Packers victory pokes hole in AFC supremacy

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WALLA WALLA - Before we box up Super Bowl XLV - that's No. 45 for those of you who are Roman numeral impaired - and store it in its proper place in the National Football League's archives, now is perhaps a good time to assess what can be learned from Sunday's big game in Texas.

Before we move on to something important - like Valentine's Day, which also happens to be the day pitchers and catchers report - extracting something meaningful from the Packers' 31-25 victory over the Steelers seems only appropriate.

For me, this year's Super Bowl underscores the very essence of what makes athletic competition so irresistible at every level. Its unpredictability.

No, Sunday's Packers victory will never be regarded as a surprise, much less a huge upset. The teams were evenly matched on paper, and for some reason the Las Vegas bookies even established Green Bay as a slight favorite throughout the two weeks leading up to the game.

But who among you climbed on the Packers bandwagon in early January when the NFL playoffs commenced? As the runnerup to the Bears in the NFC North and one of two No. 6 seeds in the 12-team field, Green Bay was a certifiable longshot.

And the gauntlet the Packers traversed on the way to the Super Bowl was, in a word, fearsome.

Three consecutive road games in as many weeks. All of them against division champions.

The Packers began in Philadelphia, where they dispatched the NFC East champion Eagles 21-6. Then it was on to Atlanta and a 48-21 rout of the Falcons, champions of the South and the NFC's No. 1 seed.

Which set up a showdown with their division rivals, the Bears, at Soldier Field in Chicago. And the Packers prevailed 21-14.

But let's face it. The heavy lifting was still to come. Because the general consensus all season long - for several seasons, in fact - was that the NFC was inferior to the AFC.

The top-seeded Patriots and Tom Brady, their MVP quarterback, stood first in line to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. But there were a host of worthy challengers, including the Steelers.

As always, the Peyton Manning-led Colts could not be discounted. The Jets were a popular pick after reaching the AFC championship game the previous year. And the Ravens were deemed dangerous as well.

Only the Chiefs were discounted - despite their status as AFC West champions - and that proved to be an accurate evaluation when they were humbled at home by the wild card Ravens 30-7 in the first round.

As one AFC aficionado explained to me before the playoffs began, "There are a lot of teams that scare you in the AFC, but there's no team in the NFC that scares you."

In other words, which ever team made it to the Super Bowl out of the AFC was on the inside track to the championship.

As it turned out, the upstart Jets ambushed the Colts 17-16 in Indianapolis and followed with a 28-21 victory in New England, that coming just five weeks after New York suffered a humiliating 45-3 loss to the Patriots on the same field during the regular season.

The Steelers, meanwhile, eliminated their arch-rivals, the Ravens, 31-24 in Pittsburgh, and then outlasted the Jets 24-19 in the AFC championship game. So the Steelers were back in the Super Bowl for the eighth time in franchise history looking for a seventh NFL championship.

Awaiting them was a Packers team that was in search of its fourth Super Bowl title in five tries. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Which all goes to show that in sports, never be too sure of yourself. Especially in the postseason.

Trends may play out as predicted during the course of the regular season. But in the playoffs, when every game is a do-or-die affair, well, not so much. Footballs have a peculiar way of bouncing.

It's interesting to note that even though the AFC is regarded as the superior conference, NFC teams have now won three of the last four Super Bowls. And even though the Patriots are largely held up as the NFL's preeminent franchise, they haven't played in the big game since 2008, when they lost to the Giants 17-14.

Right now, the Packers are everybody's choice to repeat. And rightfully so. They were the youngest team in the NFL in 2010, and they overcame a plethora of injuries to win the championship.

The Vegas oddsmakers have made them 7-1 favorites. But right behind them are the Patriots and Jets, both 8-1. The Steelers are next at 10-1, followed by the Chargers at 12-1 and the Colts, Ravens and Saints, all 14-1.

Notice that the Saints are the only NFC team other than the Packers ranked in the top eight.

My guess is that by mid-summer, most of the so-called authorities on radio or television who go on ad nauseam about the virtues of the NFL even during the heart of the baseball season will once again sing the praises of the Patriots and patronize the AFC as the NFL's dominant side.

The Packers won't be forgotten, but they will be discounted as members of the lowly NFC.

So be it. That's why they play the games.

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