NFC North: XLV

Audio: Rodgers swings back at Cowherd

February, 7, 2011
You're going to see and hear Green Bay Packers players everywhere for the next few days. As we noted earlier, quarterback Aaron Rodgers will appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman" Monday night. You won't want to miss that, and I don't think you'll want to miss Rodgers' interview Monday morning with ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd.

Many of you have asked why Cowherd has been so reluctant to include Rodgers in his grouping of elite NFL quarterbacks. Apparently, Rodgers has been wondering the same.

"Now I hope I can live up to your standards of being an elite quarterback," Rodgers told Cowherd, who laughed and noted the sarcasm.

Feel free to listen to the entire interview .
When you're the Super Bowl MVP, you get to do whatever you want. For Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, that means appearing on "Late Show with David Letterman."

The show has confirmed Rodgers will appear Monday night, sometime after its 11:30 p.m. ET start. Appearing with Rodgers will be actor Martin Lawrence and musical guest Steel Magnolia.

A few months ago, did you ever think you would see those two names and that band in the same sentence together? It's amazing what a Super Bowl run can do.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Green Bay Packers players reported to their team meeting Saturday evening prepared for some final words before turning in for their last night preceding Super Bowl XLV. They got a speech from Dr. Kevin Elko, a motivational guru, and then a surprise.

Coach Mike McCarthy had each player and coach fitted for a Super Bowl championship ring, a highly unusual move in a sport full of superstition and "one day at a time" mentality. It was the culmination of a late-season dose of Pittsburgh-style bravado McCarthy brought to the Packers over the past two months.

"No disrespect to the [Pittsburgh] Steelers," McCarthy said after the Packers' 31-25 victory in Super Bowl XLV. "We respect their football team. We respect the way they play. They're a good tough physical football team. But we fully expected to win this game. This is our time. We talked about it the first day we watched film [two weeks ago]. You could see the confidence building during the week."

[+] EnlargeMike McCarthy
Al Bello/Getty ImagesPackers coach Mike McCarthy had his team fitted for rings early.
Only two Packers players had appeared in a Super Bowl game prior to Sunday, so not everyone realized McCarthy was putting the cart before the proverbial horse.

"So that's pretty unusual, huh?" linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "Well, I liked it. It made things real for us."

According to center Scott Wells, the ploy fit McCarthy's week-long theme.

"We're a confident bunch and we knew we had a tough challenge," Wells said. "But the message all week has been about us. It wasn't about them. We knew if we played our game well, we would win this game."

Some players spent longer than others, imagining what it would be like to slip on the ring.

"It was the night before the game," linebacker Desmond Bishop said. "And we could see that it was right there. Everything we wanted was right there in our hands, literally and figuratively."

XLV: Packers move Woodson to tears

February, 7, 2011
Charles WoodsonMatthew Emmons/US PresswireAn emotional Charles Woodson motivated his teammates at halftime, then raised the trophy.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- One look at the X-ray was all it took. Charles Woodson turned away and sobbed. The fracture in his left collarbone was clear as day. His season was done at halftime of Super Bowl XLV.

Woodson emerged this season as the Green Bay Packers' spiritual leader, and so through his tears he felt compelled to address his teammates before the third quarter began. He stood up and began to speak.

"I just asked the guys to understand how much I wanted it," Woodson said.

"That's all he could get out," linebacker Desmond Bishop said. "He was all choked up, and there was just something about it that motivated all of us."

After a season of navigating injuries by the dozen, the Packers plowed through their biggest challenge yet in taking a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. They held off a Steelers offense that seemed set to capitalize on injuries to both Woodson and nickel back Sam Shields. Meanwhile, their offense survived the loss of receiver Donald Driver, an injury that sidetracked their plan to spread the Steelers' defense with their four- and five-receiver sets.

"We have a lot of practice at this type of situation," coach Mike McCarthy said. "And it definitely paid off. No one blinked. ... It was like a heavyweight fight. They had delivered a bunch of blows to us, and we had cut them. Good fighters and good boxers, they keep pounding away at the cut. We knew they would come after us.

"Sometimes it's not as clean as you want, but at the end of the day we're Super Bowl champions."

Indeed, the Packers made a habit of moving past seemingly debilitating injuries all season, beginning with the loss of tailback Ryan Grant in Week 1 and continuing until they had 15 players on injured reserve. Seven of the 22 players who started Sunday night were reserves when the season began. But this was the Super Bowl, and these were the Steelers -- the same team that lit them up for 503 passing yards against a similarly undermanned defense in 2009. You would be excused if you were having flashbacks to that game Sunday night. I know I was.

