Packers a different team than one that lost to Steelers last year

DALLAS - We've heard all week that the Packers' inexperience on such a big stage -- at least as compared to the seasoned Steelers -- could be problematic Sunday when the hype of Super Bowl XLV actually becomes reality. In theory, it makes sense. However, Green Bay has taken supposed question marks and wiped its feet on them en route to the franchise's fifth Super Bowl appearance.

» Quarterback Aaron Rodgers' inability to win in the playoffs? History. He's now got three postseason victories -- all on the road, at that.

» The absent running game? It's now in place. James Starks, John Kuhn and Brandon Jackson have given the Packers enough of a presence to generate balance and give the offense options. Starks, the rookie who didn't even play until the end of the season, hasn't shown any sign of withering under the spotlight either -- and he's fresher than any running back in this game.

» The injuries that forced a revolving door of linebackers and defensive backs created opportunities for Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Desmond Bishop and even Charlie Peprah to make names for themselves.

» Green Bay also has learned from its recent past. In an early season loss to Chicago, it had 18 penalties. In two meetings after that -- including the NFC title game -- miscues were minimized and it emerged victorious. The Pack also beat Atlanta in the playoffs after losing to the Falcons in the regular season.

For these Packers, history tends not to repeat itself -- and that's important in this matchup with the Steelers. In 2009, Pittsburgh rallied to defeat Green Bay, 37-36, in an unexpected shootout of teams with exceptional defenses. Much has been made of that outcome this week because Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 503 yards and three touchdowns and Pittsburgh seems to be even more dangerous offensively now.

What's been said -- by Packers coach Mike McCarthy and his staff -- is that this team is vastly different. It's a team that has remained true to its motivation and character and only gotten better, especially in the playoffs.

While the Packers have improved, McCarthy acknowledges the Steelers have an edge in handling the comings and goings leading up to the game because of their Super Bowl experience.

"We're really focusing it on keeping it between the lines," McCarthy said earlier this week. "The advantage Pittsburgh has over us, in my opinion, is today through Saturday. We'll continue to work and educate our football team. They are a dedicated and focused bunch so I'm not really concerned about it."

McCarthy went on to add: "The message isn't done today. When I get into messaging, especially before the game, all the things that happen during the course of the week are tied into that message. I have the theme and the topic in mind, but I've been working on it for quite some time. It's important to let the week's work play into that."

Since his team was put in must-win mode in Week 16, McCarthy has been consistent in what he's told his team and his words have been well-heeded. Stay true to preparation and the focus of what got you to this point, McCarthy and his staff have preached.

As for the last season's meeting with the Steelers, the defensive staff showed players a handful of video cut-ups of big plays that were allowed. This is a vastly different team than that one, with the Packers not surrendering many big plays in the passing game and using the combination of linebacker Desmond Bishop, cornerback Charles Woodson and safety Nick Collins to limit productivity of opposing tight ends.

That evolution and change in personnel on defense is why so little has been mentioned about last season and the conversation has been about the current momentum.

"We have 16 quarters in this whole playoff deal. We have 12 down and four more to go," linebacker Clay Matthews said about the Packers' well-recited philosophy. "That's how we've been taking it. That's kind of been our theme through each and every week of the playoffs. We've been playing in a playoff-like atmosphere, a win-or-go-home mentality for five weeks. We have a very good opportunity in front of us. Four more quarters and the season is over, win or lose. So, we're going to go out there swinging and give it our best shot."

Added assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Winston Moss: "Guys stepped up and have come together. It speaks for itself. We earned the right to be here. If you look around, you see a very confident football team with very confident players. We are going to go into that game with the right type of mindset."

What's mostly been stressed in the defensive meeting rooms this week is that when they get to Roethlisberger -- and they do feel they will get to him -- they've got to take him down. As much as they've limited mobile quarterbacks of late like Michael Vick and Jay Cutler, Roethlisberger is a special player, particularly once he extends plays.

"One thing about him that you can't really (describe), it's nothing physical, is just his fearlessness in the pocket," Bishop said. "When you can get a quarterback that's fearless when pressure is coming and still has the ability to escape and make plays, it's tough to guard."

Offensively, they've scouted plenty of the Steelers' defensive film and spent a chunk of practice last week in Green Bay working first-team vs. first-team -- something rarely done at any point of the season -- because the Packers' defense is so similar to Pittsburgh's. It can't be overlooked that during Green Bay's five-game winning streak, all its victories came against 4-3 defensive fronts.

The Packers haven't faced a 3-4 front like the Steelers' since losing in Week 15 to New England. Rodgers didn't play in that game because of a concussion, so this will be his first action against a 3-4 since a 34-16 win over San Francisco Dec. 5.

"It's really a great image of what we are going to get on game day," Wide receiver Greg Jennings said. "We were able to go out there and run our 2-minute offense against our scheme, so it's kind of presenting the same thing that we may see on the field."

Green Bay also watched film of Arizona's offense against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. In conversations with members of the Packers, it's clear the game plan is to use four- and five-receiver sets to spread Pittsburgh out, try to get outside linebackers James Harrison and/or LaMarr Woodley into some coverages and, most importantly, keep safety Troy Polamalu away from the line of scrimmage. The Packers feel that when Polamalu is near the line of scrimmage, he is not only disruptive in the passing and running games, but he also makes it far more difficult to decipher what Pittsburgh is doing schematically.

"The bottom line is execution within those personnel groups," McCarthy said of his team. "It's really something that they'll be prepared for. We played Pittsburgh last year, so it's nothing new to them. A lot of teams do it, but we do it with good reason and there's information that you're looking for within substitutions, and matchups are also a factor. That's just how we play."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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