ARLINGTON, Texas -- The ghosts of football past cast long shadows in Green Bay. But Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers emerged from them Sunday night with a career-making MVP performance against the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers, leading the Packers to a 31-25 victory in a glitzy Super Bowl XLV battle.
"It's a dream come true," Rodgers said. "It's what I dreamt about as a little kid watching Joe Montana and Steve Young, and we just won the Super Bowl."
It is the fourth Super Bowl victory for the Packers and a record 13th NFL title for a club that joined the league in 1921. Green Bay did something few teams have done in the past 45 years: stop the Steelers in America's premier sporting showcase. Pittsburgh still owns a record six Super Bowl victories, now against two losses.
The battle of beloved old-school NFL franchises was played before a crowd of 103,219 at Cowboys Stadium, the nation's largest palace of pro football.
Green Bay grabbed control of the game with two touchdowns in the space of 24 seconds in the first quarter and never trailed, despite a furious Pittsburgh comeback effort.
Rodgers connected with Jordy Nelson for an arching 29-yard touchdown pass over the head of cornerback William Gay for a 7-0 Packers lead. Gay provided tight coverage on the play, but Rodgers picked on him, and the left side of the Pittsburgh pass defense, for much of the night.
Pittsburgh took over on its own 7 on the next possession. On the first play, defensive tackle Howard Green overpowered guard Chris Kemoeatu and got up in the face of Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone. The Steelers quarterback forced a fluttering pass downfield and into the arms of roaming safety Nick Collins, who darted through a maze of potential Pittsburgh tacklers and into the end zone for a 37-yard score.
Gifted with a 14-0 lead, Rodgers and the Green Bay offense spent much of the night picking apart the league's No. 1 scoring defense. Rodgers completed 24 of 39 passes for 304 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 112.0 passer rating while easily outshining Roethlisberger.
"We put everything on [Rodgers'] shoulders," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He did a lot at the line of scrimmage for us against a great defense. He did a hell of a job."
The Steelers finally got on the board with a 33-yard field goal from Shaun Suisham early in the second quarter after a long drive stalled out. But Big Ben threw a second first-half interception (Jarrett Bush) when he tried to force the ball into Mike Wallace.
"There's probably a lot of throws I'd like to have back," Roethlisberger said. "I don't put the blame on anybody but myself."
The pick set up Green Bay's third score, a 21-yard pass from Rodgers to Greg Jennings. That put the Packers up 21-3 and they looked ready to put it in cruise control: no team in Super Bowl history had overcome a deficit of greater than 10 points.
But Big Ben and the Steelers were at their best when the situation looked hopeless. They whipped up a seven-play, 77-yard scoring drive in just 1:45 to move within 21-10. Roethlisberger opened the drive with a 37-yard throw to Antwaan Randle El and later connected with Hines Ward for 14 yards on third-and-10. He capped the drive with an eight-yard throw to Ward with 39 seconds to play in the quarter, making it 21-10 at intermission.
The Packers struggled early in the second half. They failed to gain a first down on the opening drive and punted the ball away. Pittsburgh returner Antonio Brown was taken down at the 35, with a facemasking penalty on Green Bay's Tom Crabtree moving the ball to midfield.
Then Pittsburgh unleashed the old-school smash-mouth football so often associated with the franchise: the Steelers needed just five plays -- each one on the ground -- to suddenly pull within 21-17. The drive was capped by Rashard Mendenhall's eight-yard touchdown run up the middle behind a battered offensive line that lost starting center Maurkice Pouncey in the AFC title game and lost right tackle Flozell Adams with an injury in the first half Sunday.
Green Bay wrested control back on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Ryan Pickett and Clay Matthews combined to force Mendenhall (game-high 14 carries, 63 yards) to fumble. Desmond Bishop gathered in the loose ball, giving the Packers possession at their own 45.
Bishop credited some inspirational words from star defensive back Charles Woodson, who was injured in the first half, for the fact that he was in the right place at the right time.
"I don't think I played well in the first half, but Charles Woodson tried to speak at the half about what this game meant, and he choked up a bit," Bishop said. "There was something about what he said that just made me want to play harder."
Eight plays after the fumble recovery, Rodgers connected for an eight-yard touchdown to Jennings -- his third touchdown pass -- and Green Bay had a 28-17 lead with just 12 minutes to play. Nelson, a third-year kick-return specialist, emerged as an unlikely star for the Packers, in the tradition of Max McGee, the unexpected hero who caught two touchdowns in Super Bowl I.
Nelson nearly hauled in a 51-yard touchdown that Rodgers overthrew down the right sideline in the first quarter and scored the team's first touchdown on a similar play. Rodgers later teamed up with the receiver for a 38-yard gain that moved the ball deep into Steelers territory and set up the Jennings touchdown reception. Nelson ended the night with nine receptions for a game-high 140 yards -- both career bests. His effort was needed on a night when steady Donald Driver was forced out of the second half with an ankle injury.
"Aaron gave me a little signal if it was press coverage to go deep [on the touchdown catch]," Nelson said. "It was actually a screen play, but he checked to a go route."
After the Jennings score put Pittsburgh in an 11-point hole, Roethlisberger took control on the next drive, much like he did at the desperate end of the first half. He completed six of seven passes to move the ball from his own 34, capping the drive with a beautiful long pass near the left sideline to speedster Mike Wallace for a 25-yard score. Randle El raced around left end for the two-point conversion, and Pittsburgh was within field goal range, 28-25, midway through the final stanza.
But Green Bay had one more score in it, marching from its own 25 to the Pittsburgh 5 with just over two minutes to play. Mason Crosby booted the 23-yard field goal to provide the final 31-25 margin.
The Steelers were unable to recapture the last-second magic they displayed in their Super Bowl XLIII victory over the Cardinals, when a furious 88-yard touchdown drive provided the final points in a 27-23 win.
Rodgers, meanwhile, capped his impressive 2010 campaign, and his impressive young career, with a defining performance that puts him in the conversation with an impressive array of great champion Packers passers. In fact, Rodgers was already the highest-rated passer in regular-season history (98.4).
With his effort in Super Bowl XLV, he's now in the NFL record books (min. 150 attempts) as the highest rated passer in postseason history, too (112.6). He surpassed the record previously held by Packers Hall of Famer and five-time champion Bart Starr (104.3).
"It feels awesome," said joyous Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who joins Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren as the four coaches who led the "Titletown" Packers to their NFL-best 13 league championships. "It's great to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay."