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Settle in and check out George’s extremely detailed breakdown of Super Bowl XLV, complete with his prediction.

By George Damon

Image from NFL.com - visit them for all your SB XLV needs

After 21 weeks, 256 regular season games, 10 playoff games, and a forgettable Pro Bowl, it comes down to the Steelers vs. the Packers playing for all the marbles in Super Bowl XLV.

Having seen all but the very first Super Bowl, I think this 45th version of the game shapes up as one of the best matchups ever, and should produce a great contest that will not be decided until the final possession.  There is no question that the Steelers and Packers proved themselves to be the best two teams in the league this year, and that they truly deserve to be in Dallas for the big game (though, considering the arctic cold and snow that plagued the DFW Metroplex last week, can we really say anyone deserves to be in Dallas?).

This game features two of the top defenses in the league.  The Steelers finished #2 in total defensive yards during the regular season and followed that up with a #1 ranking in the playoffs, while the Packers finished #5 in the regular season and are the #3 team in the playoffs.  Very impressive.

The game also features the two best young quarterbacks in the league in Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.  Rodgers has caught fire in the playoffs, earning a postseason-leading 109.2 QB rating, and though he cooled off dramatically in the second half of the Packers’ 21-14 NFC Championship victory over the Chicago Bears he is on a tremendous roll.  Roethlisberger has been his steady, reliable self since returning from a 4-game suspension to open the season and, though he has a pedestrian 75.5 QB rating in the postseason, he has risen to every challenge, first rallying his team from a 21-7 deficit to the Ravens in the AFC Divisional playoffs, and then staking the Steelers to a big halftime lead over the New York Jets in their 24-19 AFC Championship game win.  Oddly, like Rodgers, Big Ben also went cold in the second half of his championship game, and the Steelers had to hold off a Jets rally to earn their trip to Dallas.  Nevertheless, both QBs figure to be major players in Sunday’s game.

The Steelers and Packers have combined for the second-most league championships in NFL history, with the Packers winning 12 titles since 1929 and the Steelers owning 6, all earned in the Super Bowl era (only the Packers and Bears have combined for more titles).  They are two of the oldest franchises in the NFL that have played their entire history in their original city, and they are always in the top 5 in national popularity (the most recent survey, done in 2010, found the Steelers the second-most popular team in the league, while the Packers finished fifth).  There are even some who say that, with this game, these teams are playing for the unofficial title of “America’s Team” in the very city that the current “America’s Team” calls home (take that, Cowboys!).

There is an abundance of NFL history being represented in this matchup, not least in the legendary names being represented—names like Lombardi , Starr, Nitschke, Favre, White, Noll, Bradshaw, Swann, Harris, and Greene.  It would take paragraphs to list all of the Hall of Famers and other greats who have worn the uniform of one team or the other, and it is one of the tantalizing side stories of this Super Bowl that makes this an historic meeting.

But this game won’t be won by history.  None of the Packers or Steelers legends will suiting up or standing on the sidelines.  This game will be won or lost by the men wearing the colors on Sunday.

This is such a hard game to handicap, because the teams are so close in virtually every way imaginable.  They feature smart, gutsy, no-nonsense coaches commanding tough, hard-nosed defenses and efficient (if not splashy) offenses that get the job done.  The players are toughened by playing in the harsh fall/winter elements of the Northeast and Midwest, and they don’t give up–ever.  These teams are like their cities—strong of character, proud in their history and their place in the world, and willing to fight for honor and glory.

So which team will be standing taller at the end of Sunday night?  I don’t know, but here’s what I think:

With the Steelers averaging 24 points on offense and 15 on defense per game (including the playoffs) and the Packers averaging 25 and 15, respectively, I don’t think we’ll see a Super Bowl shootout.  I think the game will stay low-scoring and close throughout, and I will be surprised if the winning team has more than 27 points at the end of the day.   A low-scoring game doesn’t give either team an advantage, given the average points given up, but I do think a high-scoring game would favor the Packers, since they scored at least 30 points six times during the regular season and playoffs, including three games where they scored 45 or more (including the playoff beat-down of the Falcons).  The Steelers weren’t too shabby in high-scoring games either, but they hit the 30-point mark four times (once in the playoffs), with 41 points their highest output of the year.

