One more time, Packers forced to overcome injuries to prevail

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson stood up to address his teammates at halftime of Sunday's Super Bowl. The grisled veteran, like fellow old-timer, wide receiver Donald Driver, got hurt in the first half. He knew he was done for the game.

"I don't even think I made it 10 (seconds) before the tears started to roll," he said, his left arm in a sling from a broken collarbone that didn't let him finish his first Super Bowl victory in 13 seasons, a 31-25 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers. "The guys understood where I was coming from and what it means for me to be in that position. My hat goes off to those guys to go out there and complete the deal."

Several of Woodson's teammates said they broke down when he teared up.

Said nose tackle B.J. Raji: "To see a great man like that struggle, to be out of words, you know how much it means to him. To not be able to play, that just motivated us to win it for him. He's been leading us all season."

Woodson, 34, had been the constant on a 10-6 wild-card team that underwent an abundance of injuries. His veteran presence was especially important for the secondary, where he had to cover for so many fill-ins' deficiencies and nurture them along the way. He would finish the biggest game of the season on the sideline in sweats, with the eye black he put on before kickoff still sporting the tracks of his tears.

And the Packers had to fend of Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers without him.

They buckled a little bit, with bottom-of-the-depth-chart players like Jarrett Bush, Charlie Peprah and Pat Lee joining cornerback Tramon Williams, safety Nick Collins and rookie Sam Shields -- Shields and Collins also left briefly with injuries -- trying to survive without Woodson.

But they then found their footing and held when they had to, just like they did in the last series against Philadelphia in the wild-card round and in the NFC Championship Game against the Bears.

The Packers had been here before. It took them a perilous few minutes to draw from experience -- the Steelers pulled to 21-17 after being down 21-3 -- but they eventually came up with a series of key stops. They caused a pair of negative plays for the Steelers that resulted in a missed 52-yard field goal from Scott Suisham, caused and recovered a fumble by Rashard Mendenhall and forced a fourth-down incompletion in the final minute to make the Packers -- the sixth and final seed in the NFC -- NFL champions.

"We've had some adversity," Matthews said. "We've had to fight through it all season. It was no different today. We had some key contributors go down. The young guys stepped up. The playmakers on this team continued to take their game to a whole other level. I think that's why we're sitting here as world champions."

As Packers players celebrated with their families amid falling confetti at Cowboys Stadium, you realized this might be one of the least star-studded teams in the NFL. There is quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver Greg Jennings, as well as Matthews and Woodson, but then there was tight end Andrew Quarless, who filled in for Jermichael Finley; tailback James Starks, who took over for Ryan Grant; wide receiver Brett Swain, who had to step in during the Super Bowl for Driver, whose first Super Bowl ended with an ankle injury.

Rookie outside linebacker Frank Zombo hadn't played in seven weeks, but an ankle sprain to starter Erik Walden, who was signed off the street in October when injuries wiped out some outside linebackers, forced him to start and he came up with five tackles, a sack and two tackles for losses.

There were so many players that you wouldn't recognize even if they were walking down the streets of Green Bay, where barely anyone who's ever suited up to play at Lambeau Field isn't immortalized in some way. With 16 players on injured reserve, the Packers defined the term "depth chart."

So much of the praise has to go to general manager Ted Thompson and his staff for finding players who not only could step in, but players who were willing to be coached and meet the standards that players like Woodson, Driver and Aaron Rodgers demanded. Coach Mike McCarthy has a staff that never felt sorry for the players they were entrusted to coach up and each man enhanced his profile by taking players like Shields -- an undrafted rookie -- and turning them into good players.

The travails of the season -- particularly when Green Bay had to win its final two games of the regular season just to make the playoffs -- solidified the core of this team.

"I've said this over and over, a team is something very, very special and a championship team that goes through all the things that this one went through is remarkably special," Thompson said.

They wouldn't have gotten here without veterans like Woodson, though. Early in the season, coaches noticed a change in him when he took Shields and Williams aside and worked with them on their preparation. They wanted to come watch film with him on Tuesdays, their off days, so they wouldn't let him down. Coaches said when they saw Woodson do this, something he didn't always do in the past, they knew the culture was changing.

Woodson, who lost in his only other Super Bowl appearance when he was with Oakland following the 2002 season, was paying it forward. Unlike a lot of veterans who are afraid to reach down and help younger players -- behavior former Packers quarterback Brett Favre displayed toward Rodgers -- Woodson didn't feel threatened. At least not anymore. He was coming off winning the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year and he saw the unrefined talent of some of his teammates.

They wanted to play for him because he played for them. Shields, who injured his shoulder against the Steelers, forced his way back into the game in the third quarter, even though he said doctors were skeptical about putting him back in. Collins had to take IVs at halftime because of dehydration, but he said there was no way he wasn't going to finish.

By doing what he did all season, he helped them be ready during the Super Bowl when he couldn't even say what he wanted to at halftime. He didn't have to. They saw when he dove to break up a deep ball in the second quarter when he injured his shoulder. They heard him groan when his collarbone snapped. Then they saw him stay on the field for another play.

His actions spoke much louder than his words -- and so did his teammates'.

And for the record; this isn't Woodson's last game.

"Forget about it," Woodson said about retiring. "I really feel like with the guys that we have and with Aaron Rodgers at the helm, we can be in the same position next year."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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