Sometimes the Super Bowl isn't won on the big touchdown pass. Sometimes it's won on a third-and-ten in your own territory, with your defense falling apart, your lineman struggling to hold up, and your wide receivers dropping passes.
It looked like Super Bowl XLV was slipping away from the Packers when Aaron Rodgers
dropped back to pass from his own 25-yard line with just under six minutes left. The Steelers had cut an 18-point lead to only a field goal. It felt like the Packers were holding on for dear life.
Rodgers looked to his top receiver Greg Jennings
right away. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor
stayed close to Jennings and cut in front of him, but Rodgers threw to Jennings up the seam anyway. It was the type of throw Rodgers made all night. Teammate Donald Driver
called it a "cocky throw."
Rodgers stuck the throw in a six-inch window past Taylor's out-stretched fingers, catching Jennings in stride. The play extended the drive nearly five more minutes before the Packers kicked a field goal to finish the scoring on the night at Packers 31, Steelers 25.
"I told Aaron before we started that drive: 'This is where legacies are made. This is the time to be great,'" Jennings told NBCSports.com.
"Let's make it happen," Rodgers responded.
"A-Rod came in the huddle and told us 'We've been here before. Yeah, it's the Super Bowl, but we've been in this situation before,' receiver James Jones
said. "Story of our season."
Rodgers' stats were fantastic – 304 yards and three scores on 39 attempts – but those stats don't mention the five passes Green Bay receivers dropped. The stats don't measure degree of difficulty.
The legend of Rodgers' performance Sunday night against the best defense in football will grow in the coming days and years because he completed passes to receivers that weren't really open. Rodgers' decision-making and ability to manipulate defenses has vastly improved, but this wasn't a clinical dissection like we've seen from Drew Brees
and Peyton Manning
Green Bay's win was more about incredible talent rising on the biggest of stages.
Three throws defined the game. Rodgers' third-down strike to Jennings was the finishing touch, but Rodgers' two first-half touchdown tosses set the foundation.
The first score of the game showed Rodgers was going to play aggressive in the biggest game of his life. It was a third-and-one call from the 29-yard line. Give coach Mike McCarthy credit for calling a pass. Give Rodgers credit for lofting a perfect toss to Jordy Nelson
"The one to Jordy was an adjustment," Rodgers said. "I haven't really thrown to him in that progression. I liked the matchup and he made a great catch."
Rodgers picked on Steelers cornerback William Gay
, who had just entered the game because of injury. Just as important, Rodgers wasn't afraid to go back to Nelson despite Nelson's drop on a similar route on the previous drive.
Nelson said the play was supposed to be a screen. But Gay played tight man coverage before the snap and that caused Rodgers to change plans.
"I lined up and they came up and bumped me and Aaron gave me the signal," Nelson recalled. "I had the same route, but it was more a signal. 'I am going to alert you if you are open and I am going to throw it you."
Once again, there wasn't much separation between receiver and defender. But Rodgers timed the throw with enough loft to surprise Gay, letting Nelson use his toughness to get the ball.
Rodgers is known for his fastball, but it's his ability to throw in offspeed throws with accuracy that sets him apart. The play was a combination of smarts and skill. McCarthy said he told Rodgers at one point to "be smart so I can keep my foot on the gas."
While the Nelson score required touch, Rodgers needed all of his arm strength on his 21-yard touchdown to Greg Jennings
late in the second quarter.
The score was 14-3, and the Packers had just intercepted Ben Roethlisberger
for a second time.
Green Bay quickly moved the ball to Pittsburgh's 21-yard line, where Rodgers had first down with 2:41 left in the half.
Rodgers got a nice pocket, like he did for much of the night. Jennings ran by linebacker James Farrior
's underneath zone coverage. Rodgers threaded the needle between Steelers safety Ryan Clark
– who dove and nearly tipped the pass – and Troy Polamalu
, who was a step late. (Like he was most of the night.)
Polamalu hammered Jennings after the catch, but Jennings held on.
"There was no taking that ball from me . . . but he caught me pretty good," Jennings said after the game.
The Packers offense survived four three-and-outs because they capitalized on Pittsburgh's mistakes, scoring 21 points off turnovers. The throw to Jennings at the end of the second quarter was one most quarterbacks wouldn't make.
"I've seen a lot of those throws over the years," G.M. Ted Thompson said in the post-game locker room. "But I'm no different than the fans. I can't clap because I'm in the press box but . . ."
At this point, the famously unexpressive Thompson demonstrated the kind of face he makes when Rodgers makes one of his daredevil throws. I'd describe it as a mix of anxiety and sheer terror. A lot of scrunching going on.
Then relief. Rodgers somehow completes the pass.
"Then [I think] that was nice," Thompson said with a smile.
Green Bay's fourth Super Bowl brought joy and changed the lives of so many on Sunday. Thompson's vision building the roster was realized. McCarthy deserves to be recognized as one of the game's best-playcallers. Unknown defenders from Frank Zombo
to Charlie Peprah
made big plays, while former Packers fan punching bag Jarrett Bush
picked off a pass.
Ultimately, however, Rodgers' ability to complete the type of throw that makes a proud general manager wince and then smile was the difference in Super Bowl XLV.