Besides the obvious question (is VL a valid Roman numeral for 45?), this year’s NFL Superbowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers throws up many more subtle questions when we consider each team’s prospects at becoming “World” Champions.
Unlike the last couple of years, there are no emotional upstarts like the Saints or the Cardinals challenging for the crown. These are two long-time NFL juggernauts; well-managed teams with long histories of success.
There’s a lot to like about the Packers this year, who have enjoyed a couple of surprise bonuses. They did an outstanding job in nurturing QB Aaron Rodgers from day one, giving him a three year apprenticeship under the great Brett Favre before making him their starter, and their patience has been rewarded. Like Farve, Rodgers has a gun arm, but adds a mobility and athleticism that his predecessor never had. He’s a genuine threat to tuck and run, and with a deep threat like Greg Jennings, has put up outstanding numbers again this year. The bonus on offence has been the sudden emergence of sixth round pick Starks as a running back, which has meant the offence is somewhat less dependent on Rodgers arm.
Where the Packers have really lifted this year is in defence. “Goldilocks” Clay Matthews leads an aggressive defensive line, and the bonus quick development of Tramon Williams at cornerback completes this into very effective group with few weaknesses.
After a mid-season slump, and despite injuries, the Packers did just enough to get into the playoffs (with their win over Chicago in the final week), and did so in excellent form. Being in form at the right time is the key to post-season success, rather than a high playoff seeding (just ask the Eagles, who many people feel peaked too early in the season).
Pittsburgh have done a superb job under coach Mike Tomlin in extending their winning ways under long-time coach Bill Cowher, which is so often a challenge. They have managed their list well, slowly bringing in younger players rather than having to do a “rebuild”. The season started poorly, with the suspension of Roethlisberger, but he has shown his that his toughness and maturity on the field is a reflection of a character able to deal with personal issues and move forward.
Between the improved running of Mendenhall, and Roethlisberger’s use of his size and strength to evade sacks and complete passes from outside the pocket, the Steelers have a balanced offence as well as defence. Deep threat Mike Wallace, one of the fastest receivers in the game today, provides the ability to score quickly and keep defences honest.
The success of the Steelers in recent years has actually been built on a super-aggressive offence. Fast, swarming, and with the regular threat of interceptions from the likes of Polamalou. They are also great against the run and have the ability to make opponents one-dimensional, thus building even more pressure.
American football often seems like such a complex game, but it often comes down to the simple things – the offensive and defensive lines, and all flows from there. What I said about Tom Brady and the Patriots three years ago was repeated this season, when the Jets did what few other defences were able to get to him and apply pressure. Brady is a great QB – he reads defences very well and takes whatever he can – but any QB is only as good as the line that protects him.
In this year’s Superbowl, we have two outstanding QBs; the game will come down to which offensive line is able to offer the best protection and keep their offense on the field. Run the ball; setup play action; control the clock. Whoever wins the clock control game will win the Superbowl.
Just look at what the Steelers did to the Jets last week in the Championship game. Their opening drive went for nine minutes for a touchdown. The out-Jetted the Jets straight from the gun. It was downhill from there, and by half time, the game was all but over. Look at what Atlanta did all season: long drives with plenty of hard running and a good mix of run and pass, sapping the opposing defences and the clock.
This is what both teams will try to do: grind out a win by wearing down their opponents. In order to do this, offensive lines will need to be effective so they can establish the run, and third down conversions are essential to extend drives.
Prediction: Packers to cover the line, and the over on the points spread. Bursts of scoring interspersed with periods of tight defence by both sides. At least one defensive touchdown.