Superbowl XLV: The Pack looks to attack the yellow and black

By Mark Thomson

The Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Green Bay Packers. Superbowl XLV. After an extremely unpredictable NFL season that saw a 7-9 team make the playoffs while two 10-6 teams were left out, it’s only fitting that these two teams are meeting next Sunday. The Packers are the first six-seed in NFC history to make it to the Superbowl. The Steelers were left for dead at the start of the season when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s four game suspension was announced at the beginning of the year. Yet both teams are Arlington bound. How did we get here?The Steelers went 12-4 in the regular season, winning the AFC North and earning a first round bye. They silenced the doubters who said they couldn’t win without Roethlisberger by going 3-1 in his absence. Although it wasn’t always pretty, the black and yellow (see Wiz Khalifa) always found a way to win games. Perhaps this ability to pull wins out was best shown in their Week 12 victory over Buffalo after Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson infamously blamed God for dropping a potentially game winning touchdown in overtime. On the offensive side of the ball, they were far from dominant in the regular season, finishing 12th in scoring, 14th in passing yards per game, and 11th in rushing yards per game. However, they relied on a punishing defense that allowed 62.8 rushing yards per game (the best mark in the league by almost 30 yards), led the league in sacks, and allowed an NFL-best 14.5 points per game.

In the playoffs, the Steelers won both games they were supposed to win. The Ravens were supposed to be a challenge, and indeed, Pittsburgh had to come back from a 21-7 deficit. However, the Steelers were 3-point favorites heading into that game, and I actually thought that was low. Playing at Heinz Field, with a much better quarterback and coach, it really wasn’t a surprise that they won. Roethlisberger had a big game in the 31-24 victory, throwing for 226 yards and two scores. And against the Jets, no matter what Rex Ryan would have you believe, the Steelers were a superior team. It seemed as if the Steelers were a step ahead of the Jets at every point in the first half, and even though the Jets definitely put the Steelers on their toes with 19 unanswered points, the Steelers proved worthy of representing the AFC in the Superbowl. Running back Rashard Mendenhall carried the team with 121 yards and a score, leading the team to a 24-19 win.

On the other hand, the Packers are a bit of a surprise. They went 10-6 in the regular season, including losses to the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins. They didn’t clinch a playoff birth until the very last game of the season, had a bottom-10 rushing game, and were 10th in the league in scoring. However, like the Steelers, their defense was outstanding. They finished second to Pittsburgh in points allowed per game and sacks, forced the second-most interceptions in the league, and limited opposing quarterbacks to an NFL-best average 67.2 passer rating.

After sneaking into the playoffs, Green Bay shocked the world by winning three road games to reach the Superbowl During Wild Card Weekend, the Pack won a tightly contested game 21-16 at 2.5-point favored Philadelphia by intercepting Eagles quarterback Michael Vick with less than a minute remaining. Rodgers threw for three touchdowns but the story of the game was the performance by rookie James Starks. Starks ran for 123 yards, more than his entire regular season total. Against Atlanta the following weekend, the Packers pulled off another upset. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who had only lost two games at the Georgia Dome prior to the Divisional Playoffs, looked overmatched against Green Bay’s defense. Rodgers had one of the best games ever by a quarterback in playoff history, completing 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and four total touchdowns. The Green Bay offense as a whole erupted for 48 points and never punted. Finally, last weekend against the Chicago Bears, Green Bay overcame Rodgers’ first shaky playoff game by winning 21-14. Their defense never allowed Chicago to establish a rhythm offensively, forcing three turnovers and knocking quarterback Jay Cutler out of the game. Rookie Sam Shields clinched the game with an interception in the game’s final minute, punching the team’s ticket to the Superbowl.

Green Bay is an early 3.5- point favorite over Pittsburgh. I find this a bit surprising, given that the Steelers were a better team during the regular season and have won two Superbowls over the past five years. Their offense is more balanced than Green Bay’s and their defense is as good as ever. Troy Polamalu is still Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger is still Ben Roethlisberger, and Mike Tomlin is Mike Tomlin. The Steelers know the recipe for success, whereas the Packers are learning it.

As good as Rodgers has been in the playoffs, he’s done it against the 14th, 22nd, and 20th best passing defenses (in terms of yards allowed per game). If he continues his postseason brilliance, I think the Packers have an excellent shot at winning the game. Rodgers can carry his team to victory, and after watching him play football at Cal, I’ll be rooting for him. However, it’s not a stretch to say that he is their offense. If he plays like he did against Chicago, the Steelers defense will tear him apart. He’s going to need to play like he did against Atlanta for the Packers to win.

Roethlisberger, on the other hand, could have an off day and I still wouldn’t bet against them. Indeed, against a very good Jets team last weekend, he only completed 10 out of 19 passes for 133 yards, good for a 35.5 passer rating. Mendenhall was the one who led the offense and has shown that he can in the past. He averaged over 20 carries per game in the regular season and tied for second in the league with 13 rushing scores. Although his average yards per carry was a rather pedestrian 3.9, he’s perfect for chewing up the clock and allowing their defense to take control of the game, which I believe will happen. They could easily score a touchdown or two. Ultimately, although I don’t think Roethlisberger is a better quarterback than Rodgers, I do think that the Steelers are a better team. Predicted Final Score: Steelers 24 Packers 20.