ARLINGTON, Texas--Forget Lombardi on Broadway. Green Bay has the newest Super Bowl hit: Aaron Rodgers.
Capping one of the greatest postseasons for any quarterback, Rodgers led the Packers to their first NFL championship in 14 years Sunday, 31-25 over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Packers reclaimed the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named for their legendary coach who won the first two Super Bowls and is making his own star turn in New York these days in the play named after him.
Rodgers, the game's MVP, thrilled his legion of Cheesehead fans with a spectacular six-game string that should finally erase the bitterness of the Brett Favre separation in Green Bay. He's now equal with Favre in Super Bowl wins, and extended the Packers' record of NFL titles to 13, nine before the Super Bowl era.
"Wow! It's a great day to be great, baby," said Greg Jennings, who caught two of Rodgers' three touchdown passes.
The favored Packers managed to overcame key injuries, building a 21-3 lead, then hung on to become the only second No. 6 seed to win the championship. Coincidentally, the 2005 Steelers were the other.
Rodgers threw for 304 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson, who had nine catches for 140 yards to make up for three big drops. Rodgers found Jennings, normally his favorite target, for 21- and 8-yard scores.
"We've been a team that's overcome adversity all year," Jennings said, who noted injuries to Charles Woodson and Donald Driver. "Our head captain goes down, emotional in the locker room. Our No. 1 receiver goes down, more emotions are going, flying in the locker room. But we find a way to bottle it up and exert it all out here on the field."
Few teams have been as resourceful as these Packers, who couldn't wait to touch the trophy honoring their greatest coach--and their title. Several of them kissed it as Cowboys great Roger Staubach, walked through a line of green and gold, and up to the massive stage on the 50-yard line. "Vince Lombardi is coming back to Green Bay," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said as the silver prize was handed to the team.
After sitting for three seasons, Rodgers took the Packers to two late-season victories just to make the playoffs as a wild card. Then he guided them to wins at Philadelphia, Atlanta and archrival Chicago before his biggest achievement--against a Pittsburgh team ranked second in defense.
They barely survived a sensational rally by the Steelers, who still own the most Super Bowl rings--six in eight tries. But Pittsburgh failed to get its third championship in six years, despite several valiant efforts by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger's season began with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. It ended with Roethlisberger standing on the sideline, his head down, hands on his hips, feeling something he never experienced: defeat in a Super Bowl.
"I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down, the fans, my coaches and my teammates and it's not a good feeling," said Roethlisberger, who later buried his head in a towel and wept. Not even a decidedly black-and-gold crowd, with Terrible Towels swirling throughout the $1.2 billion stadium, could make a difference for the mistake-prone Steelers. Their two biggest defensive stars--Defensive Player of the Year safety Troy Polamalu and outside linebacker James Harrison--were virtually invisible. The offense didn't seem to miss outstanding rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, who was out with an ankle injury, but Roethlisberger only occasionally made key plays until the second half.
The biggest plays were left to Rodgers, Nick Collins with a 37-yard interception return for a TD, Jennings, Nelson, and the rest of the guys in green and gold. In the end, they gave coach Mike McCarthy his first Super Bowl victory against the team he rooted for while growing up in Pittsburgh. Besides Lombardi, Mike Holmgren won a title in 1997 with Favre.
"This is a great group of men here, a lot of character," Rodgers said. "We went through a lot together."
Even on Sunday. Woodson went out late in the first half with a collarbone injury, a few plays after Driver was sidelined with an ankle problem. "It was very difficult to watch," Woodson said, "but it feels good now."
Woodson saw the Steelers, who rallied from a 21-7 halftime hole against Baltimore three weeks ago, show the same resilience. A 37-yard catch and run by Antwaan Randle El--an almost forgotten figure during his return season with just 22 receptions--sparked a quick 77-yard drive. Hines Ward, the 2006 Super Bowl MVP, had 39 yards on three catches during the series, including an 8-yard TD when he completely fooled Jarrett Bush.
A quick defensive stop and a 50-yard drive to Rashard Mendenhall's 8-yard touchdown run made it 21-17. But with coach Mike Tomlin's team driving for perhaps its first lead of the game, Mendenhall was stripped at the Green Bay 33 by Clay Matthews--one of the few plays the All-Pro linebacker made. The Packers recovered, and Rodgers hit Jennings for 8 yards and the winning points.
Pittsburgh's last gasp was on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace and a brilliant pitchout by Roethlisberger to Randle El for a 2-point conversion.
Mason Crosby added a 23-yard field goal for the Packers and the Steelers had no more comebacks in them.
"You play to be world champions," Matthews said, "and that's what we are today."
The game capped an interesting weather week in Dallas for the teams and fans alike. Snow and ice caused traffic snarls, canceled flights and caused injuries to six people when it fell from the roof of the stadium. Sunny skies and milder temperatures returned Sunday, but issues arose with seats at the game. A total of 1,250 temporary seats were considered unsafe hours before kickoff. Even while the teams were warming up on the field, workers were trying to fix the problems-- many involving seats carrying pricetags of $800 and up. About 400 people with tickets couldn't be seated inside the stadium and the league offered refunds of triple the ticket price.
At least the Packers and Steelers put on a terrific show after Christina Aguilera botched the lyrics to the national anthem.
Rodgers hit Nelson in stride with a long pass on Green Bay's first series, but the wideout let it slide through his hands. The Pack had discovered something, though, and went back to that play for the first touchdown. Nelson beat William Gay and held on for a 7-0 lead; the Packers have scored first in all five Super Bowl appearances. Just 24 seconds later, they were ahead by 14. Throwing from his end zone, Roethlisberger's arm was hit by backup nose tackle Howard Green. The ball fluttered to the Pittsburgh 37, where Collins settled under it, then scooted down the right sideline and dived into the end zone for the 13th interception return for a score. Teams doing so are now 11-0 in Super Bowls.
Needing to get busy or get buried, Pittsburgh put together a 13-play drive to Shaun Suisham's 33-yard field goal. Then, after moving well again, Mike Wallace's pass was stolen from his hands by Bush at the Pittsburgh 46.
Rodgers coolly completed passes to Jennings and Nelson, James Starks ran for 12 yards as Polamalu whiffed on a tackle, then Jennings reached high and slightly behind to snag a 21-yarder over Polamalu for a 21-3 edge.
"I had some opportunities to make some plays," Polamalu said. "I was just off a step here or there."