At the 2-minute warning of the first half, Shields departed with a shoulder injury. On the next play, Woodson broke the collarbone while diving for a pass deep down the left sideline. Suddenly, the Packers were using reserves Pat Lee at cornerback and Jarrett Bush in the nickel.

The Steelers didn't miss a beat, moving to a four-receiver set and driving 60 yards in four plays. They targeted Bush on Hines Ward's 8-yard touchdown reception, pulling within 21-10 at halftime, and you wondered how the Packers could stop them. On their opening drive of the third quarter, the Steelers needed only five plays to cut the deficit to 21-17.

Meanwhile, the Packers offense was struggling to find a rhythm after Driver's departure in the second quarter. They had jumped to leads of 14-0 and 21-3 thanks to a strategy we spent much of last week discussing; by spreading out the Steelers' defense, they were mitigating the effectiveness of outside linebackers Lamar Woodley and James Harrison.

According to receiver Greg Jennings, Driver offered his own words of encouragement after learning his fate at halftime. Two, to be exact.

"Just win."

All season, I've tried to bring you schematic explanations for what happened on the field during a game. But I don't have any for this evening. I don't think defensive coordinator Dom Capers made any dramatic adjustments while playing without Woodson and Shields for most of the second half. And McCarthy certainly stayed with his spread offense in the second half, even as his wide receivers finished with six drops.

On this night, the players who remained simply found a way to the endgame. They just won. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a 118.0 passer rating after Woodson's departure, but cornerback Tramon Williams tipped away a fourth-down pass with 49 seconds remaining to seal the game. The Packers offense managed only 10 points after Driver's injury, but they played the entire game without a turnover and receiver Jordy Nelson filled the gaps with nine receptions for 140 yards.

"That's who we are," Bishop said. "And it's who we've been all season. If you're the next man up, you're expected to find your helmet and find a way."

Said Jennings: "This team had a certain dynamic that a lot of teams don't have. What separated us from the other 31 teams are the unity and the will to overcome adversity."

If I had to attribute that will to anything, I would put it on McCarthy's increasing bravado as the season continued on. McCarthy is a tough-talking Pittsburgh native behind closed doors, but publicly he has always tended to keep his comments even-keeled.

But beginning in Week 16, when the Packers started a six-game winning streak that culminated Sunday night, McCarthy began insisting they were a "championship-caliber team." McCarthy turned up the heat late last week, saying that Sunday "will be our night," and saved his best shot of adrenaline for Saturday night.

During a team meeting, McCarthy had players and coaches fitted for Super Bowl rings. It's a highly unusual move that served to enhance the Packers' confidence.

"Absolutely I did," McCarthy said. "No disrespect to the Steelers. We respect their football team. We respect the way they play. They're a good tough physical football team. But we fully expected to win this game. This is our time. We talked about it the first day we watched film [two weeks ago]. You could see the confidence building during the week."

Only a team fully convinced of its destiny and place in history could have persevered in such circumstances. By all rights, the healthier and more-experienced Steelers should have plowed to victory in this game. Simply put, the Packers willed themselves to their perch atop the NFL.

It was enough to make a grown man cry, which is exactly what Woodson seemed ready to do again as he spoken to reporters after the game.

"Just an unbelievable journey for this team," he said, finally. "Driver goes down, I go down, and just like all season, somebody stepped in and somebody stepped it up. I let all my emotions out at halftime. It broke me down. It was tough.

"But I'm champ. Nothing else matters."

XLV: Missing seats and closed exits

February, 6, 2011
ARLINGTON, Texas -- For those interested in such things, we’ve had two significant hiccups here at Cowboys Stadium as kickoff approaches for Super Bowl XLV.

First, the NFL closed four of the 10 entrance points into the stadium because of lingering ice on the roof of the stadium. Friday, six people were injured by ice falling onto the sidewalk outside of the structure.

Second, the NFL just confirmed in a statement that some sections of the temporary seats erected inside Cowboys Stadium "have not been fully completed." The league said that most fans will be accommodated somewhere in the building by kickoff, but indicated that some will not. Those fans will receive a refund triple the cost of face value of the seat.

Local organizers are trying to break the Super Bowl record for attendance by exceeding 105,000. Maybe they were a bit too greedy. Can you imagine arriving at the stadium and finding out that your seat doesn’t exist?
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ever wonder what an NFL coach says to his players in the hours before the Super Bowl? Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy had a succinct message Sunday morning, according to ESPN's Ed Werder. It revolved around the theme of "One."

As in: One team. One goal. One game. One trophy. One name on it. One place where it needs to be returned.

Indeed, McCarthy has spoken often about bringing the Lombardi Trophy home; the Packers won the first two Super Bowls and the trophy was renamed in honor of coach Vince Lombardi shortly after his death in 1970.

