Super Bowl XLV Preview

Five Quick Hits

* Congratulations to this year's Walter Payton Man of the Year award finalists, Nnamdi Asomugha (OAK), Israel Idonije (CHI), and Madieu Williams (MIN). The award primarily recognizes off-field service, players who use their careers to help others.

* Carson Palmer reportedly is threatening to retire if the Bengals fail to trade him. It seems unbelievable that he would walk away from $40 million, but they say money can't buy happiness, and playing for a franchise that so stubbornly refuses to improve can't make a guy happy.

* In the middle of a late comeback attempt, the Bears burned a timeout even though the clock wasn't running. I guess some things never change, do they, Mike Martz?

* Fitness marvel Jack LaLanne died this weekend at age 96. Both LaLanne's commitment to fitness and his interest in helping others achieve it were legendary. He was an inspiring guy, and will be missed.

* When's the last time we had two quarterbacks this mobile in the Super Bowl? Brett Favre and John Elway in 1997? Joe Montana and Elway in '89? Ken Anderson and Montana in '81? Maybe Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach in the '70s? It's been a long time.

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Conference Championship Roundups

Packers 21, Bears 14

Am I supposed to start with Knee-gate? Jay Cutler, who is overrated to begin with — a physically gifted but immature and inconsistent player — played quite poorly on Sunday, actually had a lower passer rating (31.8) than backups Todd Collins (39.6) and Caleb Hanie (65.2). He left the game with what was reported as a knee injury, though it wasn't obvious when the injury might have occurred, and he was later seen standing (rather than sitting) on the sidelines.

I have no basis to speculate about anything related to Cutler's condition, but it's interesting that so many people aren't buying the idea that he was too hurt to play. As I was watching the game, I actually found myself wondering about why Cutler wasn't in the game, and that was before I knew so many players and observers around the league felt the same way. I don't question Jay Cutler's physical toughness, but clearly, he hasn't proven to people yet that he is mentally tough.

Hanie, playing the fourth quarter, generated the spark that neither Cutler nor Collins was able to provide, connecting on a pair of touchdown passes. The TDs were also notable for the inexplicably bad play of Green Bay safety Nick Collins, who is a very good defensive back. On both passes, though, he took unimaginably bad angles and overran the play, allowing the receivers to score.

Balancing the mistakes by Collins was the fine play of the other defensive players, who held Chicago to an abysmal 8% third down conversion rate (1/13). Particularly impressive were defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins and B.J. Raji, the latter of whom returned a Hanie interception for the game-clinching touchdown. The Packers' passing offense attracts so much attention that their defense, the best in the NFC, often seems to fly under the radar, but the Bears were unable to find any consistency on offense, partly through their own ineptitude and partly because of the opponent.

Defensively, the Bears relied on their front four to generate pressure, and didn't get it. Aaron Rodgers had too much time to pass, and too much room to improvise when the time wasn't there. Rodgers repeatedly picked on Tim Jennings, and Packer wideout Greg Jennings (no relation) had a big game (8 catches, 130 yards) from the opening drive. Chicago's defense responded well afterwards, but the better team won.

Steelers 24, Jets 19

I'm a little bitter about something, and I need to get this off my chest before we really get to the game. Last week, I picked the Packers to win by 7, which they did. I picked the Steelers to win by 4, which they would have if the Jets had made a two-point conversion down 24-18. One point from perfection!

Last week against Baltimore, the Steelers were sloppy in the first half, dominant in the second. Against the Jets, they were magnificent in the first half, lackadaisical in the second. Pittsburgh scored 24 points in the first two quarters, none after halftime. Can this team put together a whole game playing at a high level?

At halftime, the Steelers had more points (24) than the Jets had plays (22), with a 12-minute edge in time of possession, more than twice as much (21:04) as New York (8:56). That the Jets even made it close after that is worrisome. When Pittsburgh was successful, it was by controlling the ground both offensively and defensively. Rashard Mendenhall had one of his best games as a pro (121 rush yards, TD), and backup Isaac Redman made a few key plays, as well. Meanwhile, the Jets, for whom passing is more a change of pace than a way of life, were unable to find any consistency rushing the football.

This was a classic Steeler win, based on running and defense, with a playoff-tested quarterback making enough plays. Credit offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for an offensive gameplan that attacked the Jets where they were weakest, and stuck with it, controlling the clock and giving him defense an opportunity to secure the win. Linebackers James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Lawrence Timmons played particularly well for this year's AFC champs. Troy Polamalu, who missed time at the end of the regular season due to injury, hasn't looked like himself in the playoffs.

