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Don't be stunned Pack are favored

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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It makes total sense for Vegas oddsmakers to pick the youth movement over the graybeards, Pittsburgh’s proven commodity, and install the Green Bay Packers as 2-1/2-point favorites in Super Bowl XLV.

For four consecutive seasons, the Green Bay Packers were the youngest team in the NFL. That stat alone is pretty remarkable, and it shines a bright light on general manager Ted Thompson’s personnel prowess. And we all know how that youth was served. These Packers, the No. 6 seed, beat the three best teams in the NFC -- all on the road -- to reach the Super Bowl.

Like quarterback Aaron Rodgers says, they basically have won five consecutive elimination games when you count their final two regular-season wins they needed to qualify for the playoffs. Pressure? What pressure?

“The best thing about all our young players is that they don’t know how young they are and they don’t play like guys without a lot of experience,” Thompson told me after the Packers won the NFC title with a 21-14 victory Sunday at Chicago.

Yes, nothing seems to faze this Kiddies Korps. The Packers have only two players on the 53-man roster who ever played in a Super Bowl – defensive lineman Ryan Pickett with the Rams in 2002 and Charles Woodson with the Raiders in 2003 – and they both are returning hoping to win this time around.

Woodson, incidentally is Thompson’s lone major signee in unrestricted free agency. Thompson is a draft wonk, and this team is a testament to his selection skills, but he made the right call on Woodson when many Raiders weren't sure whether he was a cornerback evolving into a safety.

Today, Woodson seems close to totally embracing that exact role. He has been living on the edge on the defensive line, rushing opposing quarterbacks, while younger cornerbacks like Tramon Williams and rookie Sam Shields stick with receivers in the far reaches of the secondary.

We saw both of those undrafted players ranging far and wide Sunday in Chicago as Jay Cutler never seemed to possess the arm strength or the accuracy to beat either one of them.

The Packers were one of the sexy Super Bowl picks this summer. We all knew they were overloaded with young talent and that Rodgers had the big arm and the quick release. But things fell apart for them during the season as key players landed on injured reserve, including three starters on defense. But it has been a resolute bunch that pulled the young players through, led by such proven veterans as Woodson, Cullen Jenkins, speedy receiver Greg Jennings and old-pro left tackle Chad Clifton.

I realize that none of the Green Bay linebackers will ever be confused with James Harrison and James Farrior, but Clay Matthews leads a speedy bunch and he’s finally in the big show that eluded his talented father for 19 seasons. New starters such as Erik Walden and Desmond Bishop have no major reputations, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who once installed the famous zone blitz in Pittsburgh back in 1992, intelligently knows how to mix and match this talent, all of which is quick and fast.

Jay Cutler

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The Packers look like a team that would whip every team in the league in a relay race. That’s how impressive their overall team speed is on both sides of the ball.

Yes, the Bears finally tamed Rodgers in the second half, giving him a bloody lip and a ringing sensation in his head, compliments of $20 million man Julius Peppers. The NFC Championship Game was the one game down the stretch in which Rodgers didn’t finish with a full 60 minutes worth of explosive plays.

But coach Mike McCarthy showed the best of his game plan on the opening drive as Rodgers zipped four straight completions for 76 yards, finishing the drive with a 1-yard rollout to his left.

Did you notice on the play that nose tackle B.J. Raji, who would later rumble 18 yards with a game-winning interception touchdown, was lined up as a blocking back, just like “Refrigerator” Perry did for the ’85 Bears? It was John Kuhn’s dive into the end zone, behind a roaring Raji, that fooled the Bears, allowing Rodgers to reach the end zone.

Clifton injured his shoulder on that Raji goal-line play, and after he left the game, Rodgers was continually pressured by Peppers. But Clifton returned to play steady down the stretch, just like he has all season.

The overall beauty of the Packers is that they are fearless. That’s a testament to McCarthy, who has total confidence in this bunch and rarely is playing it safe. Remember how he opened the New England game with an onsides kick and almost pulled out a great upset in Foxboro with backup quarterback Matt Flynn?

McCarthy has this fearless, overly confident demeanor right now. His players not only love it, but they are feeding off his we-can-do-anything attitude.

OK, McCarthy did pull in his offense in the second half, believing that Capers had the right defensive strategy to stop unknown quarterback Caleb Hanie, a scout team player. McCarthy was right as Hanie fired a game-ending interception, his second of the game.

McCarthy also pulled the right strings with rookie runner James Starks. He gave him a start a couple months ago, but when he didn’t produce and when the coach became displeased with his practice habits, he put him back on the bench. McCarthy got the young player’s full attention, and Starks has been an astonishing performer in the playoffs for a team that seemed to give up on its running game by midseason.

In three playoff games, Starks has a playoff-leading 70 carries. He rushed for 74 yards against the Bears, including a 4-yard touchdown that gave the Packers a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. It was Starks’ first touchdown as a pro.

Starks may not possess the monster skills that Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall exhibited running over Rex Ryan’s bunch, but McCarthy is pretty happy with this kid who was injured for more than a year.

And just like the Steelers, the Packers have a bona fide No. 1 receiver with speed and breakaway skills in Jennings. Jennings had eight catches for the second straight week, giving him 231 receiving yards over the two games. His superior talent allows Rodgers to find guys such as Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver and James Jones when Jennings is double-covered.

“It’s a tough road,” Woodson said, “but we just always believed in ourselves that if we had the opportunity to get into the playoffs that it didn’t matter which way we had to go, we felt confident that we could get it done.”

What the Steelers ought to be worried about is that Rodgers had a bad numbers day for him – no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 55.4 passer rating against the Bears – after throwing for 10 touchdowns in his first three playoff games. Packers Nation knows he can play a lot better than that.

Tagged: Bears, Packers, Steelers, Chad Clifton, Charles Woodson, James Farrior, James Harrison, Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Matt Flynn, B.J. Raji, James Starks

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