On Saturday, McCarthy continued his brash public stance on the Packers' chances to win this game. He told Werder: "We feel this game is about us. If we play up to our standard or above it, we will be successful, and I have full confidence we will be taking the trophy home.''

We're under the three hour mark!
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Greetings from inside Cowboys Stadium, where I hear there will be an event of some sort in a few hours.

(A link to my view, for those who aren’t already jealous.)

We have some fun news already for Green Bay Packers fans, courtesy of ESPN’s Adam Schefter: Packers defensive end Jarius Wynn and his wife, Martavia, welcomed a baby boy Sunday morning in a Dallas-Fort Worth hospital. Wynn got a chance to visit mother and son, named Jarius Jessereel Wynn Jr.

Wynn has seen limited action in two playoff games but was inactive for the NFC Championship Game. It’s not yet clear whether he will be in uniform for Super Bowl XLV. Game-day roster decisions are due at 5 p.m. ET.

XLV: Game day!

February, 6, 2011
FORTH WORTH, Texas -- It’s here!

We’ve made it!

The hype is (mostly) over!

The players are ready!

The coaches are set!

It’s time for us to goooooooooooooooooooo!

Yes, the day for Super Bowl XLV has finally arrived. In a little more than seven hours, we'll have our 6:29 p.m. ET kickoff between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers.

As you probably know by now, the Packers were scheduled to hear motivational speaker Dr. Kevin Elko during their team meeting Saturday night. They were scheduled for another meeting Sunday morning and the team bus convoy will leave at 3 p.m. ET for Cowboys Stadium.

Let’s hit a few programming notes before I myself start the trek from the ESPN compound here in Fort Worth. As we’ve done throughout the postseason, I’ll check in with blog posts periodically in the hours before the game. Sunday, we’ll be monitoring whether Packers linebacker Erik Walden (ankle) shows enough in pregame warm-ups to merit a uniform for the game, or if he’ll be deactivated. Rookie Frank Zombo has practiced with the first team all week at the position.

When the game starts, I’ll be jumping into our “Super Bowl Countdown Live” chat for the duration. The module will appear on the blog a few hours before kickoff. Then, we’ll have the usual postgame reaction.

Hang on to your hats.

It’s almost time to do this thing.

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Thanks to those of you who migrated over to our special-edition SportsNation chat Friday afternoon. I was surprised by how many of you are concerned that the Pittsburgh Steelers, and James Harrison in particular, will be trying to knock Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers from the game -- by any means necessary.

First, a sampling of your questions:

Rich (Adrian)

Most people seem to think that GB is a little better than PIT, including Vegas. But all PIT needs to do is smack Rodgers in the head one time, he'll be seeing stars and will be bad for the rest of the game. When [Ben] Roethlisberger gets hit in the head, he seems to shake it off, and might actually get a little better. Isn't this the real key to the outcome of the game, and perhaps a reason to believe that the smart money is on PIT?

Kevin Seifert (2:04 PM)

Well, it is impossible to know if Rodgers will get "smacked in the head," but it sure seemed like James Harrison was doing his best this week to toss out some not-so-subtle intimidation. If you're Harrison, do you take a fine and penalty for knocking Rodgers out of the game? Maybe so.

Edward (Monroe, WI)

Kevin, do you see a controversy erupting if the Steelers D plays to knock Packers out of the game?

Kevin Seifert (2:21 PM)

Well, I for one will be sure to dig up the James Harrison quotes from earlier this week if that happens.

Sam (Green Bay)

I've been worrying a lot this week about the possibility of Harrison going for a kill shot on Rodgers, possibly even an illegal one, to get Aaron out of the game, regardless of fines or suspensions. However, after thinking about it, wouldn't doing something like that while the whole league is watching be pretty unwise? After all, someone might just "accidentally" fall on the back of Harrison's knees one day and end his career, even. Thoughts?

Kevin Seifert (2:25 PM)

Based on what Harrison said Tuesday and the way he mocked the league, I don't think he will care one bit. I'm not saying he's planning to do something like that, but it's clear that respect for the league isn't going to be the deciding factor on that.

I understand where this thought is coming from. Rodgers has suffered two concussions this season. The Packers lost both games they occurred in. Rodgers' performance also dipped in the second half of the NFC Championship Game after he absorbed an illegal hit from Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers.

And earlier this week, Harrison was boldly and brashly mocking the NFL's attempt to curb what it deemed his illegal helmet-to-helmet hits. A true cynic would wonder if Harrison might be willing to sacrifice a fine, a penalty or possibly an ejection in order to get Rodgers out of the game.

Here's what Harrison said when asked if the NFL's crackdown had compelled him to change his playing style:

"I changed for maybe a game or two. There were some instances where I would have normally put my face in the fan, so to speak, but I backed out of there. After sitting back, looking at it, it wasn't really conducive to me helping my team out."