Jets coach Rex Ryan attracts a lot of criticism, and when his team inevitably runs into some speed bumps, that will turn into a firestorm, but he's done a tremendous job with this team. I admire his candor, and it's easy to tell why his players like him and play hard for him. For the second season in a row, the Jets have made a heck of a run.

The Crystal Ball

Super Bowl XLV: Green Bay Packers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Arlington, Texas
February 6, 2011

They say defense wins championships, and these are the two best defensive teams in the NFL. The Steelers allowed the fewest points this season, the Packers the second-fewest. They were both top-5 in fewest yards allowed, as well as sacks, interceptions, and opponents' passer rating. The game is full of defensive stars, from Harrison and Woodley and Polamalu to Clay Matthews III and Charles Woodson and Raji.

And yet, the focus in coming days is likely to fall on quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger. Rodgers, arguably the best QB in the league, has fully emerged from the shadow of Brett Favre. It continues to amaze me that Favre, who should have retired a legend in Green Bay, a figure beloved for years to come, managed to make himself so hated in the city that once adored him. Rodgers, throughout the ongoing drama, consistently handled himself with professionalism and restraint. Roethlisberger, suspended at the beginning of the season following a sexual assault accusation, returned a more humble player and led the Steelers to their third Super Bowl in six seasons.

Both have played well this postseason, though each struggled on Sunday, throwing 2 interceptions apiece. Both are mobile quarterbacks who are hard to bring down, throw well on the run, and are willing to tuck the ball and slide head first. Rodgers is the better player, but Big Ben has the postseason pedigree, and I'm sure Steeler fans wouldn't trade him for anyone. In this game, I'm not sure I blame them.

GREEN BAY ON OFFENSE

The Packers are a passing team. With the emergence of rookie RB James Starks, they've run effectively this postseason, but mostly as a change of pace, dictating the flow of the game and keeping the opponents honest. Rodgers and Greg Jennings are the real stars, the true playmakers. That works in Green Bay's favor, because although Pittsburgh's pass defense is very good, it's also the only place the Steelers are vulnerable. Their run defense is almost impenetrable, and it doesn't behoove the Packers to test it with anything other than short-yardage and some token runs against pass coverage or to set up play-action.

This probably sounds crazy, but I'd consider testing Polamalu. He's got two weeks to get healthy, so probably he'll be his usual self, and even at 80% he's a good safety. But he hasn't looked right in a long time, and if Green Bay can take advantage and get the Steelers doubting one of their stars, this game could break open in a way few people expect. What the Packers should worry about most are Dick LeBeau's pass rush packages. The team sinks or swims with Rodgers, and it has to protect him.

Defensively, the Steelers will look to frustrate, confuse, and stifle Rodgers. They'll take their chances against Starks and Brandon Jackson all day. Most likely, they'll try to stay unpredictable, alternating between pass rush pressure and heavy coverage. Harrison and Polamalu could play especially big roles, because they often rush the passer, and both have the speed to bring Rodgers down when he leaves the pocket. Play too much coverage, and he'll run for first downs. Green Bay is difficult to defend because its receiving corps is so deep, but it's especially important to limit Jennings. Expect him to see a lot of Ike Taylor on February 6th.

Pittsburgh needs to be particularly aware of the big play. Green Bay is very capable of putting together clock-killing, defense-wearying drives, but the deep pass is always key to the team's offensive gameplan. And while long drives can fatigue a defensive unit, they also represent opportunities for a ball-hawking defense like this. Packer coach Mike McCarthy never met a field goal he didn't like, so the Steelers would do well to make the end zone as forbidding as possible. They can win if the Packers are patting Mason Crosby's butt instead of dancing around Rodgers or Jennings or Kuhn.

PITTSBURGH ON OFFENSE

The Steelers' offense is more balanced than Green Bay's, but Pittsburgh should make a particular point to keep the ball on the ground. Green Bay has the league's best pass defense, but a below-average run defense. The Steelers sometimes seem to become fascinated with their pass attack, but against the Packers that's probably not a recipe for success. Big Ben will throw, of course, and he'll need to make plays for them to win, but the gameplan should probably look a lot like the first half of the Jets game.

