"It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness."
That was the fortune in my fortune cookie last night. Well, let's see. Fifteen players on injured reserve. Barely (or should that be Bearly?) making it to the playoffs as the 6th and final seed. Playing three playoff games on the road, and winning them all to make it to the Super Bowl. Yes, I guess that was a pretty rough road.
I re-watched most of the December 20, 2009 game against the Steelers the other night. That was the game in which the Packers were behind or tied most of the game, only to gain the lead for the first time in the fourth quarter, lose the lead, re-gain it, and lose it and the game on a touchdown on the final play of the game. The score was Pittsburgh 37, Green Bay 36. I wrote about the game at the time. When the Packers defensive players and coaches cued up the tape this week, it was enough to make practically everyone in the room sick. I'm sure the Steelers defensive coaches had similar sentiments. It got so bad during the game that Pittsburgh, in the fourth quarter, did an onside kick after taking the lead because they knew they could not stop the Packers.
Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network (no relation to the namesake of the Super Bowl Trophy) summarized one of my biggest complaints about the Packers in a single paragraph, and then applied that gripe to the upcoming Super Bowl:
The Packers can play dominant football and I have wondered how they lost six games. Sunday was an example of how. They seem to have lulls in the game and allow their opponent to hang around. For as talented and competitive as the Packers are as a team, they don't seem to have the killer instinct to put good teams away. It almost cost them against Philadelphia and then again in Chicago. They better learn how to finish before taking on the Steelers.
I could not agree more, and I will say it again: I want to see the Packers take on the approach of the New England Patriots who, in Packer Blogger Jersey Al's memorable phrase, go out and execute teams "like cold-blooded killers."
There are plenty of examples out there. In the regular season, there was the Minnesota game at Green Bay. The Packers let the Vikings hang around in the second half, to the point where it took an instant replay to overturn what would have been the winning touchdown for the Vikings. There was also the Patriots game, where the Packers were ahead most of the game, only to lose the game in the fourth quarter. In the playoffs, there was the Eagles game. The Packers led for much of the game by 11 points, but it took a last minute interception in the end zone to cement the win. Or the NFC Championship Game, where the Packers led by 14-0, and it could easily have been 17-0 or 21-0. But they let the Bears hang around, and it again took a last minute interception in Packer territory to seal the deal. Michael Lombardi is exactly right: if the Packers intend to win the Super Bowl, and if they are fortunate enough to get ahead in the game, they had better learn to bring the hammer down.
Both the Packers and the Steelers are playing much better defense than they did in the last game in December, 2009. One of the Steelers' biggest defensive playmakers, Troy Polamalu, didn't play in that game but is expected to play this time. On the Packers' side, the defensive players are playing dramatically better than last year, due (in my mind) to a combination of three things: (1) greater familiarity and comfort with the defensive scheme in the second year since Dom Capers installed the 3-4 defense; (2) upgraded players in some cases, and better play by the same players in other instances (for example, the often-victimized Jarret Bush was a starting defensive back against the Steelers last year, but is a backup now, and he has in effect been replaced by a combination of Charlie Peprah and Sam Shields); and (3) a greater tendency to put pressure on the quarterback (again, probably due to greater comfort with the players in the system).
Somebody was kidding me today, saying "I think the Steelers will score 47, and the Packers . . . ." I cut him off by saying that I am pretty sure that is not going to happen. The Steelers gave up 20 points per game in the regular season in 2009, but only 14.5 points this year. The Packers gave up 18.5 points per game in the regular season in 2009, but only 15 this year. I would be nothing short of stunned if more than 70 points are scored in this game, like they were the last time the Steelers and the Packers met.