IRVING, Texas -- How many times did we shake our collective heads this season as the Green Bay Packers lost another close game?
How did they outgain the Chicago Bears 379-276 in Week 3 and still lose, 20-17?
How did they manage to lose to the Atlanta Falcons after tying the game in Week 12 with 56 seconds remaining?
In all, the Packers became the first team in NFL history to lose all six of their regular season games by four points or less, according to STATS Inc. Their average margin of defeat (3.3 points) was the lowest for a Packers team in 44 years. For context, the average margin of defeat in the NFL this season was 11.75.
Obviously, something was missing. On Thursday, we discussed coach Mike McCarthy's efforts to elevate locker room leadership. But we should add something more tangible to the list of reasons the Packers launched a five-game winning streak after losing their most recent close game: Their defense has learned how to shut the proverbial door.
In three of those five games, a Packers defensive back has intercepted a pass to end an opponent's final possession. In each case, the opponent was within a touchdown of at least tying the game.
Speaking to reporters this week, Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said the regular season failures were a matter of "just not coming through at the end of the game like we needed to, that's it." He joked that the easiest solution is to "win big [so that] we don't have to worry about it." But as they prepare for a Pittsburgh Steelers team that isn't likely to be blown out, it's clear the Packers have taken an important end-game step.
"We've had an opportunity to play in five playoff-type games," McCarthy said. "We feel that has prepared us for this opportunity."
It started in the regular season finale at Lambeau Field, when safety Nick Collins intercepted Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler at the Packers' 11-yard line with 20 seconds remaining to seal a 10-3 victory. The following week, cornerback Tramon Williams grabbed an end zone interception with 33 seconds remaining to secure the Packers' 21-16 wild-card victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
And in the NFC Championship Game, the Bears were on their way to a game-tying touchdown when rookie nickel back Sam Shields intercepted quarterback Caleb Hanie at the Packers' 12 with 37 seconds remaining.
It's worth repeating what quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Thursday about the Packers' elevated team leadership, because it goes hand-in-hand with performances in close games: "I just think it's a fact that there has been a greater sense of urgency and resolve from the guys. There have been guys stepping up and playing better."
Somewhat randomly, I landed on an eight-point spread in the Super Bowl prediction I submitted to ESPN.com. The odds makers have made the Packers a three-point favorite, and the bottom line is that five of the past nine Super Bowls have been decided by four points or less. It's quite possible the Packers could find themselves in another close game Sunday.
Six weeks ago, we would have been left shaking our heads. Now? At the very least, the Packers know they've broken through the barrier that separates good teams from the great ones.