Injuries. Mistakes. And finally, heroics by Aaron Rodgers and a defense that forced three turnovers by a Pittsburgh team that's used to forcing them itself.
The result: the Vince Lombardi Trophy is back in the city that Lombardi's teams of 40-plus years ago christened "Titletown USA,'' to be housed in a stadium that sits on Lombardi Avenue.
The Packers beat the Steelers 31-25 Sunday to win their first title in 14 years and deny a team that already holds a record with six Super Bowl wins. It wasn't a pretty game but it was a great one, highlighted by some remarkable throws by Rodgers, the man who replaced Brett Favre and proved himself on this day to be every bit Favre's equal.
"We put this game on his shoulders and he delivered,'' coach Mike McCarthy said.
Chris Harry: Gritty Packers Overcome Adversity Again
Rodgers, who was named the game's MVP, threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns and might have come close to 500 and five if his receivers hadn't kept dropping perfect throws. One of his completions, a 31-yarder in the fourth quarter to Greg Jennings, may have been one of the best ever -- in a title game or any other -- zipped an inch over the flailing hand of Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor and just in front of Troy Polamalu, the Defensive Player of the Year.
But this game between two historic franchises was more than Rodgers -- it was also about a Packers defense that lost its leader, Charles Woodson, with a broken collarbone late in the first half and standout rookie cornerback Sam Shields on the same series.
One of the remaining veterans, Nick Collins, returned a Ben Roethlisberger interception 37 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, just 24 seconds after the Packers had taken a 7-0 lead on 29-yard TD pass from Rodgers to Jordy Nelson, another Super Bowl star. That made it 14-0 and put Pittsburgh in a hole from which it never could climb out.
'That's the story of our season,'' said Rodgers. "A lot of adversity. Guys stepped up. Sam was done. Charles was down. Donald Driver was down. Jordy Nelson, huge game. A lot of high-character guys. who played huge roles for us, and now we're sitting here as Super Bowl champs.''
The Steelers played like champions, too, albeit sloppy champions.
Down 14-0 and later 21-3 after another interception by a Green Bay backup, Jarrett Bush, the Steelers almost got there, moving to within four points during a third quarter in which they held the Packers without a first down. Then, Pittsburgh inched within three points midway through the fourth at 28-25.
But Rodgers responded with a drive that included that strike to Jennings, ate up 5 1/2 minutes and ended with a Mason Crosby field goal. The Steelers could do nothing with the 2:07 left for them. When Roethlisberger's fourth-down pass from his own 33 fell incomplete with 49 seconds left, the title was on its way back to Titletown, named that way after Lombardi coached the team to three NFL championships and the first two Super Bowl titles.
"It was a battle,'' Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark said. "Look at the plays they made defensively, some of the throws Aaron Rodgers made. They were the better team today. They executed better. They made more plays. But it was a fight. I don't think they're going to go away thinking they played a team who can't play with them. But they know they were better today. They deserved to win.''
At one level, the Packers were lucky even to make the playoffs.
The finished the season with 15 players on injured reserve, six of whom began the season as starters. They had to win their last two regular-season games to even make it as the sixth seed and even that probably wouldn't be good enough if not for a game they could do nothing about -- Philadelphia's 38-31 win over the New York Giants in a game in which the Eagles overcame a 21-point deficit in the final eight minutes.
If New York, which missed the playoffs, had won that game, it would have finished at 11-5, a game better than Green Bay, which got in as the sixth seed with the same 10-6 record. And the Eagles, who won the NFC East, would probably have been 11-5 too -- they tanked their final game by sitting Michael Vick because they'd clinched their division.
But on Sunday, that was in the past.
"I don't know how to feel,'' said Collins, a high school running back who showed that skill with his touchdown return. "All I know is that I'm a champion now.''
Nelson, who finished with nine catches for 140 yards, was one of the pass-droppers, especially in the third quarter, when the Packers didn't have a first down and the Steelers gained so much momentum that it seemed inevitable that they would catch up.
"If you play this game long enough at this position, you are going to drop the ball.,'' he said. "You have to move on. We are level-headed. We weren't panicking at all when Pittsburgh started coming back. We just said, 'OK, we have to go make plays.' We knew it was going to be on us and we stepped up and made plays.''
The biggest one came from Clay Matthews, runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year and, with Woodson, one of two impact players on the Packers defense.
As the fourth quarter started, Pittsburgh seemed set to take the lead. The Steelers were down 21-17 but had a second-and-2 at the Green Bay 33. Rashard Mendenhall took a pitchout and ran right, but Matthews ran him down three yards behind the line of scrimmage and stripped the ball for Desmond Bishop to fall on. "You know they have the momentum and you know you have to make a play,'' said Matthews, who hadn't made many until then. "I just went for the ball, got it and it turned out to help us win.''
From there the Packers drove 55 yards and scored on an 8-yard pass from Rodgers to Jennings to make the lead a more comfortable 28-17. The Steelers didn't stop -- Roethlisberger hit Mike Wallace for a 25-yard TD on Pittsburgh's next possession.
But the Steelers failed on their last shot and the Packers were the champions.
"It's very, very gratifying,'' said team president Mark Murphy, who played safety on Washington's 1982 Super Bowl champions. We have a tremendous history and tradition. The fact that it's the Vince Lombardi Trophy says a lot. To be able to bring it back to Green Bay is something special.''