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Packers take road less traveled to Super Bowl XLV

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CHICAGO -- Over the last five weeks, here is the damage the Green Bay Packers have left in their wake en route to reaching Super Bowl XLV in Dallas:

» They eliminated the Giants from the playoffs by beating them in Week 16, and then defeated Chicago in the regular-season finale. That victory over the Bears allowed the Packers into the playoffs and, as it turns out, made Chicago regretful it didn't close the door on Green Bay when it had the chance.

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» As the No. 6 and final seed in the NFC, the Packers went to third-seeded Philadelphia and knocked off the third-seeded Eagles, winners of the NFC East.

» They next went into Atlanta and hammered the top-seeded Falcons to make Atlanta's NFC-best 13-3 regular season barely seem like a consolation prize.

» On Sunday, they upended their hated division rival, Chicago, to get to the Super Bowl. In beating the Bears for the second time in three meetings this season, the Packers knocked Jay Cutler out of the game and made an entire city -- and many players around the league -- question their quarterback's toughness at gut-check time.

Green Bay's march has been marauding at its most precise. The team many projected in the preseason to be in the Super Bowl will face Pittsburgh in the big game brimming with confidence that they can't be stopped. Unlike the Steelers, who won two home playoff games, Green Bay has clicked off three straight road victories, matching their regular-season win total away from Lambeau Field.

"We rolled all the way down the road, the good thing about it, we're still on the road. We're going to Dallas," said veteran wide receiver Donald Driver, who will be playing in the first Super Bowl of his 12-year career.

Though Driver was referring to the Packers having to play away from home in the playoffs, he could have also been talking about the overall road Green Bay has traveled this season. It's been a hard road, but they're one of two teams still on it.

Jeff Hanisch / US Presswire
While three previous teams have won three road postseason games, the Packers are the first No. 6 seed to advance to the Super Bowl through the NFC playoffs.
Three road playoff wins in single postseason
Team
Wild card
Divisional
Conf. champ.
2010 Packers
2007 Giants*
2005 Steelers*
1985 Patriots
at Jets
at Raiders
* Won Super Bowl

Players and coaches say it's been a galvanization of an internal fiber that's allowed the Packers not to veer so far outside the lines that they couldn't regain their traction.

They never got blown out. They were in every game, losing by no more than four points all season. Every team has at least one stink job on its schedule (even Pittsburgh had two double-digit losses), but the Packers never did. Yet, they lost more games -- six -- than all of the teams they've vanquished, except the Giants (10-6 record), during this torrid five-game run they're on.

Those are losses they're hardly regretting now. Had they not had to fight to get into the playoffs and then dig even deeper to win on the road, they might not be where they are, Driver said.

Earlier this week, Driver said this team was better than the 13-3, NFC North championship team in 2007. That team was stacked with talent and victory was assumed, but not like in a way where they felt invincible, like they do now.

Instead, that team felt it could roll out the helmets and cleats and win. Some players and coaches said this week that in the 2007 NFC Championship overtime loss to the Giants, Green Bay felt all it had to do was break a sweat and it was on to face the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Giants, who'd lost to Green Bay already, were hot, working their way from a wild-card berth to get to that conference championship game.

They had no fear because they'd battled and overcome, and had to earn everything on the road.

Sound familiar?

Ironically, these Packers took on the persona of those Giants, according to some with the current team. Those who were around for that painful loss to New York summoned that experience -- from the other point of view -- to get where that team didn't.

Veterans, like Driver, who sensed this team was more focused, pushed younger players to make plays, mainly through example. Sunday against the Bears, it was second-year nose tackle B.J. Raji who came up with the decisive interception return for a touchdown and rookie Sam Shields who sealed the victory with a late interception.

Both of those plays came against Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie, a third-year player who was forced into action because of a knee injury to Cutler and ineffectiveness by backup Todd Collins. Although Hanie valiantly led Chicago to two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, he faltered when it mattered most. Green Bay's young guys didn't because they'd already been battle-tested.

The Packers either trusted or were forced to use their young players for much of the season, and that experience paid off.

"The more you play, generally, the better you become," Raji said. "I have great guys around me, encouraging me, great coaches. How can I not get better?"

Green Bay has something going, the players know it and so do their coaches. This is where coach Mike McCarthy finally gets his due. He's managed to find his team's identity by sorting through a cornucopia of issues, namely injuries that have landed 15 players on injured reserve, and get players to believe in what and who they are.

Some teams, like the Steelers, are a rugged defensive team with a tough, clutch quarterback. The identity has been defined for years. Green Bay is a team of will. They have the hottest quarterback in the NFL and a punishing defense of their own, but McCarthy got them to believe that no element was more important than desire.

It's hard to fully capture what that means unless you are around it, but it's amassed into a feeling where one coach told me before Sunday's victory over Chicago that the Bears would have to come up with an "extraordinary effort" to win. Not because the Packers were better or had some magic scheme, but because extraordinary effort is what they've learned on this recent run.

That effort was best exemplified by Rodgers against the Bears, and not by what he did with his arm or legs but with his touchdown-saving tackle of Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher in the third quarter. Urlacher picked Rodgers off at the Bears 6-yard line on a pass attempt that could have put Green Bay up 21-0. Urlacher only had Rodgers to beat to turn the tide of the game, but Rodgers stopped him on the Chicago 45.

The Packers forced Chicago to punt on the ensuing series and stemmed the potential swing.

"Adverse situations were a major emphasis for our football team," McCarthy said. "Time and time again we've been stepping it up throughout the season. It definitely happened here today and that's why we're moving on to Dallas."

Added Rodgers: "I don't get paid to tackle but that was probably one of my better plays of the day."

The next challenge Green Bay will face might sound simple -- keeping up that momentum with the extra week off before Super Bowl XLV. But it's something to consider: Since their bye week on Nov. 14, the Packers have played 10 consecutive games with no layoff, going 7-3, including their current five-game winning streak. Driver briefly processed that, then reflected on the dozens of more pressing things the team has worked through and dismissed that scenario as an obstacle.

"We believe, we all believe in something," he said. "We're hot and when you're hot it's hard to stop this team. We got four more quarters to put that ring on our finger and we're ready to do it."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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