The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Different road to Super Bowl ahead for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers
A wild card winning the Super Bowl hardly is unique anymore, as the Steelers, Giants and Packers proved in the last six seasons. It won't happen this year with only division winners alive heading into this weekend.
For the defending champion Green Bay Packers, lessons from their run to the title a year ago have helped them not only in going 15-1 during the regular season, but in preparing for the playoffs.
"I think we learned a lot last year being a six seed and having to go on the road," star quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "You take on a different attitude as a team as the road team going into a hostile environment. I think that prepares us for the mindset that the opposing team is going to have. It is a different feeling and last year we just got in and this year we had a run and got a bye. So it is a different feeling but last year really helped.
"I think it helps us because we made the run, we know what it is like and we know the pressure that we are going to be under. It is a little different feel because we were the big underdog starting in the post-season last year and we made a run. We are the No. 1 seed now, so it is a different feeling."
In their last home playoff game, though, the Packers were beaten 23-20 in overtime by the Giants for the 2007 NFC championship. Guess who comes calling at Lambeau Field on Sunday.
Regardless, there's only one place Rodgers and his teammates want to be this weekend.
"There is something about having a home playoff game, having our crowd here with their noise and the way they can be," Rodgers said. "We have a great opponent this week, so we know we are going to have a tough challenge and we are looking forward to a home playoff game."
ON THE FLY: Turns out, the play that sprung Demaryius Thomas for his game-winning TD last Sunday was hatched at halftime.
Noticing the Pittsburgh Steelers were bringing their safeties down low on first down when the Broncos presented a certain look, offensive co-ordinator Mike McCoy drew up a play to attack that tendency.
He then waited for just the right moment to unleash it.
When the Broncos received the ball first in overtime, McCoy dialled up the route he diagrammed on the drawing board.
Thomas' eyes lit up as he went out wide because it was just as McCoy had envisioned. Thomas flew off the line of scrimmage, cut into the middle of the field and Tim Tebow hit him in stride.
Thomas stiff-armed cornerback Ike Taylor and was gone, beating safety Ryan Mundy for an 80-yard score that took all of 11 seconds.
"We said it might come to this play," Thomas said. "That's exactly how it happened."
The Broncos had shown that formation on several occasions, with Eddie Royal usually going in motion before Tebow handed the ball to Willis McGahee up the middle.
This was just a little wrinkle on the fly. Actually, a big wrinkle.
"I was talking to Demaryius before the series," McCoy explained. "I said, 'If we win the toss, this is what we're going to go to. If they play the right coverage we could end in a hurry.'"
TOP SEEDS: If you are a No. 1 seed, history says it's better to be an NFC team in the second round of the playoffs.
Since the NFL moved to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, No. 1 seeds in the NFC are 18-3 (.857) in the divisional round. In the AFC, the No. 1 seed is 12-9 (.571).
Recently, leading either standings has been a dangerous spot. In four of the last six years, the AFC's No. 1 seed lost after sitting out the wild-card weekend. In the NFC, it's three of the last four seasons after never happening before.
Last year, the Patriots fell to the Jets. In 2008, the Titans lost to the Ravens. In 2006, New England knocked off San Diego, and the previous year, Pittsburgh won at Indianapolis.
Of those four AFC winners, only the Steelers went on to the Super Bowl, winning it against Seattle.
In the NFC, Green Bay beat Atlanta last year, Philadelphia defeated the New York Giants in 2008, and Dallas lost to the Giants in 2007.
The Packers and Giants both went on to win the Super Bowl those seasons.
HEALTHY CRABTREE: Call him a diva, showboat or big-timer, Michael Crabtree doesn't much care. He has heard it all over the years.
San Francisco's third-year wide receiver is finally fully healthy — he says he has been for the past six games or so — from a surgically repaired left foot that slowed him for much of the season, and determined to keep San Francisco's special 2011 run going well into 2012.
"A lot of people don't like you but don't have any reason to not like you," Crabtree said. "You know how it is, it's life. To me, I'm the same person all the time. I'm still the same dude.
"I just do what I can control, worry about the things I can control. It's always a big difference when you're healthy and not limited."
Crabtree's focus is football, and it has to be. This week more than any other as the NFC West champion Niners (13-3) take on the New Orleans Saints in San Francisco's first playoff game in nine years.
Crabtree and quarterback Alex Smith are clicking again, a pair of former first-rounders turned determined playoff first-timers. They have played a huge part in turning around their franchise's fortunes at last this season under new coach Jim Harbaugh.
Crabtree has 72 catches for 874 yards and four touchdowns. He has provided a steady presence in a receiving corps that lost Joshua Morgan to a season-ending broken right leg in early October and Braylon Edwards for a period with a right knee injury that required surgery and slowed him before his Dec. 27 release.
After getting only 20 receptions over the first six games, Crabtree came on down the stretch. Two of his TD catches were in the regular-season finale at St. Louis on Jan. 1.
"This is my first time going to the playoffs — it's exciting, it's overwhelming, all the big words you can use," said Crabtree, drafted 10th overall in 2009 out of Texas Tech. "It's fun."
PLAYOFF TICKET PRICES: Tickets for the Texans-Ravens game are going for an average of US$451 resale, while the sold-out Saints-49ers game ranks second-most expensive at $345, according to the official NFL Ticket Exchange by Ticketmaster.
For the Giants-Packers matchup at Lambeau Field, resale tickets average $290, while Broncos-Patriots are the best bargain at $113.
And how about the Super Bowl in Indianapolis? A whopping $4,120. Those buying included 23.4 per cent from the state of Indiana, 5.6 per cent from California and 5.6 per cent from Wisconsin.
TAKE NOTES: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis gave rookie receiver A.J. Green some advice on his Pro Bowl trip: listen a lot, learn a lot.
"You can be a sponge," Lewis said. "I used to motivate (Ravens linebacker) Ray Lewis every year that way. Don't go there to hang out by the pool. You go there and come back learning. You learn how other people do things and what makes other people great year after year."
Green was already planning on it. He was voted to the AFC team because of his big-play abilities. He figures he can learn from some of the best about the intricacies of running routes at the highest level.
"I'm really excited," Green said. "I'll ask the older receivers what it takes and what they feel coming into the second year, the work they do. Stuff to get better."
He could be joined by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who's an Pro Bowl alternate. The two of them helped the Bengals make only their third playoff appearance in the last 21 years, ending with a 31-10 loss in Houston.
"A.J. is just scratching the surface, and I think he realizes that," Lewis said. "Both of those guys just spent this last off-season training to get to the league. Now they can train for their second seasons. You can see the gleam in both of their eyes about that, because I think they know now what they're doing about it."
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York and Sports Writers Janie McCauley in San Francisco, Joe Kay in Cincinnati and Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this story.
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