That’s a basic illustration of how momentum can swing in a football game, and swing significantly. It happens all the time. With all the emotions and passion tied up in a Super Bowl, the shifts in momentum become that much more intense. They can feel seismic.
The above scenario sounds generic but it isn’t just made up. It actually happened in a Super Bowl. The last time the Packers won a Super Bowl, in fact, and it all happened in just the first half.
In Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans, the Packers actually squandered their early lead and trailed at one point before pulling out their historic 35-21 triumph. The Patriots wiped out the early 10-0 deficit with two touchdown drives of 79 and 57 yards. The Packers responded with a then-Super Bowl record 81-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman to regain the lead, and the momentum, stretching their advantage to 27-14 at halftime.
But there was still one more storm to weather. The Patriots drove 53 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter to pull within 27-21 and needed one more defensive stop to potentially turn the game their way again.
That’s of course when Desmond Howard returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for what turned out to be the championship-clinching score, and the Packers rode that final surge of momentum on defense as Reggie White got two of his Super Bowl record three sacks on New England’s next possession, finally securing victory.
Over time, all the ups and downs in a big win like the Super Bowl can fade from memory, but it’s often the team that best handles the emotional roller coaster a Super Bowl inevitably brings that emerges on top. That’s a message the Packers are taking to heart this week – “handling success” and “handling adversity” in Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s words – as they prepare for the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in 13 years.
“You know you’re on center stage right now, and everything is so extreme, you have to try to contain your emotions a little bit,” defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. “If something’s not going your way at first, you can’t put too much into it. You have to keep going, keep following the process. If things start going really good, it’s the same way. You can’t get too excited or think that you’re there. You just have to keep playing.”
The Packers’ opponent in Super Bowl XLV, the Pittsburgh Steelers, knows all about that.
Two years ago, Pittsburgh was seemingly in control of Super Bowl XLIII against Arizona with a 20-7 lead in the final period. But the Cardinals got a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, followed by a safety with just under three minutes left and then a 64-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald on the second snap of the ensuing drive for a stunning 23-20 lead with 2:37 to go.
But Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t flinch in the wake of the huge momentum swing, and he drove Pittsburgh 78 yards for the winning touchdown, a 6-yard pass to Santonio Holmes, with 35 seconds left.
That’s all the evidence the Packers need that the Steelers won’t be bothered by anything that might happen to them, early or late. If you’re the Packers, you have to go into this game expecting just as much to go for you as against you, and not let the emotional toll that can take to allow the Steelers to create a legitimate advantage with their Super Bowl experience, now that they’re in this game for the third time in six years.
“You don’t want to hope or wish that, but it’s football,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “They get paid too. There’s a reason they’re here. They’re professional football players too. We know ‘Big Ben’ is going to make a couple plays, but we have to fight through that, we have to play through that, and at the end we just have to make sure it’s not enough for them to win the game.”
Even without the Super Bowl experience, the Packers are confident they can handle the momentum swings because they’ve done so exceedingly well throughout the season. There’s no better proof of that than the fact that the Packers haven’t trailed an opponent by more than seven points all year, the first team in the league since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to accomplish that.
That statistic clearly indicates they’ve never let a momentum swing that’s going the wrong way get out of hand. For example:
--When the Giants scored two straight touchdowns in Week 16 to wipe out an early 14-0 deficit, the second coming on an 85-yard touchdown pass that quieted Lambeau Field a bit, the Packers responded immediately with a 79-yard TD drive to regain the lead for good.
--When the Falcons took a pair of early seven-point leads in the NFC Divisional playoffs, including once on a 102-yard kickoff return, the Packers answered right away with a tying scoring drive each time, never letting Atlanta get the ball back with a chance to extend the advantage.
That’s been one of the stories of this season. Guard Daryn Colledge pointed to the two recent games against the Chicago Bears – to end the regular season and in the NFC Championship – as additional instances of handling the turns in the tide.
“For us those were ones where we probably didn’t play the football we wanted to play, a rivalry game like that, but we found a way to win,” Colledge said. “We look back on those games as important. We can win games that we’ve got to muscle out.
“Especially in a playoff situation, anything like that, there’s those swings, those ups and downs. But we have to respond to that stuff. When you’re facing the No. 1 defense in the NFL and you’re facing an offense as talented as the Steelers, it’s not all going to go your way. That’s just how the game works, and we hope it doesn’t go all their way on Sunday. We’re going to find a way to adapt to those and bounce back.”
But could the Packers’ ability to stay within seven points of every opponent potentially work against them? If the Steelers get ahead by 10 or 14, Green Bay will suddenly be facing a deficit it hasn’t faced all season long.
The game itself will bear that out one way or the other. But most of this year’s team also battled through that Wild Card playoff game in Arizona last year, when the Packers trailed 17-0 at the start and 31-10 midway through the third quarter. Yet they found a way to come back, tying the game twice in the fourth quarter and eventually going to overtime.
So there’s that high-pressure, high-stakes experience to draw upon if they hit a major rough patch on Sunday.
“It’s about having faith in the guys you’re around and the team that you’re on,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “I have 100 percent full confidence given that situation we would fight and crawl back out of it. When you know the kind of guys you’re playing with, then no matter what the obstacle is, it’s surmountable with the players we have.”
Either way, whether the ups and downs are big or small, it’s how the Packers handle them that could determine their Super Bowl fate.
“We haven’t been down more than seven points the whole season, so we haven’t really experienced the full throttle of it,” Bishop said. “But I think with the guys on this team and the resiliency we have, it wouldn’t really matter. Guys are going to fight for four quarters, ride the waves of momentum, and try to get a win when the clock reads zero-zero-zero.”
Additional coverage - Feb. 2