(Photo by Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press)
Well, I am ecstatic about the Packers' 21-14 win in the NFC Championship over the Bears, despite the fact that the Packers did not play a very good game, at least on offense, after the second quarter. To take it a step further, I am not real happy with the play calling on offense or on defense in the second half. A little too much "take no chances and preserve the lead" on offense, and a little too much "sit back in coverage and don't give up any big plays" on defense. I am also worried about Aaron Rodgers, who never seemed like himself after taking the shot to the head by Julius Peppers. Fortunately, he has two weeks to get ready for the SUPER BOWL!
Basically, the win was preserved by some excellent individual plays on defense, including the two interceptions by Sam Shields, and the interception return for a TD by B.J. Raji. He is a young guy, so he probably does not remember this first hand, but he was perilously close to Leon Lett-Don Beebe Super Bowl territory. He should look it up and learn for the future.
I am not sure if my posts over the course of the season fully reflect this, but after the injuries set in early in the year, I did not believe that the Packers could make it to the Super Bowl this year. I felt that it was just one of those things, like the case of the 2008 Patriots, who lost Tom Brady in the first game, and played well (11-5) but did not even make the playoffs. I thought that the Packers might make the playoffs this year, but I did not expect them to go very far in the playoffs if they did.
Nevertheless, in each individual playoff game, I predicted a Packers win. I thought they could beat the Eagles if they played well and avoided mistakes. I thought they could beat the Falcons, but only if they were very fortunate and avoided big mistakes (like kickoff returns for touchdowns, for example). And I thought they could, and really should, beat the Bears. In fact, I probably felt more confident about the Bears' game than either of the other two playoff games. Still, when five games in a row are must-win games, something is bound to go wrong in one of them, especially when the team is not at full strength. Put it this way: what were the chances, as of five weeks ago, that the Packers could win every one of the next five games, all against playoff teams or playoff contenders, with three of the five games on the road?
In that stretch, as I said, something was bound to go wrong and cost the Packers a game (and, in this case, the season). Take the NFC Championship game. The Bears pulled within 7 points twice in the fourth quarter. That put the Packers in quite a bit of jeopardy. A stripped ball, a deflected pass, a snap over Rodgers' head, a defensive back who slips on the turf, and we could be looking at a tie game. Which is why it drives me crazy when Mike McCarthy goes into "protect" mode, or when Dom Capers starts to dial back the pressure, resulting in two fourth-quarter touchdown drives for the Bears. "All's Well that Ends Well," Shakespeare said, but still, I prefer to see the Packers keep the pedal to the metal on offense, and the boot on the throat on defense.
Game balls have to go to Sam Shields and BJ Raji on defense. James Starks (74 yards rushing and a TD) and Greg Jennings (130 yards receiving) would certainly get game balls on offense. And punter Tim Masthay certainly gets a special teams game ball as well. He averaged 41.5 yards per punt, and 34.5 yards net. With Devin Hester returning punts, that is really special, special teams play.
I remember very well what it felt like, as a fan, for the Packers to beat the Dom Capers-coached Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game in January of 1997, on their way to Super Bowl XXXI. It brought (quickly-freezing) tears to my eyes sitting in the stands. It had, after all, been XXIX years since the Packers went to the Super Bowl. Thankfully, we didn't have to wait that long this time, as it was only XIII years from Super Bowl XXXII to Super Bowl XLV.
So, sure, there are lots of things to criticize, there are causes for concern, heck, there may not even be a normal season next year due to contract issues. But let us pause to savor the moment, and the minor miracle of a team that overcame this kind of adversity to reach the Super Bowl. And for all that to happen by beating the Chicago Bears in the most momentous game in the history of the rivalry just adds a little extra.
If that isn't enough, consider the youth of this team. Unlike the Bears, for example, the core of this team is young and capable of being Super Bowl contenders for years to come, even if some of the older veterans (like Charles Woodson and Donald Driver) win their Super Bowl rings and retire.