Going into the playoffs, I thought that the Green Bay Packers were the most dangerous team from the NFC. I certainly wasn't alone in that; the Packers may have been seeded sixth but they were winners of four straight games and the hottest team in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers was playing the best football of his impressive young career, the defense was moving from strong to dominant, and everything seemed to be clicking on all cylinders. They maintained that poise throughout the playoffs while taking out MVP candidate Michael Vick and the Eagles, Matt Ryan and the number one seed Falcons, and finally their great rivals the Chicago Bears. Now they will return to the Superbowl for the first time since 1998 and take on the Pittsburg Steelers.
Unlike the Packers, no one would go to the trouble of describing the Pittsburg Steelers as the "hottest" team in the league. That is because Pittsburg is simply maintaining its level of dominance; the team has been to the Superbowl twice in the past half decade and will now add a third visit. The Steelers don't need to "get hot"; they are simply dominant and seem to manage to win games no matter what happens. In the Divisional Playoffs, they faced their archrivals, the Baltimore Ravens, and found themselves down 21-7 and out of challenges early against a top five NFL defense filled with tough playmakers like linebacker Ray Lewis, free safety Ed Reed, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. But the Steelers were undaunted, clawed their way back into the game slowly, created and took advantage of Baltimore mistakes, and gritted out a 31-24 victory. The very next week, they led early against the Jets but faced a team determined to come back….and still defeated them 24-19. It didn't matter that the Jets had all the second half momentum and were ready for another big comeback because Ben Roethlisberger simply caught his breath, called a play, braced himself for impact, and willed his team to get the first down they needed to win the game. It wasn't pretty-in fact it was anything but-yet it secured the Steelers another Superbowl showdown.
That is what this matchup is: it is a showdown between the hot, up and coming Packers and the dominant Pittsburg Steelers. If you're looking for a historical reference, this matchup is very similar to Superbowl XIV in 1980. In Superbowl XIV, Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw led the last dominant Steelers team of the era against the upstart Los Angeles Rams. The Rams were an 11-8 team that went 9-7 before making the playoffs but they were on a hot streak. The Steelers went on to win that game 31-19 as the last Iron Curtain defense stifled the Ram's potent running attack. Of course, the biggest difference between these two games is that, unlike their Iron Curtain forebears, the Steelers are not ready to cede the spotlight after this year. Even with three Superbowl visits in the past six years, the Steelers remain relatively young, talented at almost every position, and poised to continue to dominate the league.
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Before delving into the specifics of the matchup, however, I want to look at the games' most intriguing subplot: it is the battle to determine which quarterback will emerge as the new standard in the NFL. Up until now, NFL officials and fans have quietly downplayed Ben Roethlisberger's explosive talent and overall winning ability because of his off the field troubles. But, with a third Superbowl in six years under his belt, his accomplishments will become impossible to ignore and the NFL will have to face up to the fact that the most accomplished quarterback in the league is very possibly a repeat sexual assault offender. While I don't know if he is actually guilty, they circumstantial evidence is strong and that would be a difficult thing for the NFL to brush off. On the flip side, Aaron Rodgers is the ultimate good guy and, if he wins, the NFL will have a perfect new face of the league.
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Now let's look at the matchup itself. The Steelers' dominance over the past few seasons makes them the favorites. Their defense has been dominant for a half decade and might have gotten even better this season. Second year defensive tackle Ziggy Hood helped shore up the run defense and make up for the absence of ageing defensive end Aaron Smith while reacquiring Bryant McFadden helped shore up the secondary. Meanwhile, on offense, a breakout year by running back Rashard Mendenhall, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's resurgence, and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey have all helped to create the most balanced and potent Steelers offensive attack of the modern era.
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However, the Packers should prove to be a difficult opponent. While an unproven "hot" team and a wild card, the Packers are playing amazing football. Green Bay is talented at every single position on the football field and has some areas of true dominance. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is one of the best in the game and would love to announce his arrival with a Superbowl victory. His receivers, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and James Jones, are the best triple deep threat in the NFL. The running game has been solid recently with the addition of James Starks to the rotation and, if the line can continue to keep Rodgers upright, he will wreak havoc on Pittsburg's pedestrian corners. For all his greatness, Troy Polamalu is not a deep safety adept at covering the corners so, if Pittsburg fails to bring enough pressure, Rodgers will burn them on the edges.
Meanwhile, on defense, Green Bay may not have the Steelers' reputation yet but they certainly have the ability to wreak havoc on Pittsburg's offensive rhythm. Defensive tackle B.J. Raji, the self proclaimed "Freezer," is a beast of a man capable of clogging a running lane all by himself. His helper on the edge, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, might be the most disruptive force in the pocket on any NFL team. If he isn't, outside linebacker Clay Matthews could lay claim to the title and cornerback Charles Woodson, last year's defensive player of the year, tackles like a freight train. This is not a soft defense; in fact, while the Steelers' defense is reputed to be the NFL's toughest, the Packers can certainly give their opponents a run for their money.
All of that makes for a fairly even matchup. It's always tough to call Superbowls; after all these teams got here for a reason. Late heroics (David Tyree's catch in the Giant's 2007 win over the Patriots always comes to mind) have a way of spoiling the best predictions. But, if it were my money, I would still bet on the Steelers. They took out a determined Ravens team that was one of the toughest in the league and then smashed a Jets team that defeated Peyton Manning's Colts and Tom Brady's Patriots in succession. The Packers are very talented but I just don't see them beating Pittsburg this year. There is a new Iron Curtain in Pittsburg and I think that the Packers will find it very dark inside.
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