ARLINGTON, Texas — A day after the Green Bay Packers' 2009 season ended with a playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals, coach Mike McCarthy held exit interviews with his players.
McCarthy was still frustrated about the overtime defeat a day earlier, but he couldn't help but feel good as he drove home that night because of the confidence his players had shown during those meetings.
"They were disappointed, but they were excited," McCarthy said. "They knew we had a good football team."
A year later, the Packers are Super Bowl champions.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns and the Packers survived injuries, a mistake-filled third quarter and a second-half surge from an opponent looking for its third championship in six years.
The result, a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers before a crowd of 103,219 at Cowboys Stadium, assured the Lombardi Trophy will be returning to Titletown for the first time in 14 years.
For the Packers (14-6), the journey back to elite status in the NFL began nearly 13 months ago as the players gathered their belongings at Lambeau Field and spoke with McCarthy before heading off into the offseason.
"I think we knew how good we were," Packers right guard Josh Sitton said. "I think everyone did have that confidence that we were going to come back and we were going to make a run.
"It didn't matter how we got there, we were going to get in the playoffs and we were going to make a run. Mike said at the beginning of the year that we're going to be playing our best football come playoff time. He was right."
Like they did all season, the Packers had to overcome adversity. Their sixth straight victory to end the season came without a pair of emotional leaders - cornerback Charles Woodson (collarbone) and wide receiver Donald Driver (ankle) - who couldn't finish the game because of injuries.
It didn't matter, because the Packers still had Rodgers.
Green Bay led by as many as 18 points, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers didn't go away and pulled within single digits in the second half.
But every time Pittsburgh pulled close, Rodgers had an answer.
Pittsburgh (14-5) had scored 14 straight points to pull within 21-17 in the third quarter, but Rodgers restored his team's two-score cushion with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings.
The Steelers pulled within 28-25 midway through the fourth quarter, but Rodgers directed a 10-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a Mason Crosby field goal to give the Packers a six-point lead with 2 minutes, 7 seconds left.
Late in the 2009 regular season, a six-point lead wasn't enough against the Steelers, who rallied for a one-point victory behind Roethlisberger.
"He's done it," Packers director of football operations Reggie McKenzie said of Roethlisberger, who rallied the Steelers past Arizona in the Super Bowl two years ago. "Not just to us, but he's won Super Bowls. He's been through this big game, on this big stage. He's brought his team back in big games."
The scene was set for another Roethlisberger rally, but this time the Packers stood their ground. After Roethlisberger completed his first two passes of the drive, he misfired on three straight throws to end it. His last one was briefly in the hands of wide receiver Mike Wallace, but Packers cornerback Tramon Williams knocked it out.
Two kneel-downs later, the Packers were champions. As Rodgers hugged his teammates, confetti fell from the rafters and Van Halen's "Top Of The World" blared over the loudspeakers.
"We've got to give credit to our defense," said Rodgers, who was named the game's Most Valuable Player. "This is a great group of men we've put together here. They have a lot of character and we do a lot together. It's just great to share it with them."
The Packers scored a pair of touchdowns in a span of 24 seconds late in the first quarter to take a 14-0 lead. Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for a 29-yard touchdown for the first score of the game, and Nick Collins returned a Roethlisberger interception 37 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the next series.
Green Bay's cushion grew to 21-3 after Rodgers delivered a fastball that split three defenders and ended up in the hands of Jennings for a 21-yard touchdown with 2:24 left in the first half.
It looked like the rout was on, but that couldn't have been further from the case.
Packers cornerbacks Woodson and Sam Shields suffered shoulder injuries on consecutive plays on Pittsburgh's next series, and Roethlisberger took advantage by moving the team 77 yards in seven plays. His 8-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward cut the deficit to 21-10 at the half.
After committing just one penalty in the first half, the Packers had five in the third quarter alone. Rodgers' wide receivers also developed a sudden case of the drops as the offense stalled.
Rashard Mendenhall scored on an 8-yard run to pull the Steelers within 21-17 early in the third quarter and the Packers spent the rest of the quarter trying to keep Pittsburgh from taking its first lead of the game.
But the Steelers never got in front, mainly because Rodgers' will carried the team.
When it was over, the Packers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in a ceremony that had been 13 months in the making.
"This football team stayed together all year," Packers wide receiver James Jones said. "We're a family. We fought through a lot of adversity. We came out here today and had more adversity and we fought through it."