GREEN BAY PACKERS
Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on Feb. 6 will be hyped as an old-school matchup between two of the league's longstanding franchises, the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Yet, Green Bay's stunning advancement to sports' biggest game for the first time in 13 years has a youthful flavor.
Cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, nose tackle B.J. Raji and running back James Starks have made names for themselves in the postseason, during which the Packers won three straight games on the road as the No. 6 seed.
"It's a tough road, but we just always believed in ourselves that if we had the opportunity to get into the playoffs that it didn't matter which way we had to go, we felt confident that we could get it done," cornerback Charles Woodson said after the Packers hung on for a 21-14 win at the Chicago Bears in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
Woodson, 34, one of only eight 30-year-olds on the team, has excitedly watched position mates Williams and Shields come of age to help spark a stingy defense that overcame the loss of 10 players (three starters) to injured reserve.
Williams, a fourth-year player in his first full season as a starter, had a team-high six interceptions in the regular season and followed with three picks in the first two games of the playoffs.
Shields, an undrafted rookie who had only one year of experience on defense in college at Miami, rose to the occasion Sunday with two interceptions. His second pick came in the final minute deep in Packers territory on fourth down to foil Chicago's bid to try to tie the score with third-stringer Caleb Hanie at quarterback.
"I think he's playing some of his best football now," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of Shields, "just like we've seen Tramon grow."
Raji, a first-round draft pick in 2009 along with star linebacker Clay Matthews, has been a starter since Day 1 this season and performed at what many felt was a Pro Bowl-worthy level with 6.5 sacks in the regular season.
The 337-pound Raji didn't get picked for Sunday's all-star game in Hawaii. Yet, he did his part to make sure the six Packers on the NFC roster won't be making that trip and will instead be Dallas-bound for the Super Bowl by picking off a Hanie pass and returning it 18 yards for a touchdown, the deciding points in a frenetic fourth quarter.
"We were 8-6, and we've had to win five, really, elimination games (in a row)," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "I think that just makes it that much sweeter - happy to win those five but also doing it with a lot of guys we didn't really count on at the beginning of the season."
LINEUP WATCH: Since returning at the outset of the playoffs after missing four straight games because of a nagging calf injury, right end Cullen Jenkins hasn't made an official start.
The coaches have been vigilant about keeping Jenkins fresh and getting the most out of him while limiting his participation to about 50 percent of the opponent's snaps, primarily in passing situations. After being stricken with the flu just days earlier, Jenkins responded in a big way Sunday, registering a half-sack, two quarterback hits and two tackles for loss.
Howard Green has been credited with the start at right end the last two games as the Packers opened with their 1,000-pound three-man line of Green, nose tackle B.J. Raji and left end Ryan Pickett.
BY THE NUMBERS: 2 - Players on Green Bay's 53-man roster who have previously played in a Super Bowl - defensive end Ryan Pickett with the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002 and cornerback Charles Woodson with the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003.
Considering last year's 7-9 finish and the turnover among assistant coaches in the offseason, players said the just-completed 12-6 season was a successful one, even though they fell one game short of the Super Bowl.
But it might take awhile before they can fully appreciate it.
"After tonight it will be a successful season," tight end Greg Olsen said after the game. "Right now, it's hard to really say it was successful, when you lose like that, when you're that close to being in the Super Bowl.
"It's definitely a tough one to swallow here at home. I know our fans were really counting on this one, as were we. It's disappointing, but I think a week from now we can look back and say for a young team we made a lot of progress, and let's come back next year and try to make it that next step."
Despite trailing 14-0 at halftime and being outgained 252-103, including 104-38 on the ground, the Bears battled back in the second half. The Packers' only points came on an interception return, and the Bears outgained them 198-104.
"There's a lot of disappointment in the locker room," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But we feel like we made progress with our program this year and eventually we'll put that ring on."
Expectations were low for the Bears back when training camp started in late July, based on three consecutive seasons without a playoff game. But with an NFC North championship and a 12-6 record, they achieved most of their goals.
"I don't think we can hang our heads because we went above and beyond what people think we should have done," cornerback Charles Tillman said. "There's only going to be one team that ends the (postseason) with a win, and that's the team that wins the Super Bowl."
What went right: The Bears played great defense for most of the season, which was especially evident in three games against the Packers, in which Green Bay's offense scored a total of 41 points. After bending in the first half of Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the defense blanked the Packers in the second half, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a 55.4 passer rating. The defense was especially tough against the run, and it forced 35 turnovers. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and defensive end Julius Peppers all were voted to the Pro Bowl.
The offense also made strides, as an offensive line that was bad to begin with improved enough to be considered average by the end of the season. Matt Forte established himself as one of the league's better all-around running backs. Quarterback Jay Cutler played much better than he did in his first season as a Bear.
What went wrong: The Bears are still an inconsistent team when it comes to throwing the ball. Devin Hester probably plateaued as a receiver and, while Johnny Knox took another big step in his second NFL season, he occasionally disappears. The offensive line, while improved, is still probably the weakest link on the team, and young players must be groomed behind 13-year veteran center Olin Kreutz and 10-year guard Roberto Garza. That unit was improved in run-blocking, but it did a poor job of protecting Cutler, who also showed a tendency to hold on to the ball too long.
"There was no decision at all," coach Lovie Smith said. "He was injured. He was hurt and he couldn't go. The trainers and doctors . . . made that decision."