Aaron Rodgers faced no shortage of expectations when he became the starting quarterback of the Green Bay Packers in 2008. He was the heir to Hall of Fame signal-caller Brett Favre. Just a couple years later, in the 2010 NFL season, Rodgers brought the Packers their first Super Bowl championship since 1996.
Rodgers’ primary target was 1,200-yard receiver Greg Jennings, but the real key to the team’s success during the regular season was the defense. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews was an All-Pro, corner Tramon Williams intercepted six passes and made the Pro Bowl, and the Packer defense ranked second in the league for points allowed.
Green Bay had to battle an NFC North rival that had a great defensive unit of their own. The Chicago Bears, with All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers finished fourth in the NFL in points allowed. The Bear D had Pro Bowlers at linebacker in Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. The offense had its troubles—even though Matt Forte ran for 1,000 yards and was a versatile receiver, Jay Cutler couldn’t juice up the passing game. But the defense, along with the great return man Devin Hester, made Chicago a contender.
The first Packer-Bear game came on Monday Night Football at the end of September, and Chicago got a 20-17 win in Soldier Field. Both teams got wins over playoff-bound foes in the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets. The Bears went to the divisional lead, while the Packers were still 8-6 with two weeks to go and fighting for their playoff life.
Green Bay hosted the New York Giants on the day after Christmas. Both teams were fighting for the final spot in the playoffs. The Packers won 45-17. The Bears wrapped up the NFC North, but they still had a chance to knock out their archrival when they visited Lambeau Field for the season finale. The Green Bay defense delivered in a 10-3 win. Chicago got the 2-seed and a first-round bye, while the Packers were the 6-seed. But they were still alive.
The NFC South had the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, along with an emerging contender in the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons were balanced, in the league’s top five both offensively and defensively. Matt Ryan had a Pro Bowl year, throwing for over 3,700 yards. Roddy White was one of the NFL’s best receivers, catching 115 passes for nearly 1,400 yards. Michael Turner was a prolific running back, getting close to the 1,400-yard mark himself. Tony Gonzalez was a Pro Bowler at tight end. The defense had a terrific pass-rusher in end John Abraham.
Drew Brees had a big year in the Bayou, with over 4,600 yards and 33 touchdown passes. Brees did struggle with mistakes, throwing 22 interceptions. The running game, even with All-Pro Jahri Evans at guard, wasn’t productive, and the Saints ended up 11th in the NFL for scoring offense. But a well-balanced defense ranked seventh and put the defending champs back in the hunt.
Atlanta and New Orleans both got a surprising challenge from Tampa Bay, who had a good young defensive back in Aqib Talib and a 1,000-yard rusher in LeGarrette Blount. The Buccaneers would win ten games, but it wasn’t quite enough to edge out the Packers for the final wild-card spot.
Meanwhile, Atlanta won a 27-24 decision over New Orleans in September. They beat the Baltimore Ravens on a Thursday night in November, knocked off Green Bay, and knocked off playoff-bound Seattle. The Falcons rolled to a 13-3 record and the #1 seed in the NFC. The Saints, with a win of their own over the Seahawks, and a clutch 17-14 Monday Night win over the Falcons at the end of December, got to 11-5 and the 5-seed.
The season might have ended with Green Bay on top. New Orleans might have been last year’s champs and Atlanta was going into the playoffs with big hopes. But for much of the 2010 NFL season—especially its second half—it looked like this was going to be a vintage New England Patriots year.
Tom Brady had, even by his standards, an amazing year. He threw 36 touchdown passes against just four interceptions. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 1,000-yards behind All-Pro guard Logan Mankins. Jerod Mayo was an All-Pro at inside linebacker, and Devin McCourty intercepted seven passes. The Patriots had the league’s best offense and a top 10 defense.
Rex Ryan had the New York Jets contending. Rex had All-Pros at center with Nick Mangold, and at corner with the great Darrelle Revis. But otherwise, this was a team mostly without stars.
New York got New England in their first meeting, a 28-14 decision in September. The Patriots would get a tough 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens in mid-October and a 39-26 win on a November Sunday Night against Pittsburgh. Brady outgunned Peyton Manning and Indianapolis in a 31-28 win a week later. And on the first Monday of November, the Patriots delivered a stunning display of dominance—a 45-3 rout of the Jets.
And New England wasn’t done. They hammered the Bears 36-7 six days later. They beat the Packers on a Sunday Night. The Jets, to their credit, bounced back after the Monday Night humiliation. They knocked off the Steelers 22-17 and got into the playoffs at 11-5. But the Patriots were soaring at 14-2, the #1 seed and the undisputed team to beat.
The rivalry between the Steelers and the Ravens was at its peak and both teams were outstanding in 2010. Pittsburgh had the Defensive Player of the Year in free safety Troy Polamulu. James Harrison was an All-Pro outside linebacker with 10 ½ sacks. LaMarr Woodley was the linebacker on the other side of the 3-4 defense, and he had ten sacks of his own. The Steeler defense was the best in the NFL. Rashard Mendenhall ran for nearly 1,300 yards, while Mike Wallace went over 1,200 yards receiving.
Baltimore’s defense ranked third in the league. The Ravens got All-Pro years from Haloti Ngata up front and Ed Reed at safety. The great middle linebacker, Ray Lewis, and pass rusher Terrell Suggs were Pro Bowlers. Ray Rice ran for over 1,200 yards and was a good pass-catcher
Neither team got great play at quarterback. Joe Flacco didn’t have a big year in Baltimore. Nor did Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, as he faced a four-game suspension over sexual assault allegations to begin the year. But with the defenses and running game each had, not a lot more was needed.
