroyed the Rams that day, 28-7. They beat the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl, and then dominated the Raiders in Super Bowl II.
But, had the situation been slightly different, had the NFL not realigned in 1967, had teams with better records earned homefield advantage, it's quite possible that the teams that dominated Passer Rating Differential -- the Rams and Colts -- would have won another championship for the indicator in 1967.
Regardless, history worked in Green Bay's favor and the team went on to dominate the passing lanes in the playoffs. Bart Starr easily outplayed Roman Gabriel, Don Meredith and Daryle Lamonica in the postseason, while capping the run with an MVP performance in Super Bowl II.
Green Bay's Passer Rating Differential was a brilliant +42.8 in those three games.
Lombardi left Green Bay after that 1967 season. The team's dominance on the field left with him. If you've been following along, you know that Green Bay's decline coincided with a decline in Passer Rating Differential.
Green Bay was largely mediocre for three decades and so, too, was its Passer Rating Differential. That all changed in 1996, when the Packers finished No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential for the first time since the Lombardi Era. The 1996 Packers captured the franchise's first championship since the Lombardi Era, too.
Green Bay topped the indicator again in 1997. That team reached the Super Bowl, only to lose out to John Elway's Broncos.
The Packers slipped out of the championship limelight for more than a decade after that Super Bowl loss to Denver. Naturally, its dominance of Passer Rating Differential slipped over that period, too.
The team started to remerge in 2008 -- they finished No. 2 in Passer Rating Differential in both 2008 and 2009. You could see the writing on the wall heading into 2010: this proficiency in Passer Rating Differential in 2008 and 2009 was the biggest reason we picked the Packers to win the Super Bowl at the start of the 2010 season.
Green Bay did not let us down, either on the stat sheet or on the field. The Packers finished No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential in 2010 -- and once again this dominance in the passing lanes produced a championship for Title Town.