The last team to beat the Green Bay Packers this season? Your New England Patriots. And it's going to stay that way.
The Packers will honor the legacy of Vince Lombardi, make Green Bay "Titletown" once more and protect the Patriots' place in pro football lore by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday in North Dakota, er, North Texas. I picked the Packers to advance to the Super Bowl in the preseason, but I wasn't fully on board the Green Bay bandwagon until they came to Foxborough on Dec. 19 and, minus Aaron Rodgers, took the Patriots to the wire.
The old aphorism goes that there is no such thing as a moral victory, but the Packers got so much more out of their trip to Foxborough. Much like the Giants gained the confidence and the resolve to become Super Bowl champions by hanging tough with the Patriots in the 2007 season finale, Green Bay found its championship chops on a cold and cloudy night December night in New England.
Remember at the time the Patriots were coming off back-to-back thumpings of the Jets (45-3) and the Bears (36-7). Both of those contests, if you can call such lopsided affairs as much, were over faster than you could say Belichick. The Patriots enjoyed a 24-3 lead on the Jets and a 33-0 halftime advantage over Chicago. Dating back to the second half of the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions, the Patriots had outscored their opponents by almost 100 points (116-17) in the last 10 quarters leading up to the Packers tilt.
The presumption in most precincts was that poor NBC was stuck with a dud of a Sunday Night game because Rodgers, injured the week before in a loss to the Lions, was out, and the Packers didn't have a frozen tundra's chance in Hades of beating the potent Patriots with backup QB Matt Flynn. The Packers were merely more fodder for Bill Belichick's wood-chipper of a team.
Then a funny thing happened. The Packers went out without their franchise quarterback and second-leading sack specialist, defensive end in Cullen Jenkins, and outplayed the Patriots for four quarters. They may have even won if coach Mike McCarthy or Flynn grasped the concept of time management.
Long before the Patriots' infamous fourth-quarter drive against the Jets in the playoffs, the Packers authored a drive to nowhere, burning off the final 4:22. The Patriots won the game, 31-27, thanks in part to the Packers bumbling final drive, a Flynn interception that was returned for a touchdown and Dan Connolly's memorable 71-yard kickoff return just before halftime, which set up a score.
"We expected to win in this locker room, a lot of people didn't give us a chance," said Green Bay safety Charlie Peprah afterward. "We felt we matched up real well with them. We expected to win this game. We had it, and we let it slip away. It hurts."
The Packers left Gillette with hurt feelings and with their playoff hopes on life-support, but also convinced they were the better team and a better team than their 8-6 record.
That was not a Lambeau Leap of logic. The Packers had more first downs (26 to 14), more yards (369 to 249), almost twice as many plays (80 to 43) and an outrageous time of possession edge (40:48 to 19:12) against the undisputed best team in football at the time.
Stats may be for losers, but in this case they'll also be for Lombardi Trophy winners because Green Bay's performance that night was a precursor to their Super Bowl run. Since that game the Packers have reeled off five straight wins in five straight must-win situations.
If you're looking for a team to root for in this Super Bowl pull for the Packers. Green Bay plays a style reminiscent of the vintage Patriots teams of 2003 and 2004. Those were teams that could beat you playing their style or yours or any in between.
The Packers, who have the No. 2 scoring defense in the league and the No. 9 scoring offense (based solely on offensive points scored), are a similarly adaptable bunch.
One week they beat the Jets, 9-0. The next they come back and blow out the Cowboys, 45-7. After losing to the Patriots, they exploded for 45 points against the Giants and the next week won a tense defensive struggle, 10-3, against the Bears to punch their ticket to the postseason.
In the playoffs, the defense saved the day against the Eagles with Tramon Williams's interception. Then Rodgers dismantled the Falcons' defense, powering the Packers to 48 points and 442 yards of offense. Last week in the NFC title game, the winning points came from B.J. Raji's interception return for a score.
The Packers ability and versatility is epitomized by the fact that Williams leads the NFL in postseason picks with three. On the other side of the ball wide receiver Greg Jennings leads all receivers with 17 catches and 239 yards.
Among all the crazy stats that get thrown out during Super Bowl week this one stands out -- the Packers have not trailed by more than seven points in any game this season.
That is with a roster that have been ravaged by injuries and lost a league-high 15 players to injured reserve. That is another trait these Packers share with their Patriot predecessors. The Patriots were renowned for their ability to build a deep roster and plug in players at will to overcome injuries. It became the Patriot Way.
It's Green Bay's way too. The Pack lost Pro Bowl-caliber performers like running back Ryan Grant, who was coming of back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons, linebacker Nick Barnett, dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley and starting right tackle Mark Tauscher for the season.
The Packers have the Patriots to thank for their Super Bowl trip. They couldn't have made it without them.
It's just a shame the Patriots weren't there to meet them.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.