ARLINGTON , Texas -- Jordy Nelson sat with his son, Royal, on his lap and an awestruck expression on his face. Officially, he was at “Podium 3” in the makeshift interview area on the field level of Cowboys Stadium. But mentally, he may still have been a few hundred feet away, on the field, where his nine-catch, 140-yard performance led the way in a wild 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
“Besides him,” Nelson said, glancing at his son, “and getting married, this is the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
Nelson’s performance was crucial for an offense that lost veteran receiver Donald Driver to an ankle injury before the half and against a Steelers defense intent on holding Greg Jennings – four catches for 64 yards, but two touchdowns – in check. Still, it was clear early on that – to borrow a line from the game’s halftime entertainers – tonight’s going to be a good night for the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Nelson. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw Nelson’s way five times in the first quarter and he converted those into three receptions for 47 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown down the right sideline ahead of Steelers cornerback William Gay to put Green Bay up 7-0.
As big as that first score was, Nelson had a bookend play of equal importance 2 minutes into the fourth quarter. On third-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 40-yard line, Nelson came from Rodgers’ right side in front of Steelers free safety Ryan Clark, catching the bullet in stride and turning it up the left sideline for a 38-yard gain before being pushed out at the 3-yard line by NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu. Jennings scores two plays later to put Green Bay up 28-17 and give it some breathing room.
“Sometimes, coverage dictates how many opportunities you’re going to have in a game,” Packer offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said, “(Jordy) really stepped up. He played extremely well and made some big plays. He did a great job in the fourth quarter when we scored that touchdown. It was a nice crossing route against a zone blitz and he made a big play.”
Nelson’s big third-down play came on the heels of a drop over the middle on the previous play. Philbin joked that Nelson said he could hear him yelling from the coaches box. But he probably was, considering the Packers unofficially had six drops. That was Nelson’s third of the game – a deep pass up the right sideline in the first quarter potentially could’ve gone the distance. Either way, they were plays he ultimately made up for.
“We can’t do that, but we bounced back and everyone made plays,” Nelson said. “I’ll tell you right now, when you look back at this game, you’re not going to see the drops.”
If there was a matchup to exploit heading into the game, it was spreading the field with four- and five-receiver sets and attacking the seams of Pittsburgh’s secondary. In Super Bowl XLV, it played out in front of musicians, actors, ex-presidents and 100,000-plus fans at Cowboys Stadium, not to mention millions more watching at home.
"We feel there are hardly any defensive backs who can match up with us one-on-one, let alone four-on-four or five-on-five," Nelson said. "Defenses just aren't built that way."
For Nelson, it was more mismatch than matchup. Nelson’s 140 yards were a team Super Bowl record, besting Max McGee’s Super Bowl I total of 138. Aside from Gay, cornerback Bryant McFadden struggled to keep up with him. Nelson stung him for catches of 16 and 17 yards in the second and third quarters.
"McFadden likes to play off," Jennings said. "He gives a soft cushion to the No. 3 receiver and can be slow coming out of his breaks. We knew the No. 3 was going to have McFadden and we were pretty much going to exploit that match up and it just happened to be Jordy."
When it was confirmed at halftime that Driver wouldn’t be back, it was time for Nelson to turn it up even more. It seemed only fitting that in a season defined by the “next-man-up” mentality, Nelson would be one of the players picking up the slack when yet another starter went down.
“He stepped up tremendously,” Driver said. “The crazy part is those guys came in (the locker room) and saw my eyes and told me, ‘We can’t cry because you’re crying right now.’ So I told them to go out there and win it all. Jordy stepped up when probably no one expected him to do it. He stepped up and filled my shoes and that’s the type of guys you have to have on your team.
“(Jordy’s) a playmaker and that’s what you want to have. You have to have opportunities. When you get your opportunities, you have to make the best of them.”
Nelson did just that with a performance worthy of MVP consideration.
Later, while the locker room still bubbled with players hugging and shaking hands and posing with the Lombardi Trophy, Nelson walked gingerly toward the showers after needing help to remove his shirt. Dried blood on his elbow and knee, scrapes and scuffs on his arms and legs, there was nothing easy about this championship and the unlikely, starring role he played in it.
But the look on his face said, “best feeling ever,” and Sunday night, was definitely a good night.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.