And then there were two. After the New York Jets and Chicago Bears were sent packing last night, we know that two of the most high profile franchises is the NFL will be involved in Super Bowl XLV. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who own the most Lombardi Trophies in NFL history, represent the AFC, while Aaron Rodgers leads the Green Bay Packers to the House That Jerry Jones Built, looking to cement his own legacy and escape the shadow of Brett Favre once and for all. If the Green Bay Packers win, they will become the second Number Six seed to ever win a Super Bowl. If the Pittsburgh Steelers win, it will mark three Super Bowl victories in the past six seasons and a seventh overall for the franchise, the former an incredible feat matched in recent years only by New England, the latter a demonstration that the Steelers truly are the class of the NFL.
But set aside all the history for a moment. As exciting as it is to think about each of these storied franchises, to truly appreciate this upcoming Super Bowl we must we must look at who will actually be setting foot on the playing field in Dallas and set out memories (or nightmares) of Brett Favre, Bart Starr, and the Steel Curtain aside.
The Quarterback Battle
Unsurprisingly, each team has been to a degree carried to where they are by truly exceptional quarterbacking. Many people think the debate for whom the greatest quarterback of our decade is exists solely between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. However, with a 10-2 career playoff record, impeccable mobility, a big arm, and a great track record in clutch situations and big games, Ben Roethlisberger certainly belongs in the debate, especially if he can help capture the Steelers a third championship in a period of six years.
Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, is the guy who is coming into the game with none of the track record but all of the qualifications to be "The Guy." Like Big Ben, he has a big arm. Like Big Ben, he can make plays happen with his feet. However, unlike Big Ben, Rodgers is coming into this game on a tear, with a 71 completion%, 790 yards, and 6 touchdowns in three playoff games. Big Ben has certainly been instrumental in getting the Steelers to where they are, but is performing a step or two below Rodgers, with a 56.9 completion%, 359 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 picks.
The defensive battle
The Steelers enter this game as the second best defense in the league, allowing the second fewest yards per game. Pittsburgh was by far the best defense against the run, allowing 62.8 yards per game on the ground. The next closest team was Chicago, which gave up just over 90 yards on the ground. It will not be easy for the inexperienced tandem of James Starks and Brandon Jackson to establish the run, but the presence of one of the most easily-burned corners in the league, Bryant McFadden, should allow Rodgers to make a big play when needed.
Despite all the hoopla over the vaunted Steelers defense, the Packers are no slouch either. They finished the regular season as the fifth-best defense in terms of yardage allowed, and their trio of Pro-Bowl stars in the secondary, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Nick Collins, will not make going through the air easy for Ben Roethlisberger. With a banged up offensive line, the Steelers also need to worry about protecting their star quarterback, because in terms of pass rush, these two teams are even. Pittsburgh led the league with 48 sacks, and Green Bay Packers finished right behind them with 47.
Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is dealing with a high ankle sprain, and if he isn't 100% for the game he may be easily overwhelmed by defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who compiled 6.5 sacks. Linebacker Clay Matthews and his 13.5 sacks will be tough to contain, and the Steelers will also be busy keeping defensive end Cullen Jenkins away from the White Mamba. On the other end of the field, the Steelers have a fearsome pair of linebackers in James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, who each collected ten sacks. Both teams had some trouble with giving up sacks, so watch for these guys to make the biggest impact on defense.
How do these teams stack up?
The last time these two teams matched up, the Steelers ended up winning on a late touchdown caught by Mike Wallace. However, that game was not the defensive battle that many people expected, but the Steelers ultimately won a shoot-out 37-36. Rodgers threw for 383 yards in that game, Roethlisberger 503. Most of the players who were active in that game are returning for this rematch, however each team is suffering from at least one significant injury.
The Packers will be without their workhorse back Ryan Grant. While most teams are not able to successfully run on Pittsburgh, if the Packers stood any chance to have success on the ground it would be with Grant lining up at tailback. Brandon Jackson, James Starks, and John Kuhn have filled in admirably, but the limited success they have found will be stamped out by the stifling Steelers defense.
The Steelers, however, have been dealing with injuries all year, and will be hurt most by the absence of offensive linemen Max Starks and Willie Colon. Starks, who was the starting left tackle for Pittsburgh during their 2005 and 2008 Super Bowl seasons, sustained a neck injury earlier in the season and was lost to IR. On the other side, Pittsburgh lost their starting right tackle in Willie Colon, who tore his Achilles tendon in training camp. The fact that the Steelers even made it this far without two of their starting offensive linemen is amazing, but expect the Packers' pass rush to take advantage of this early and often.
How it all shakes out:
Packers stalwart wide receiver Donald Driver isn't shying away: he says that Super Bowl XLV is Green Bay's to lose. Since the Packers are the healthier team and are fresh off a defeat of their hated rivals Chicago in their own stadium, Green Bay clearly has the momentum on their side. But as we've seen all too often, all it takes is a jarring helmet-to-helmet hit from James Harrison to swing momentum in Pittsburgh's favor. Still, because the Steelers won the previous game between these two teams, the Packers must be coming in with some chip on their shoulders, despite their proud displays of confidence to the media.