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BILL PLASCHKE

Nothing cheesy about Packers going to Super Bowl

Green Bay shows that a small-town franchise can thrive in a league full of big-city heavyweights.

January 23, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Packers fans celebrate at the end of the NFC championship game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field.
Packers fans celebrate at the end of the NFC championship game against the… (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago…)

From Chicago — Dance on a frozen tundra. Dress in your best Lombardi. Stick an absurd piece of yellow foam on your head and shout into a chilled sky.

Cheesy Hallelujah, the Green Bay Packers are going to the Super Bowl.

The NFL's throwback franchise will be crashing the league's futuristic championship, the Packers defeating their longtime rivals Chicago Bears, 21-14, Sunday to earn a chance to reclaim the trophy named after Green Bay's most famous coach.

The league's smallest city is going to its biggest game, playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in Dallas on Feb. 6 for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy and earn the most outrageous of bragging rights.

Playing in a town of barely 101,000, the Packers can again become giants. Playing for a team owned by ordinary citizens, the Packers can again become the richest story in sports.

"Dallas, Super Bowl, Dallas, Super Bowl, amazing," safety Nick Collins said, his words singing through a happily crowded locker room. "There have been a lot of legends that have come before us … now maybe it's our turn."

Those legends from the league's second-oldest franchise have won more NFL championships than anyone — a dozen — and won the first two Super Bowls in the late 1960s. But they've only won one since, and seemed destined to endure another cold winter earlier this fall when they lost five playmakers to injuries and dropped three of their first six games.

But then something happened, something that only seems to happen in magical little places like Green Bay, unknown players making plays, an unsung quarterback making a name, two consecutive wins at the end of the season to sneak into the last playoff spot, two stunning playoff victories on the road … and then, Sunday at Soldier Field, possibly the ugliest, weirdest win of all.

"All we've been through, what happened today can only be called a blessing," tackle Chad Clifton said, and that's certainly one word for it.

The biggest touchdown of the game was scored not by an offensive player, but by 337-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji on an 18-yard interception return midway through the fourth quarter, his enormous girth jiggling as he waved the ball at the humiliated Bears.

"One of my coaches asked if I wanted to be called, 'The Fridge,' " Raji said, referring to the nickname of a former Bears giant. "I said, 'Nah, man, I'm The Freezer.' "

The biggest tackle of the game was made not by a defensive player, but by the quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who saved a touchdown in the third quarter when he somehow tangled up Brian Urlacher as the linebacker had broken free on what would have been 94-yard interception return.

"I had to make a stand," Rodgers said, shrugging.

Finally, the clinching play of the game was not made by some veteran, but by an undrafted rookie free agent named Sam Shields, who picked off third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie on the Packers 12 with 37 seconds remaining.

Said Shields: "I came in with a chip on my shoulder."

Said a smiling Collins: "He came in not knowing anything … but we've been working with him."

The Packers are that kind of team, a buried backup named James Starks emerging to rush for 74 yards and a touchdown, the second-leading receiver being somebody named Jordy Nelson, who caught nearly as many passes this year as in his first two years combined.

And, then, of course, there's Rodgers, who spent his first three seasons hidden in the deep shadow of former Packers great Brett Favre, but has emerged in his three seasons since, and is using his first playoff run to push himself into the same sentence with the league's quarterback elites.

He quieted the raucous crowd that bounced for three hours in 18-degree temperatures by leading the Packers on an 84-yard opening touchdown drive, finishing that drive with a scoring bootleg, and was just good enough to keep them in the lead throughout.

Rodgers just needs to get that "elite" part down a little bit more, as he strolled into the interview room carrying a bottle of grape soda while dressed in baggy jeans, a long-sleeve T-shirt under a souvenir Packers shirt, and a souvenir Packers cap.

He had the game ball in his locker, but only because he was on the field for the final kneel-down snap, and refused to give it up.

"I actually have the ball from all three of my, I mean our , playoff wins," Rodgers said.

His concern for the perception of team seems diametrically opposed to that of the Bears quarterback, Jay Cutler, who left the game midway through the third quarter with a 31.8 passer rating and an apparent knee injury, and spent the rest of the time just standing around watching. He received no hurried treatment that might have allowed him to return. He offered little advice during timeouts to the two quarterbacks who followed him.

"I knew that it was probably better that I didn't [return]," Cutler said. "I know my knee, I know my body."

Who knows anything when it comes to Cutler. But the honest truth is, the Super Bowl is better when the Packers are in it. They may not be the league's most lucrative or star-studded team, but they are its most important franchise.

The Packers offer the eternal argument against those who say the NFL is a league dominated by major markets and maniacal billionaires. The Packers are the forever answer to why the NFL is more intrinsically fair than baseball or basketball.

"We are unlike any other team in the league, and when we have success, it shows the real strength of the league," said Mark Murphy, the team's president and chief executive who is — surprise, surprise — a former NFL player. "When we go to Dallas, the hopes of an entire community will be going with us."

We're talking about the hopes of far more than just a community.

Smile, America, and say cheese.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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