In the playoffs the Packers scored 30 points per game compared to the Steelers’ 28.  Interestingly, the Packers’ largest point total in the postseason came in the divisional round against the Atlanta Falcons, played on the artificial surface of the covered Georgia Dome.  Considering that the Packers scored 42 points combined in their other two playoff games (outdoors in cold weather on grass fields), the Packers will have extremely favorable conditions for their explosive passing game and their emerging rushing attack on the field turf of Cowboys Stadium.

But it won’t be a huge advantage.  The Steelers managed 31 and 24 points in their two playoff games on the grass surface of open-air Heinz Field, and they figure to do better on a dry indoor track.  They have speed at the receiver positions, and a very effective running game.  With optimal conditions inside Dallas’ dome, they’ll have a good opportunity to showcase their offensive capability.

I expect the Steelers to rely on their running game to grind the ball down the field and keep it away from the Packers.  Rashard Mendenhall should be very busy on the opening two or three possessions of the game as the Steelers look to see if they can find room against the Packers’ smothering run defense.  Their goal will be to move the ball, run the clock, and set up the pass, with the hope of giving the Packers at least one fewer possession per half.  If they can do that and keep Rodgers on the sidelines, the Steelers will hold down the score.

On the other side, I expect Rodgers to have a busy day throwing the ball to his receivers.  In the NFC Championship Rodgers was consistently successful on the medium-deep seam route on the right, and if the Steelers make the same mistake the Bears did in leaving that part of the field open, Rodgers will be able to move his offense downfield very quickly.  However, Rodgers will probably have to be very mobile in this game, as the Steelers will be targeting him all day.  He’s not quite as big as Roethlisberger and is not going to be able to take the same amount of punishment, so his superior mobility will be a big factor—and a life-saving necessity.

Things will get tight for both teams in the red zone, however, and we may see a lot of both teams’ kickers.  Green Bay’s Mason Crosby has hit 12-of-12 extra points in the playoffs, and is 2-for-3 on field goals.  His lone miss came from over 50 yards.  His counterpart, Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham, is 7-for-7 and 2-for-3, respectively, but his miss came in the 40-49 yard range.  On paper, that doesn’t seem to give either team much advantage, but considering Suisham’s journeyman career as mostly a stopgap injury-replacement kicker, somehow I don’t think the Steelers are hoping that the game comes down to his leg.

Neither team’s specialty units figure to be much of a factor in the final outcome.   The kick return units for both teams were mediocre at best (the Packers did not have a KO returner in the NFL’s top 50 during the regular season), and the punt returners were little better.  If Las Vegas is offering odds for scoring on kickoff or punt returns, take a pass.

Likewise, neither team has much to brag about in either the kicking or punting games, each team finishing with medium-low to low rankings in most kicking and punting categories.  In a game with two very strong defenses, field position will be critical and if a kicker or punter from either team can emerge as an unexpected hero, he will give his team a very big advantage.  In those departments I think it’s more likely to be the Green Bay tandem of Crosby and Tim Masthay than the Steelers’ Suisham and Jeremy Kapinos.

It’s much more likely that there will be a defensive score of some sort in this game.  Both defenses were outstanding at taking the ball away from opponents in both the regular season and playoffs.  The Packers snagged 24 interceptions in the regular season to rank #2 in the league (and let’s not forget that it was nose tackle B.J. Raji’s 18-yard 4th quarter pick-six that clinched the NFC Championship for the Pack), while the Steelers picked off the ball 21 times to finish tied for fifth-most.  The Steelers did much better than the Packers in forcing and recovering fumbles, taking the ball 14 times on 24 opportunities versus 8 recoveries on 15 forced fumbles by Green Bay.  During the playoffs both teams continued their trends, with the Packers getting 6 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries against the Steelers’ 1 interception and 3 fumble recoveries.  Both teams hit hard at the line of scrimmage and have outstanding players in their secondaries, and I would expect each team to get at least 2 turnovers in the game.  The question will come down to which team capitalizes best on what they can get.

