PACK WHERE THEY BELONG

January 31, 2011

One of football's most storied franchises is headed to the Super Bowl thanks to the cool of its quarterback and vital contributions from up and down a well-built roster

This is why the Packers will be a load of trouble for Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6: They won the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in Chicago mostly thanks to three men—one the star quarterback, whose biggest play of the day was a tackle; another the nosetackle who scored a touchdown on the first interception of his life; and the third a cornerback who had never played the position until 17 months ago.

That's the kind of talent, depth and versatility Green Bay has. The men of the moment: Aaron Rodgers, the unquestioned leader of the team and the man who has put Brett Favre permanently in Wisconsin's rearview mirror; athletic space-eater B.J. Raji, the 2009 first-round pick and centerpiece of a havoc-wreaking defensive front; and an undrafted free agent out of Miami, Sam Shields, the kind of spare part who is essential on a championship team in the salary-cap era. All three are in Green Bay because of general manager Ted Thompson, who has endured the slings and arrows of outraged fans but cares little if the folks in Oshkosh or Sheboygan are upset with him.

After the Packers advanced to their first Super Bowl in 14 years with a 21--14 victory over the Bears, former team president Bob Harlan was in the visiting locker room, extolling the virtues of the quiet man he brought in from the Seahawks' front office in 2005. "When I hired Ted," said Harlan, who retired three years ago, "I knew he was going to build us a team we could be proud of. Early on, one of our p.r. people came to me and said, 'Well, Ted's not very good with the press.' I said, 'I didn't hire him to be good with the press. I hired him to build a football team.' And look at this. Look at what he's done."

What the 58-year-old Thompson has done, most notably, is have the courage of his convictions, which helped him to survive a 32--34 record in his first four years. The low point came in the NFC Championship Game in January 2008, a crushing loss to the underdog Giants at Lambeau Field when Favre threw an interception on the first series of overtime. It turned out be his last pass as a Packer. When Favre announced his retirement in March '08, then tried to return the following summer, Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy stuck to their guns, weary of the will-he-or-won't-he-play merry-go-round. Having given the quiet and unproven Rodgers the starting job, they said the decision was irrevocable. Thompson angered Favre by refusing to release him so he could go play for one of the teams of his choice, the Vikings or the Bears. He ended up being traded to the Jets.

The move turned out to be a milestone. Green Bay players hate talking about Favre. Coaches too. And last week, two days before the game, Thompson was asked if he ever questioned himself about sticking with a green kid instead of welcoming back one of the great quarterbacks in history.

Pause. Shift in the chair.

"I never touch this anymore," he said. "But no, we never questioned ourselves."

The Favre angle will be beaten to death by the thousands of media members in Dallas next week. But what's remarkable about the post-Favre Packers is that Thompson doesn't need to say anything in his own defense. Nor do McCarthy or Rodgers, for that matter. Rare is it when a legend leaves and his successor is up to the task of replacing him. Perhaps only once in the last generation has it happened: When Sidney Crosby took over for Mario Lemieux with the Penguins in 2006. No one else of such gravitas—not Michael Jordan, not Cal Ripken, not John Elway—has been succeeded by anyone much better than a Jay Fiedler.

That's what makes Rodgers, 27, so amazing. His play as a starter has rivaled that of Favre in his most accomplished seasons. Favre won the MVP award three straight times, from 1995 to '97 (sharing it with Barry Sanders in '97). Compare those glory years with Rodgers's last three seasons. Favre threw 26 more touchdown passes and won 10 more regular-season games, but in every other category Rodgers is better: accuracy (64.6% to 60.8%), passing yards (12,394 to 12,179), yards per attempt (7.99 to 7.49) and passer rating (99.4 to 96.1).

It's far too early to place Rodgers in Favre's league. He hasn't done enough. And after an impressive first drive on Sunday, he struggled against the Bears' defense. But if he beats Pittsburgh, he will have matched Favre in Super Bowl victories. (Favre's only title came when the Pack beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.) And he clearly has won over the locals. Rodgers is more Bart Starr than Brett Favre—reserved, polite and perfectly suited for the smallest market in major professional sports.

"I never doubted I could do this," Rodgers said on Sunday, looking more like Huck Finn than a franchise quarterback. He wore an NFC Championship T-shirt, with an NFC Championship cap over his uncombed brown hair, and took a long slug of grape soda before stuffing the plastic bottle in his back pocket. "I just always wondered if I'd get a chance. I knew I had the ability. The question was, When would I get to show it?"

Sunday was his day, and Soldier Field his stage, in one of the most eagerly anticipated postseason games in NFL history. The sport's two winningest franchises have been playing each other since 1921. "A hundred and eighty-one times," Rodgers recited last week, accurately; this was the 182nd meeting. The proximity of the cities—Lambeau and Soldier Field are exactly the same distance apart as Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium—helps fan the flames. The teams' alums are active and feisty and feel the rivalry to their bones. "If I wasn't 69 years old," Dave Robinson, an All-Pro linebacker on Vince Lombardi's title teams, said last Friday, "I swear I'd want to suit up Sunday, and they wouldn't even have to pay me. The Bears! The Bears! The Bears! I still get so fired up whenever I even think of those games. And Coach Lombardi, he'd rather beat the Bears in an exhibition game than beat anybody else in a playoff game."

