“If you look at the playoffs and these Super Bowl games, the things that affect them the most are the takeaway/giveaway (ratio),” Capers said. “That had a big impact on this game.”
Did it ever. Not only did the Packers win the turnover battle 3-0 in Super Bowl XLV against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they converted all three of their takeaways into touchdowns in the 31-25 triumph.
“In a big game like this, if you can find a way to win the turnover margin, it’s huge,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “It’s tough to come back from something like that.”
Especially when the first turnover is run back for a score.
Safety Nick Collins pulled that off on the first play after the Packers had taken a 7-0 lead. The Steelers were backed up on their own 7-yard line after a penalty on the kickoff return, and right away quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tried to go deep to speedster Mike Wallace.
Cornerback Tramon Williams was running with Wallace down the sideline, but the pass never got near either of them. Defensive end Howard Green got pressure on Roethlisberger and appeared to get a piece of his arm as he threw.
The ball fluttered a little bit, and Collins angled over for an easy interception with plenty of running room in front of him. He weaved his way through a few tacklers and then leaped the final 3 yards over the goal line for a 37-yard return in all.
“I was just reading Big Ben’s eyes,” Collins said. “I saw his shoulder turn, his eyes, saw him throw the ball, I was able to get a nice break on it and catch the ball, corral the ball, and take it to the house.”
The 14-0 lead then became 21-3 with the help of another turnover. With the Steelers near midfield in the second quarter, Roethlisberger tried to squeeze in a short pass over the middle to Wallace despite double coverage from cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields.
Bush came up with the pick, just the second of his career, and the offense responded with a four-play, 53-yard touchdown drive.
The final turnover proved crucial as well, as the Steelers trailed just 21-17 and had second-and-2 on the Packers’ 33-yard line on the opening play of the fourth quarter.
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, crediting his film study and preparation, diagnosed before the snap that the Steelers were handing the ball off to running back Rashard Mendenhall on a counter. Defensive end Ryan Pickett was at the point of attack just inside Matthews and heard some last-second instructions from his neighbor that stopped Mendenhall in his tracks.
“He called the play out,” Pickett said. “Normally I would come and squeeze (the ball carrier back to the middle), but he told me to get under and spill it (outside) back to him. It was a split-second thing, and he said, ‘Spill it, Pick! Spill it!’ So I went up under and spilled it. I hit him, and Clay hit him, and the ball came out.”
Matthews hit was the key one that jarred the ball loose, and fellow linebacker Desmond Bishop scooped it up.
“It was a run my side, and all I need to know is I’ve got to make the play and I did,” Matthews said.
Added Capers: “Nothing neutralizes that momentum more than a takeaway.”
Once again, the offense capitalized, driving 55 yards in eight plays for another touchdown for a 28-17 lead. Three of the four touchdowns had come off the takeaways.
Nearly as important was that the offense didn’t turn the ball over at all, a welcome change from the two turnovers in the first three offensive snaps of last year’s playoff loss at Arizona. Rodgers never really came close to throwing an interception, and he didn’t cough the ball up on any of his three sacks. The only near turnover came early on special teams when Shields ran into Williams trying to field a punt and there was a big scrum for the ball. Williams recovered.
Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said that during the week he and Head Coach Mike McCarthy had talked about the fact that in six playoff games running the offense, including three this season, they had yet to put together a turnover-free performance.
Mission accomplished, at the perfect time.
“We said the one thing we have to do in this game is hold onto the football,” Philbin said. “They had three and we had none and that was probably the difference in the game.”