Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy smiles after the NFC championship game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011, in Chicago. The Packers won 21-14. David J. Philip/AP
CHICAGO – The Green Bay Packers’ locker room at Soldier Field was almost empty early Sunday evening after a boisterous NFC championship game victory celebration.
Ted Thompson was one of the last to leave, and the normally stoic Packers general manager displayed what for him was a rare moment of public exuberance.
Addressing Packers director of football operations Reggie McKenzie, who was seated across the room and wearing an NFC championship cap, Thompson yelled: “Hey, Reg, how does that hat fit?”
McKenzie, displaying a wide smile, replied: “It can’t fit any better.”
Everyone in the Packers organization had reason to savor such a glorious moment, with the team capturing its first Super Bowl berth in 13 years.
Thompson wore a look of relief after the Packers hung on for a 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears.
“This is a hard business,” Thompson said. “The game tonight was a hard thing. The thing could have gone a different way and we would have been heartbroken. We came out on the winning end. It’s just a hard business. Nothing’s easy about it.”
It was fitting that this game was a struggle, which mirrored the entire season. Nothing has come easy for the Packers, who fought through myriad injuries and a difficult three-game playoff road stretch to punch their Super Bowl ticket to Dallas, where they will play the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Really, the way that our season went – the trials and tribulations that we encountered, to me, that was how we were shaped,” said a beaming Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “I think it’s made us a better football team. It’s challenged our character. I think we’ve really grown through it.”
The Packers became the first No. 6-seeded team in NFC history to reach the Super Bowl. Just a month ago they were 8-6 and wobbling near the edge of playoff elimination, but have managed to prevail in five consecutive must-win games.
McCarthy matched former coach Mike Holmgren in guiding the Packers to the Super Bowl in his fifth season. Meanwhile, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has reached the NFL’s biggest game in just his third season as a starter.
Rodgers said character has set this Packers team apart.
“We just believe in each other,” Rodgers said.
The Packers won despite getting a poor statistical game out of Rodgers, whose 55.4 passer rating was his second-lowest output of the season.
While the offense got shut out over the final 41 minutes, the defense and special teams picked up the slack, which is what makes this a championship-caliber team.
“We would have liked to put more than 14 (offensive) points on the board obviously,” Rodgers said. “But we’re going to the Super Bowl.”
There is balance up and down the roster. When injuries hit hard, backups ably stepped into starting roles and players signed off the street made significant contributions.
“That’s what makes it that much sweeter,” Rodgers said. “Having to win those five (games in a row), but also having to do it with those guys that we didn’t really count on at the beginning of the season.”
If anyone has good reason to gloat about this team, it’s Thompson. He was harshly criticized in 2008 when he traded Brett Favre and decided to elevate Rodgers to starting status. It was the correct decision at the time, but Sunday’s victory only confirmed it.
Thompson has never been swayed by public sentiment, and he doesn’t plan to start now.
“The negatives or the positives don’t really affect me,” he said. “Quite frankly, very few people know what they’re talking about. It’s like (former Packers GM Ron Wolf) said one time, ‘You’re never as stupid as they say you are and you’re never as smart as they say you are. You’re somewhere in the middle.”
Thompson has no desire to say “I told you so” or point fingers.
“This is really gratifying to be able to get the Packers back to the Super Bowl,” he said.
For one night at least, basking in the sweet glow of an NFC championship is all the satisfaction Thompson needs.
Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Press-Gazette.