When these teams met in 2009, the Packers sacked Roethlisberger 5 times, but he passed for 503 yards. I can't imagine Green Bay will be as reckless with its blitzes this time around, but you never know, so I'd have some plays designed to attack the middle of the field, and be ready to go to Mike Wallace when he gets single coverage. Tight end Heath Miller had a big game in the last meeting (7 rec, 118 yds), so it will be interesting to see how the Packers cover him this time. Something to keep an eye on is the status of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who missed most of Sunday's game with what the team is calling an ankle sprain. He was on crutches in the second half, and a mishandled center exchange in his absence led to a safety that put the Jets back in the game.

I believe the Packers should worry less about blitzing than coverage. This defense is so strong up front that the pressure will come, and Roethlisberger will take sacks even without pressure, because he's always looking for the big play. You have to frustrate him, and sometimes he'll force the ball into coverage and make mistakes. Wallace requires particular attention, and the team needs a better way of covering Miller. I'd use Charles Woodson to take Hines Ward out of the game, and hope B.J. Raji can take advantage of whoever lines up at center, whether it's a hobbled Pouncey or a healthy Doug Legursky.

The first priority, as dangerous as Roethlisberger and his receivers can be, is Mendenhall. We all saw what he did to the Jets, and the Packers can't afford a repeat performance in Arlington. If the passing game is clicking, the Steelers will probably win, but the Packers have an offense that can keep up in a shootout. What they can't do is let the Steelers control the game on the ground, grinding out drives.

SPECIAL TEAMS

This probably should be considered an edge for Green Bay. Punter Tim Masthay has repeatedly trapped opponents in bad position, limiting return opportunities and keeping kicks out of the end zone. Pittsburgh kicker Shaun Suisham, who joined the team in midseason — his third team in two years — is not the guy you want trying a long field goal (or a short one, for that matter) with the game on the line.

THE FORECAST

This is the first postseason meeting between these two teams. The Packers have won more NFL championships (12) than anyone, while the Steelers have won the most Super Bowls (6). Both teams are also remarkable for their passionate fans.

Oddsmakers see Green Bay as the early favorite, by about 2 points depending on where you look. I do think the Packers are the better team, and certainly they've looked more dominant recently. Both teams have great defenses, Pittsburgh a little better. But while the Steelers have a pretty good offense, the Packers have a downright great offense, and when it's clicking, they look unstoppable.

In order to win, Pittsburgh absolutely must make sure that the Packers' offense doesn't click, or at least not with any consistency. The defense needs to generate turnovers, at least one and probably two, and it has to keep the Packers kicking. Field goals are okay, touchdowns are not. The Packers struggled to convert short-yardage third downs against Chicago, and the Steelers need to replicate that. It would help to keep Rodgers off the field as much as possible in the first place, controlling the clock with Mendenhall and the short passing game.

This may sound strange, but a high-scoring game probably favors Pittsburgh. Both teams rely on their defenses, but while Green Bay expects to score, if the Steelers get anywhere near 30, things are going wrong for the green and gold. Time of possession may be an overrated stat, but the Packers need to be conscious of the clock in this game. I think a long game favors them, so they can't have Rodgers sitting on the sidelines watching the clock drain between runs. They need a couple big plays on offense, with a lot of first downs, and they need to generate some pass rush without blitzing too much. The cornerbacks will bear a particularly large burden in this game.

If the Packers win, it will be with solid defense and a couple of big plays — turnovers, key stops on third and fourth down — as well as another phenomenal game from Rodgers. With all due respect to the defensive stars, Rodgers is the best player on the team, and he needs to show up in a big way for them to overcome the Steelers. I'd like to see him throwing early and often, running when the opening is there. The best quarterbacks can sometimes dictate a game, and this is Rodgers' opportunity to become a legend.

I do believe the Packers are the better team, but I think this game might be too big for them, and I'm betting on Pittsburgh. McCarthy is afraid of losing, while Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is afraid of not winning. McCarthy, a Marty Schottenheimer disciple, gets very conservative when the Packers are up late, and has absolutely no killer instinct on fourth down. Tomlin goes for the throat, and I mean that in the best possible way. He reminds me of Bill Belichick in that way, and I think it serves this team well.

The Steelers have been here before, and the moment shouldn't be too big for them. Perhaps Green Bay can overcome that with sheer talent, but I believe Pittsburgh's experience, resolve, and aggressiveness will take the day. You're not going to shut down either of these offenses, but people forget how good the defenses are, and I expect a low-scoring game. Pittsburgh captures its seventh Super Bowl, 20-16.

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