ARLINGTON, Texas -- One look at the X-ray was all it took. Charles Woodson turned away and sobbed. The fracture in his left collarbone was clear as day. His season was done at halftime of Super Bowl XLV.
Woodson emerged this season as the Green Bay Packers' spiritual leader, and so through his tears he felt compelled to address his teammates before the third quarter began. He stood up and began to speak.
"I just asked the guys to understand how much I wanted it," Woodson said.
"That's all he could get out," linebacker Desmond Bishop said. "He was all choked up, and there was just something about it that motivated all of us."
After a season of navigating injuries by the dozen, the Packers plowed through their biggest challenge yet in taking a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. They held off a Steelers offense that seemed set to capitalize on injuries to both Woodson and nickel back Sam Shields. Meanwhile, their offense survived the loss of receiver Donald Driver, an injury that sidetracked their plan to spread the Steelers' defense with their four- and five-receiver sets.
"We have a lot of practice at this type of situation," coach Mike McCarthy said. "And it definitely paid off. No one blinked. ... It was like a heavyweight fight. They had delivered a bunch of blows to us, and we had cut them. Good fighters and good boxers, they keep pounding away at the cut. We knew they would come after us.
"Sometimes it's not as clean as you want, but at the end of the day we're Super Bowl champions."
Indeed, the Packers made a habit of moving past seemingly debilitating injuries all season, beginning with the loss of tailback Ryan Grant in Week 1 and continuing until they had 15 players on injured reserve. Seven of the 22 players who started Sunday night were reserves when the season began. But this was the Super Bowl, and these were the Steelers -- the same team that lit them up for 503 passing yards against a similarly undermanned defense in 2009. You would be excused if you were having flashbacks to that game Sunday night. I know I was.
At the 2-minute warning of the first half, Shields departed with a shoulder injury. On the next play, Woodson broke the collarbone while diving for a pass deep down the left sideline. Suddenly, the Packers were using reserves Pat Lee at cornerback and Jarrett Bush in the nickel.
The Steelers didn't miss a beat, moving to a four-receiver set and driving 60 yards in four plays. They targeted Bush on Hines Ward's 8-yard touchdown reception, pulling within 21-10 at halftime, and you wondered how the Packers could stop them. On their opening drive of the third quarter, the Steelers needed only five plays to cut the deficit to 21-17.
Meanwhile, the Packers offense was struggling to find a rhythm after Driver's departure in the second quarter. They had jumped to leads of 14-0 and 21-3 thanks to a strategy we spent much of last week discussing; by spreading out the Steelers' defense, they were mitigating the effectiveness of outside linebackers Lamar Woodley and James Harrison.
According to receiver Greg Jennings, Driver offered his own words of encouragement after learning his fate at halftime. Two, to be exact.
All season, I've tried to bring you schematic explanations for what happened on the field during a game. But I don't have any for this evening. I don't think defensive coordinator Dom Capers made any dramatic adjustments while playing without Woodson and Shields for most of the second half. And McCarthy certainly stayed with his spread offense in the second half, even as his wide receivers finished with six drops.
On this night, the players who remained simply found a way to the endgame. They just won. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a 118.0 passer rating after Woodson's departure, but cornerback Tramon Williams tipped away a fourth-down pass with 49 seconds remaining to seal the game. The Packers offense managed only 10 points after Driver's injury, but they played the entire game without a turnover and receiver Jordy Nelson filled the gaps with nine receptions for 140 yards.
"That's who we are," Bishop said. "And it's who we've been all season. If you're the next man up, you're expected to find your helmet and find a way."
Said Jennings: "This team had a certain dynamic that a lot of teams don't have. What separated us from the other 31 teams are the unity and the will to overcome adversity."
If I had to attribute that will to anything, I would put it on McCarthy's increasing bravado as the season continued on. McCarthy is a tough-talking Pittsburgh native behind closed doors, but publicly he has always tended to keep his comments even-keeled.
But beginning in Week 16, when the Packers started a six-game winning streak that culminated Sunday night, McCarthy began insisting they were a "championship-caliber team." McCarthy turned up the heat late last week, saying that Sunday "will be our night," and saved his best shot of adrenaline for Saturday night.
During a team meeting, McCarthy had players and coaches fitted for Super Bowl rings. It's a highly unusual move that served to enhance the Packers' confidence.
"Absolutely I did," McCarthy said. "No disrespect to the Steelers. We respect their football team. We respect the way they play. They're a good tough physical football team. But we fully expected to win this game. This is our time. We talked about it the first day we watched film [two weeks ago]. You could see the confidence building during the week."
Only a team fully convinced of its destiny and place in history could have persevered in such circumstances. By all rights, the healthier and more-experienced Steelers should have plowed to victory in this game. Simply put, the Packers willed themselves to their perch atop the NFL.
It was enough to make a grown man cry, which is exactly what Woodson seemed ready to do again as he spoke to reporters after the game.
"Just an unbelievable journey for this team," he said, finally. "Driver goes down, I go down, and just like all season, somebody stepped in and somebody stepped it up. I let all my emotions out at halftime. It broke me down. It was tough.
"But I'm champ. Nothing else matters."