It’s unfortunate that, in the NFL’s ultimate game, injuries have to be a factor.  Ideally, the Super Bowl teams should somehow magically get back all their players in time so that both squads can be at full strength.  Sadly, that’s not the case, and in this game the injury bug impacts the Steelers.  All-Pro Safety Troy Polamalu has been battling injuries, and we’ve seen that he’s not his usual dominating self as a result.  Polamalu is not listed on the Steelers’ injury report for the game, but if he is still less than 100% and Aaron Rodgers can take advantage, the Packers will have a big edge.

Of more serious concern to the Steelers is on the offensive side of the ball, where they will be without their starting center, Maurkice Pouncey.  Pouncey was injured during the AFC Championship and Ben Roethlisberger did notice a difference.  Pouncey’s replacement, Doug Legursky, has had two weeks to iron out his working relationship with his QB, and presumably there won’t be any problems with the snap, but just in case the Packers should be watching the ball on every play to make sure it gets safely from Legursky’s hands to Roethlisberger’s.

The Packers reported five players on their injury report, four of whom (T Chad Clifton, WR Donald Driver, C/G Jason Spitz and LB Frank Zombo) are listed as probable.  Driver is nursing a sore quadriceps and is the only one of the listed probables not to have fully participated in Friday’s practice.  Nevertheless, the Packers seem to be heading into the game in good shape.

It’s impossible to discuss the Super Bowl without discussing distractions.  With two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, it’s inevitable that there will time enough for some level of mayhem.  And, this year, both teams saw needless controversy crop up.

I don’t have much concern about the buzz surrounding Ben Roethlisberger’s Tuesday night out at the bar with the boys.  Sure, it might have looked bad considering his personal history that culminated in the above-mentioned four-game suspension to start the season, but the story didn’t seem to expose any sordid details nor did it swirl in the media for more than once cycle.  For all intents and purposes it was a minor glitch in what has otherwise been a smooth week for the Steelers.

I put much more emphasis on the controversy surrounding the Packers’ Super Bowl team photo and subsequent comments from Aaron Rodgers.  The issue there appears to have been a disconnect between the Packers’ organization and players on injured reserve who were initially excluded from the planned team photo.  That fracas seemed to have gotten resolved when the Packers changed the date of the shoot so that the 15 players on IR could fly to Dallas for the photo.  But then Rodgers made ill-advised comments suggesting that injured players who were not rehabilitating at the Packers’ facility somehow removed themselves from the team.  As might be expected, his comments went over very poorly with injured teammates Nick Barnett and Jermichael Finley, who felt that they had been called out by their leader.  This led to some angry posts on Twitter from the two offended players, hitting back at Rodgers (is the phenomenon of athletes tweeting really proving to be a good thing?  It seems to be creating more trouble than it’s worth, but then again I don’t feel the urge to share every thought with the entire world—not that you could tell from the length of this column).

The situation went further pear-shaped when Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy criticized Barnett and Finley for creating a problem, which in itself created a further problem by escalating the issue and now getting the head coach taking sides.  It finally seemed to have gotten resolved when Rodgers reached out to Barnett to smooth things over, though Rodgers claimed that an apology was neither needed nor offered.  We will find out if his assessment was correct, but I have a nagging sense that he should’ve apologized anyway, if for no other reason than, as a team leader, he owes it to his teammates to assuage any lingering hard feelings over a controversy he personally started.

