It's easy to read into an injured-depleted offense making things work against a great defense and initially shutting down a talented offense in a Super Bowl and assume the injured team would have been far superior at full strength. Because that's exactly what the Packers did against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, it's hard not to think of what happened Sunday night in Arlington as one big Super Bowl ad for Ted Thompson's well-built Pack, and as the 31-25 victory as a prelude for multiple Super Bowl rings for Aaron Rodgers.
And that's why they top the list of five things we learned about the 2011 NFL season from Super Bowl XLV, last game of the 2010 NFL season.
1. The Packers are going to be really good for some time.
Aaron Rodgers delivered a performance well worth a Super Bowl MVP award last night: 304 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions was even more impressive considered how many passes his receiving corps — which at one point included Brett Swain, whoever Brett Swain is — seemed to drop. He's also just 27 going on 28 — and older than three-fourths of the Packers' major contributors. Green Bay was excellent against a very good Steelers team despite the injuries that ravaged its roster all season, and held on after opening up a 21-3 lead when Charles Woodson and Donald Driver went out with injury.
It's likely that both of those players will at least try to return in 2011, and they might play for a few more years. The same could probably be said for Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. But behind those players stand talented youngsters, and it's not just at those positions: the Packers are arguably loaded everywhere, and the loss of their starting running back, their starting tight end, a starting tackle, a starting linebacker, and four safeties didn't stop them from winning the Super Bowl.
Of all the fans in the NFL, Packers backers should be the most opposed to a possible lockout or labor stoppage: their team is poised to repeat, and begin a stretch that could be dynastic. And here's a scary little note for fans expecting the Packers to fall off: earning a wild card berth instead of winning the NFC North means Green Bay gets to play the Rams, Saints, and Giants instead of the Eagles, Falcons, and Seahawks. This is a team that doesn't need advantages, but that one could help them make the path to Super Bowl XLVI run through Lambeau Field.
2. The Packers are leading an NFC power swing.
I know the Patriots are the oddsmakers' favorite to win Super Bowl XLVI. I know the Steelers will be back, and the Colts will be aiming for a home-dome Super Bowl, and the Jets will be back and bantering, and the Chiefs are improving, and the Chargers are statistical leviathans ... I know. But all that doesn't change the fact that NFC teams have won three of the last four Super Bowls, and that fact leads me to believe that the NFC might be bringing things back into balance in the NFL.
Here's a really quick and dirty power rankings top 15 for 2011.
1. Packers: Injured players coming back boosts already great team.
2. Patriots: Could have a huge draft and fantastic youth movement.
3. Steelers: Troy Polamalu's health is critical; offensive line needs depth.
4. Bears: Missing pieces at line, receiver, but defense is mean.
5. Jets: Rex Ryan's a force of nature, but roster could get old in a blink.
6. Ravens: Skill position talent is almost all old, and Joe Flacco is iffy.
7. Falcons: Young cores on offense, defense bode well.
8. Eagles: Michael Vick could get better; defense could get bolstered.
9. Colts: Will Indy play in the Indy Super Bowl? Peyton needs health, help.
10. Saints: The Drew Brees/Sean Payton combo is still potent.
11. Chargers: Need to make stats translate to wins.
12. Cowboys: Stretch run was impressive; Romo's return is boost.
13. Buccaneers: Josh Freeman could be great, but team needs to prove itself.
14. Chiefs: Young, potent offense-heavy squad.
15. Lions: Very young, very fiesty.
More than half of those teams are from the NFC, including the team that looks most likely to win two or three of the next five Super Bowls. I would slot the Giants and Rams in immediately after the Lions, followed by the Browns and Raiders. And I'd say the five teams with the most upward mobility or "potential" on that list are the Packers, Patriots, Falcons, Cowboys, and Bucs, with the Lions just missing.
So if the NFC's upper middle class hasn't quite caught up to the AFC aristocracy yet, it's close and has the talent to do so before long.