I don't know that Harrison is a dirty player. But he is definitely mean, nasty and a little crazy. That aura can have almost the same effect in terms of intimidation. The world will be watching Sunday to see how far he takes it.

XLV: 'Sunday will be our night'

February, 4, 2011
We're nearing the 48-hour mark before Super Bowl XLV.

It's really coming.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers at Cowboys Stadium.

I'm sure you can feel it.

I'm guessing Packers coach Mike McCarthy is starting to feel it, too.

Here's what he said after practice Friday, according to the Pro Football Writers Association pool report:

"We’ve had an opportunity to go over every situation twice for our game plan, so we’re ready to go. The one thing you want to see in your football team is that the players have maintained confidence throughout the process. Our guys have done that. They totally believe what’s in front of them. They believe in what they’ve seen on film. We respect Pittsburgh, but we feel that this is our time and Sunday will be our night."


XLV: Practice report VI

February, 4, 2011
FORT WORTH, Texas -- We've already covered the extent of the Pittsburgh Steelers' injury report, so let's move straight inside the Green Bay Packers' final injury and practice report of the 2010 postseason:

To assuage any concern, it would be "shocking" if receiver Donald Driver (quadriceps) does not play in Super Bowl XLV. That's the exact word coach Mike McCarthy used when asked Friday. He listed Driver as probable on the injury report, despite a second consecutive day of limited practice.

"I would be shocked if Donald Driver does not play Sunday," McCarthy said. "He would practice today if I would let him. He tweaked it in Wednesday's practice, and frankly I just do not want to take any chances at this point. ... Donald's played a lot of football, he knows the offense, he's had a whole week of preparation with the plan last week, so this is clearly just being safe with him."

Meanwhile, McCarthy listed linebacker Erik Walden (ankle) as questionable after another day of limited participation. Frank Zombo would start if Walden can not, but McCarthy said: "We'll take Erik up the game and see what happens. I have a good feel for what he can and cannot do. Sunday, I'm going to trust him and the medical staff to make that call."

The rest of the players on the Packers' injury report -- left tackle Chad Clifton (knees) and offensive lineman Jason Spitz (calf) -- were listed as probable.

XLV: Packers won't face Pouncey

February, 4, 2011
FORT WORTH, Texas -- The most significant injury story of Super Bowl XLV has reached its expected conclusion: The Pittsburgh Steelers have ruled out center Maurkice Pouncey from the game. Backup Doug Legursky will make his fifth NFL start -- but first at center -- on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

(Peter King of Sports Illustrated, the Pro Football Writers Association pool reporter this week for the Steelers, reports the Steelers have also ruled out defensive end Aaron Smith as well.)

There never seemed much doubt about Pouncey's status, but the Steelers delayed their final decision until Pouncey missed his third consecutive practice Friday. Legursky will be left to face Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji, a seeming mismatch, but our friends at Football Outsiders wrote extensively this week about other ways the Packers might attack the situation. Make special note of linebacker Clay Matthews' potential for a delayed blitz between the center and right guard.

"We're preparing for their offense," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Friday. "I don't think their protection schemes or their run concepts are going to change very much based on who's playing center, because Ben Roethlisberger is going to make that offense go. It will not change our approach defensively based on who's playing center."

Earlier this week, we discussed the likelihood that the Pouncey-Legursky discussion would overshadow another potential mismatch that could prove more important to the outcome of the game. Feel free to revisit our discussion on the Steelers' effectiveness when they run behind right tackle Flozell Adams.

IRVING, Texas -- How many times did we shake our collective heads this season as the Green Bay Packers lost another close game?

[+] EnlargeSam Shields
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesSam Shields' interception sealed Green Bay's win in the NFC Championship Game.
How did they outgain the Chicago Bears 379-276 in Week 3 and still lose, 20-17?

What were the chances they would suffer overtime losses in consecutive weeks, to the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins in Week 5 and 6, respectively?

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 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.

XLV: ESPN picks are in

February, 4, 2011
FORT WORTH, Texas -- I know everyone is anxious to know who is picking whom for Super Bowl XLV. Here is your one-stop shopping destination for just about everyone who writes, edits and talks about the NFL for ESPN and My pick is included. Let the shredding begin.

XLV: Chat alert for 2 p.m. ET

February, 4, 2011
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Sorry for the late notice, but I didn't (totally) forget about our weekly SportsNation chat. I'll be heading over there at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the week in Texas, the Green Bay Packers' preparations for Super Bowl XLV and maybe get into a little prognosticating. As always, all questions and topics are welcome. Today's version will be the best 30 minutes we can give you.