It took Rodgers four minutes to put his stamp on the game. Chicago won the toss and, in the first of a few questionable decisions the Bears made, chose to defer and play defense first. Rodgers hit receiver Greg Jennings for 22 yards on the first play and 26 on the second; both throws were on a dime. Rodgers was 4 for 4 for 76 yards on the first series, which ended with him bootlegging in for a touchdown from a yard out. Three possessions later he completed both of his throws, for 31 yards, on a 56-yard drive, and the Packers led 14--0.

The Bears got nothing going in the first half, and their pressurized quarterback, Jay Cutler (for whom they'd traded three high draft picks and Kyle Orton to the Broncos 21 months ago), was playing poorly. At some point before halftime he got hit and suffered a left-knee injury, the severity of which will be debated in Chicago for years. (On Monday the Bears announced that he had torn his medial collateral ligament; coach Lovie Smith said Cutler would have been questionable for the Super Bowl had the Bears advanced.) At halftime, trainers found Cutler's knee to be unstable, and after he tried to play one series he came out for good, standing in a cape on the sideline. Blood-and-guts Bears fans are accustomed to their heroes playing hurt and were furious that Cutler never went back in; afterward, one group of tailgaters burned a number 6 jersey. Cutler said he'd been told he could not return, and his teammates stood up for him. "We know who Jay is," said defensive end Israel Idonije, "and a quitter he's not. We were playing a blitzing team. You can't play if you can't escape the rush."

While Cutler cooled his heels, Rodgers struggled. Driving for a score that would have put the game away midway through the third quarter, he threw a pass that looked as if it had been intended more for Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher than receiver Donald Driver. Urlacher made the pick at the six-yard line and took off up the right sideline. The only Packer with a chance at stopping him? Rodgers. "I've missed a couple of tackles on interceptions this year, and it's something that's not so funny in the quarterback room," Rodgers said postgame. "When I got close I was kind of facing him, and it was a moment when he was either going to run me over—I've seen him do that before—or I'm going to be able to tackle him. Luckily I was able to get him down."

"Rodgers's big tackle—you'd hope that wouldn't be in the big-play category on the day," McCarthy joked afterward.

It was. The toothless Bears, with Todd Collins now under center, couldn't take advantage of the turnover, and the score remained 14--0. Third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie soon replaced the ineffective Collins and led the Bears to their first touchdown. Now it was up to Shields and Raji to make an impact. Shields had intercepted Cutler at the Packers' three-yard line late in the first half on a leaping, acrobatic catch. (Cutler was hit on the play and might have suffered his injury then.) And midway through the fourth quarter, with Hanie trying to rally the Bears to tie the game, Raji and Shields combined to make the defensive play of the day. On third-and-five from the Bears' 15, Packers coordinator Dom Capers called the Right Cat blitz, in which Shields would rush from wide on the right and Raji, if the back sneaked out for a screen pass, would drop into coverage.

"But [running back Matt] Forte went into a gray area," said Raji. "Not really out and not really in the flat. I just drifted out near him, and the QB threw it. I was shocked. Speechless."

Pressured by Shields, Hanie fired the ball right to Raji, who ran 18 yards for a touchdown to extend the lead to 21--7. "An athletic guy like that, 337 pounds—he is an amazing weapon for us," said Capers.

As was Shields, a wideout for his first three years with the Hurricanes until team needs forced him to play corner in 2009. "Never played corner a day in my life, but I thought it would be good for me," said Shields. "Corners are the guys who get paid." He sealed the game with a last-minute interception of Hanie at the Green Bay 12, and if he keeps playing the way he did on Sunday as a full-time nickel—two interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble—he'll get paid. And big.

For now, it's on to Big D, where the Packers will try to win their fourth Super Bowl. Starr was the quarterback for the first two victories, in Super Bowls I and II. Favre won XXXI. Now it's Rodgers's turn. The Packers will have to find a way to counter Pittsburgh's pressure packages, but you can be sure the stage won't be too big for Rodgers. Or his team.

There's a coolness about this club. Veteran cornerback Charles Woodson was reminded that President Obama, a Chicagoan and devoted Bears fan, said he'd attend the Super Bowl if the Bears made it. If not he'd stay home.

"If Obama's not going to come see us at the Super Bowl," Woodson said, "then we'll just have to go see him in Washington."

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"I NEVER DOUBTED I COULD DO THIS," SAYS RODGERS. "I JUST ALWAYS WONDERED IF I'D GET A CHANCE."

PHOTOPhotograph by BOB ROSATOHISTORY LESSON Rodgers, who stood tall against the Bears, can match his fabled predecessor's Lombardi Trophy total with a win in Dallas. TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by BOB ROSATOPRIME MOVER Raji laid the wood to Cutler (left) early, then picked off third-string QB Hanie (12) and rumbled for the game-winning touchdown. PHOTOBILL FRAKESROLE OF A LIFETIME Starks, a 2010 sixth-rounder, has emerged as a bona fide feature back—one of many bit players turned stars for Green Bay.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)