The Ravens got the first head-to-head meeting, 17-14 in September. But the Steelers won the second battle, a 13-10 war on the first Sunday Night in December. Pittsburgh beat Atlanta, while Baltimore knocked off New Orleans. Both teams beat Tampa Bay. When all was said and done, the Steelers and Ravens both finished the season 12-4. The tiebreakers gave the division title and 2-seed to Pittsburgh. Baltimore settled for the 5-line.
No discussion of the AFC landscape in this era is complete without Peyton Manning and Indianapolis. Peyton threw for 4,700 yards on the dot and made the Pro Bowl. Reggie Wayne was an All-Pro receiver, with 111 catches for 1,355 yards. Indy had a top-5 offense. But the defense, even with Pro Bowl pass rushers in Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, only ranked 23rd. A weak division allowed the Colts to coast into the playoffs, but at 10-6, they settled for the 3-seed.
The AFC playoff bracket would be rounded out in the West. The San Diego Chargers were the four-time defending division champ, but the Kansas City Chiefs stepped up. Jamaal Charles emerged as an All-Pro runner with 1,467 yards. Matt Cassell, who had looked good playing for an injured Brady with New England in 2008, got his chance to be a regular starter in KC. He made the most of it in 2010, with a Pro Bowl season. Tamba Hali recorded 14 ½ sacks at outside linebacker. The Chiefs beat the Chargers 21-14 in the late game of what was then a Week 1 Monday Night doubleheader. The race was close, but that was ultimately the difference. The Bolts finished 9-7 and stayed home. The Chiefs went 10-6 and earned the 4-seed.
In the NFC East, the Eagles and Giants went down to the wire. Philadelphia was led by quarterback Michael Vick, attempting to redeem himself after a jail sentence for dogfighting. Vick finished with a 21-6 TD/INT ratio, ran for almost 700 yards, and made the Pro Bowl. The Philly offense, with LeSean McCoy a versatile running back, and a field-stretching receiver in DeSean Jackson, finished third in the league for points scored. The defense had problems, but they also had playmakers in end Trent Cole and corner Asante Samuel.
Philadelphia and New York didn’t play head-to-head until the week prior to Thanksgiving. The Giants had defensive problems of their own. Philadelphia won a Sunday Night game 27-17. But the most stunning result happened in the rematch at the Meadowlands. The Giants led the Eagles 31-10 with just over seven minutes to play. Philadelphia rallied first to tie the game. On the final play of regulation, Jackson returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown. A week later, New York lost in Green Bay. Both the Giants and Eagles finished 10-6, but Philly had the head-to-head sweep. And with it, the 3-seed.
The final playoff spot was settled by one of the least inspiring division races of all-time. Seattle and the St. Louis Rams were both sub-.500 teams. But someone had to win this division. The Seahawks were 6-9 coming into the final week. But the Rams were only 7-8, and Seattle had the tiebreaker. They were playing head-to-head. The game got flexed to Sunday Night and the Seahawks won 16-6. In his first year as an NFL head coach, Pete Carroll was going to the playoffs.
Seattle’s path to get to the playoffs might have been marked by something less than excellence, but they made the most of their opportunity. New Orleans came to the Pacific Northwest and had their defensive shortcomings unmasked. Marshawn Lynch had a big game, including a vintage 67-yard “Beast Mode” run that helped seal a 41-36 shootout win.
That night in Indianapolis, the Colts and Jets went down to the wire. When Indy kicker Adam Vinateri hit a 50-yarder to put his team up 16-14 in the final minute, it looked over. But New York got into position themselves. Nick Folk booted a 32-yarder at the gun to pull the 17-16 upset.
The following day, Baltimore went to Kansas City and handily dispensed with the Chiefs, 30-7. And wild-card round concluded with another road winner—the Packers chiseled out a 21-16 win over the Eagles.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore opened Divisional Round weekend on late Saturday afternoon with a vintage battle. In a back-and-forth game where both pass rushers were teeing off, the Steelers got the last word with a 31-24 win.
That night in Atlanta, the NFC bracket got busted wide open. Green Bay held a 21-14 lead just before the half. Tramon Williams came up with a 70-yard Pick-6 on the final play before intermission. The Packers kept right on rolling and won 48-21. The Bears dispatched the Seahawks the next day, 35-24. An NFC North grudge match in Solider Field was set up with a Super Bowl appearance on the line.
No one saw what was coming on late Sunday afternoon in Foxboro. The Patriots were flat. The Jet defense was locked in. On the very field where they lost by six touchdowns just over a month earlier, New York stunned New England 28-21 in a game that didn’t feel that close. The top-heavy favorite to win it all was gone. The 1-seed in the NFC was gone. The door was wide open.
Rodgers and the Packers took the first step through the door when they went into Chicago and jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Cutler got hurt and the Bears would use three quarterbacks. Green Bay won 21-14.
The AFC Championship Game followed a similar path. Pittsburgh ran the ball well and aided by a defensive touchdown, roared out to a 24-0 lead. New York rallied and closed to within 24-19 with three minutes left. But the Steelers salted away a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl in Dallas would follow a similar script to the two conference championship games. It was the Packers setting the tone early. Rodgers had a big day, throwing for over 300 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. Green Bay built a 21-3 lead. Pittsburgh rallied. They weren’t running the ball, but Roethlisberger was playing well. The lead was cut to 21-17, and later to 28-25. But the Packers added one more field goal and sealed the 31-25 win.
It had been an intense ride for Green Bay. With their final two games of the regular season being must-win, they won six straight do-or-die games. They were back on top of the football world. And Aaron Rodgers had arrived as a star.