3. You need great drafts to compete.
Pay close attention to the mock 2011 NFL Drafts, and read up on the players your team picks when the real thing rolls around. If your team isn't getting contributions from nearly all of your selections, you're going to find your team struggling to keep up with the Packers and Patriots.
Those two teams get how to reshape a core and build depth through the draft, then supplement it with the occasional splashy signing. And that's the strategy that has built winner after winner in the NFL: it's not like the Steelers and Saints haven't done it, but the Packers and Patriots are doing it better. And with the Packers likely to look even stronger when their injured players return to play alongside young talents that got valuable experience during this playoff run and the Patriots ready to reload even further with, I think, 73 picks in the 2011 NFL Draft, it's not far-fetched to say these two rosters are a clear-cut 1A and 1B in the NFL.
You build those rosters by wringing all the value you can out of every player you draft and develop. You can't miss more than a few times and expect Super Bowls; you can't miss as often as you hit and expect playoff berths. For a team to survive the brutal NFL game, you need to be able to survive massive numbers of injuries. That could — should &mdash change in the near future, but the Packers proved on Sunday night that the teams that can do it best are the ones that will win in today's NFL.
4. The NFL has to figure out how to protect its players.
If I were an NFL player, even one making the minimum, I would draw the line in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations at adding any additional games to the season. If the NFL owners who are making money hand over fist can't figure out that players hold the power — the NFL has the world's best football players, and there's no plausible competition — and concede a little ground in the interest of growing the game by allowing its players to grow old, the NFL Players Association should refuse to play until the NFL capitulates.
Yes, I know the deck is stacked against the players, who have no guaranteed contracts and terrible injury relief late in life and a few visible multimillionaires and profligate spenders that make the NFL's case of "millionaires vs. billionaires" sound less palatable to the common fan. But players can use last night's game, which featured two of Green Bay's most important players missing a chance to win a Super Bowl with their play on the field and a veritable parade of players heading to the locker room early, and appeal to fans who want to see great players and great games, no matter how it happens.
The players need to make fans understand that players are already in a tough spot, and that an 18-game season or a continuation of the status quo in regards to injuries could be the first step on a slippery slope that eventually kills the NFL. And those fans need to be convinced to support the players in this dispute.
For that, the players need to stick to their guns. Forget "Let Us Play"; the NFLPA needs to take a page from the awesome Chrysler Super Bowl ad and remind everyone that they're the ones who take the risks and make football's perpetual moneymaking machine go — except, you know, that they're the assembly line employees who are taking their stand before it's too late, as it was for many union workers in Detroit.
Players need to make it clear that they're not just going to bail out owners who have abdicated the responsibility to keep players safe and share revenue fairly for decades now. And fans need to prepare for what could happen if the players toe that line for as long as it takes.
5. The NFL is still great football.
It's in the NFL's best interests to come to that compromise with the players, because its game has never been better on the surface. TV ratings are still colossal, teams are making money, Roger Goodell's morality policies haven't yet sucked the marrow out of a vital game, and the ugly specter of NFL players doing illegal things and generally making asses of themselves is hovering over Ben Roethlisberger and a few others.
Plus, there's this: NFL football can be a lot of fun. It's fun to watch Aaron Rodgers zing darts, fun to see Troy Polamalu racing all over a field (though that didn't happen on Sunday), fun to see Jamaal Charles burst past defenders and see Ndamukong Suh burst through offensive lines. There are still bad teams, but even the worst ones seem to have good players and a little hope. (I can't make a case for the Panthers, though.) And the really good ones aren't just good: they throw, producing the kinds of pyrotechnic passing games that lead the average fan to conclude from five minutes of SportsCenter highlights that the flying circus is worth devoting six hours to on Sundays.
We got that in Super Bowl XLV, and we'll get that in future NFL seasons, as long as the powers that be make sure the players that get that engine revving are adequately rewarded for what they do. Let's hope that happens.