Packers Rise Rather Than Wilt

Asked what's gone wrong with his Steelers, Mike Tomlin said his team has not been dominant and has failed to make "significant plays." The Packers haven't been dominant, either, but "significant plays" have been a hallmark. Learn more in this must-read feature.

On Nov. 9, the Pittsburgh Steelers rolled into Denver and laid a 28-10 smackdown on the rampaging Denver Broncos.

One day earlier, the Green Bay Packers wilted under the Florida sun and inexplicably lost to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38-28.

At that point, the Steelers were 6-2, had won five straight by an average margin of 11.8 points and were playing like Super Bowl champions. The Packers were 4-4, had lost two straight by giving up back-to-back scores of 38 points and were playing like a 10-loss team.

Inexplicably, the Steelers haven't won since; the Packers haven't lost since.

What happened? What Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday was incredibly revealing.

"You know, I think first and foremost, we're interested in being dominant, and when we're not, we've got to make timely plays, significant plays to win games," Tomlin said. "And the reality is of late, we haven't done either. We haven't been dominant. And there have been times in the past where we haven't been dominant, but we found ways to make the significant plays at the end of games to secure victories. And really, during this stretch specifically, that hasn't been the case."

Take the opposite side of the coin. The Packers have been dominant at times. Like on defense for the first three quarters against Dallas. Like the first half against San Francisco. Like the first 25 minutes at Chicago. But never have they been dominant on both sides of the ball for a full 60 minutes.

Where the Packers have succeeded is where the Steelers have failed, and that's making those "significant plays" that Tomlin mentioned.

In all five games during this winning streak, the Packers have made huge plays.

— Against Dallas, it was Aaron Rodgers converting two third-and-longs in giving the Packers a 10-0 lead, then Charles Woodson's sack-strip that set up an easy touchdown to make it 17-0.

— Against San Francisco, it was the offense running out the final 6 minutes against the rallying 49ers, with Rodgers hitting Jermichael Finley for 5 yards on third-and-4 and Brandon Jackson breaking tackles to turn second-and-9 into third-and-1.

— Against Detroit, it was Rodgers hitting Donald Driver for 45 yards to jump-start a struggling offense and help the Packers take a 20-7 lead, along with Woodson's second three-turnover performance in three weeks.

— Against Baltimore, it was Tramon Williams' end zone interception in the fourth quarter.

— Against Chicago, it was Nick Collins' tide-turning interception that set up the Packers for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"That's something we talked about today as a team," coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think our No. 1 asset as a football team is overcoming adversity. They don't have statistics for how many times you overcome those particular situations in a game, but I think that's really been a strength of our team, and it's kind of been our battle cry as we move forward. The ability for the individual or the unit to step up at key times in the game, and that's what the bottom line is.

"Sometimes we get caught up in situational football, which is a big part of being successful in the NFL, but making key plays at key times. You always want to be a dominant offense or dominant defense or dominant special teams, and you're always working towards that. But making key plays, the adverse situations in a game, we've been doing a very good job of it, and we need to continue to do that down the stretch."

Succeeding in adverse situations, of course, is something the Packers absolutely couldn't do during their excruciating 6-10 season from a year ago. The season fell apart with a five-game losing streak. They lost the last four games of that skid by a combined 14 points.


Another day, another interception for Charles Woodson
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images
Maybe that season of heartbreak is paying dividends this season. For instance, McCarthy put a bigger emphasis on the two-minute drill during the offseason. This season began with Rodgers hitting Greg Jennings for a 50-yard touchdown with 1:24 remaining and Al Harris' clinching interception as the Packers beat Chicago, and the defense came through in another two-minute situation three months later at Chicago.

"I think it just says that this team believes in each other and has a lot of confidence," Rodgers said as he opened a box of football cards in front of his locker. "Even on Sunday, as frustrating as it was at times, I think we just felt like, ‘We've just got to make one more play.' The defense actually made the play for us, we were able to get that touchdown in there. That's the difference I think in this team and last year's team is last year's team, a lot of times the feeling was, ‘Here we go again.' I think this year's team, we feel like, ‘Hey, let's make one play. Let's get this job done.'"

Would the Packers have won that game last season?

"I don't like to get hypothetical but that was a type of game that we wound up losing last year," Rodgers said. "That type of game where it's back and forth, we're not playing great on offense. Last year, we didn't make the one big play to put us in a position to win the game, but this year, we've made the big interception and we were able to cash that off with a touchdown and we were able to stop them again on defense. It's nice when your defense is playing like that."

Contrast that to this year's Steelers. Their five-game losing streak started with an 18-12 loss to Cincinnati in which the Steelers failed to get even a first down on their final two drives. The Steelers blew late leads and lost in overtime to Kansas City and Baltimore, their offense failing in regulation and in the extra period. Then they allowed three late touchdowns, including the winning score in the final 9 seconds, to lose at home to Oakland. And finally, there was an eight-punt performance in a 13-6 loss to Cleveland on Thursday.

Stunningly, a team that won the Super Bowl with a drive for the ages against Arizona had lost at the wire against the AFC's three worst teams as well as a pair of division rivals.

"We're just as stunned," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said in his conference call. "We feel there's a good group and good leaders and, you know what, sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way, you're not playing your best football. Whatever it is, it just seems to be happening to us."

It happened to the Packers last year, and they spent the playoffs on their couch. Now, with a win at Pittsburgh and a little help, this suddenly clutch team will find itself in the postseason.

"I think in the back of all of our minds, we realize what's in front of us and the opportunity," Rodgers said, with the preface that this team isn't looking ahead. "It's why you spend all of those hours in the offseason training and you show up here in March and put the time in as a team is to play for that second season. Anything can happen, but we know we have to get there first."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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