NFL coaches will tell you that football is the ultimate team sport.
They will seldom if ever admit that the difference between championship-caliber teams and also-rans comes down to a few special players.
A team needs more than a collection of solid talent to capture a title. It isn’t enough to sprinkle some Pro Bowl players into the mix.
What every Super Bowl winner needs, without fail, is one or two difference-makers that rise above everyone else. They are superstars capable of producing plays that separate winning from losing, and they make everyone around them better.
The Green Bay Packers have two players that fall into that category: quarterback Aaron Rodgers and outside linebacker Clay Matthews.
Their very presence in the lineup gives the Packers a chance to win. Their absence, in most cases, is a sure-fire recipe for defeat.
Rodgers has missed all or parts of two games because of injury in his five seasons as a starter, and predictably, the Packers lost each of those contests. In 2010, Matthews also missed all or parts of two games because of injury and — you guessed it — the Packers lost both of them.
The Packers have posted a remarkable 34-6 record over the past three seasons when both Rodgers and Matthews played most or all of the time.
They are primarily responsible for the Packers’ Super Bowl title two years ago and their 15-1 regular-season record in 2011, although it could be argued defensive back Charles Woodson also belonged in the superstar category during that stretch.
But age has caught up with Woodson, who when healthy is now merely a capable, savvy starter.
That leaves Rodgers and Matthews this year to serve as torch bearers for another potential Super Bowl run.
Much was made of the injuries the Packers overcame in 2010 on their way to winning the Lombardi Trophy, with 15 players landing on the season-ending injured reserve list.
But that only supports the argument that most positions are interchangeable, and it’s the superstar players that make all the difference.
The Packers seamlessly plugged holes in their starting lineup when Mark Tauscher, Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett and Morgan Burnett were lost for the season two years ago.
Make no mistake, that list of walking wounded included some solid players, and the overall roster was weakened when they went down.
But with Rodgers firing bullets, Matthews terrorizing opposing quarterbacks and Woodson roaming the field and making life miserable for offensive coordinators, the Packers never missed a beat.
The same situation has developed this season with a host of starters getting bit by the injury bug, including Cedric Benson, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Desmond Bishop, John Kuhn, D.J. Smith, Nick Perry and Woodson, among others.
The battle cry “next man up” again is reverberating through the Packers’ locker room. As long as the team can fill the gaps with capable, if somewhat less talented backups, things will be fine.
The Packers have weathered their latest injury storm by winning four straight games, improving to 6-3 and positioning themselves well for the second half of the season.
When right tackle Bryan Bulaga fell to the Lambeau Field turf in the second quarter Sunday with a hip injury, the Packers never blinked. T.J. Lang shifted to Bulaga’s spot, and Evan Dietrich-Smith came off the bench to plug the hole at left guard.
Nothing against Bulaga, who performs well at his job, but the Packers’ offense barely missed him against a rugged Cardinals’ defense.
Had it been Rodgers and not Bulaga who went out, the Packers likely would have lost to Arizona.
When Matthews limped off the field in the third quarter with a hamstring injury, the Cardinals turned a 24-7 deficit into a close game at 24-17. But Rodgers dashed the Cardinals’ comeback hopes with a 72-yard touchdown pass to seal the victory.
None of this is meant to suggest the Packers could get by with a bunch of stumblebums alongside Rodgers and Matthews. Superstars need to be surrounded by capable teammates, but those players by and large are replaceable.
The Packers continue to win games despite reaching far down their depth chart to use utility linemen, second-string halfbacks and third-string inside linebackers.
The rash of injuries has been manageable, at least until now. With Matthews’ status uncertain for the Packers’ next game at Detroit on Nov. 18, there is cause for concern.
If Matthews doesn’t play, Rodgers will be the only bonafide difference-maker in the Packers’ lineup.
In general terms, two superstars are much better than one, and it helps to have at least one on each side of the line.
In the mid-1990s, the Packers relied on big-time playmakers Brett Favre and Reggie White to win a championship. After White retired, Favre was arguably the only difference-maker left on the roster and not surprisingly, the Packers never returned to the Super Bowl during his career.
The Packers might be forced to sit Matthews against the Lions and possibly the following week against the New York Giants in order to let his hamstring fully heal. Their chances of winning without Matthews are significantly reduced, but the short-term sacrifice would be worth it.
History tells us the Packers need a healthy Rodgers and Matthews for the stretch run to have any hope of winning the Super Bowl.
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