Case closed, then, right?  Maybe not.  The Packers haven’t been to the Super Bowl in 14 years, and this group of Packers has never been at all.  The worst thing to happen to a Super Bowl newbie is to get snared in the trap of distractions.  There are enough distractions surrounding a Super Bowl to take the players out of their game, but a self-inflicted distraction that pits the QB and the head coach against other players (even if they aren’t playing in the game) has to be much worse than anything else.  Besides taking valuable time and mental energy away from team preparation, a controversy like this could expose fault lines and fractures within the team itself that were previously unknown or, at least, put aside.  Will this controversy have an effect on the outcome of the game?  Probably not, but by even opening the door the Packers have put themselves at a disadvantage in the intangibles department.

I have looked at this game from every angle I can think of, and at this very moment as I am typing these words I still don’t know how I’m going to pick the game.  So let’s take a look at the factors:

  1. Weather: Even.  The weather outside in Dallas has been frightful, but the temp in Cowboys Stadium will be delightful.  Weather is obviously not a factor in the great indoors of Jerryworld.
  2. Offense: Very slight edge to Green Bay.  During the regular season the Steelers had a big edge in the running game over the Packers (120.2 yards per game with 15 TDs to 100.4 ypg and 11 TDs), but during the playoffs the teams have been virtually identical, with the Steelers averaging 118.5 ypg and scoring 4 TDs, while the Packers have averaged 118.0 ypg with 4 TDs.  On the fast artificial surface of Cowboys Stadium I give the Steelers a slight nod, but the Packers’ running game has been very effective during the playoffs.  As for the passing game, Rodgers and Roethlisberger rated very evenly in the regular season, and both are tough players and outstanding leaders.  I’ll take away a few leadership points from Rodgers for the team photo controversy, but I’ll give him the edge in passing.  It’s close, but if it comes down to the offenses, I’ll go with Green Bay.
  3. Defense: Very slight edge to Pittsburgh.  Both teams are excellent at what they do—smothering run defense, aggressive pass rush, ball-hawking secondary.   Both defenses will be difficult to move against, and I expect each team to disappoint the other in the red zone at least once.  The one that makes the last stop will win the game, and if the game turns into a low-scoring defensive struggle I’ll go with Pittsburgh.
  4. Special Teams: Slight edge to Green Bay.  I’m not impressed with either team’s return units and don’t expect them to be much of a factor.  However, in the domed atmosphere of Cowboys Stadium I expect the kickers and punters to have little to overcome besides their own jitters.  I’ve seen a lot of Shaun Suisham over the years in his multiple NFL stops, and I just don’t think he will respond to the pressure of the big game like Mason Crosby will.  Punters Tim Masthay and Jeremy Kapinos are even, but I think Masthay might have the bigger punts in the game.
  5. Turnovers: Even.  Both teams know how to force them, and both teams will get their share on Sunday.  The game won’t approach Super Bowls V, XII, or XXVII (which featured 11, 10, and 11 combined turnovers), but it won’t be a clean game either.  The key to the turnovers will be where they occur and how the teams capitalize on them.
  6. Coaching: Clear edge to Pittsburgh.  Both teams have outstanding coaches that will have their teams ready to play.  But the clear edge goes to the Steelers because Mike Tomlin has won a Super Bowl and Mike McCarthy has never coached in one.   I’ll take proven success over unproven potential on the game’s biggest stage.
  7. Intangibles: Clear edge to Pittsburgh.  They’ve been there, and done that—they have the experience that the Packers don’t.  I also wonder about carryover effect from the Packers’ controversy last week.  And I like the fact that the Steelers never seem to be out of a game no matter how badly things are going.  On the Packers’ side, they’ve played with a playoff edge since Week 16 of the season.  That’s gotten them this far, but I wonder if it’s taken them as far as it’s going to in the 2010 season.

And now we come to the moment of truth.  I have spent 2 weeks thinking about this and don’t have a really strong feeling about who’s going to win.  Statistically, I like Green Bay.  Counting other variables into the equation, I prefer Pittsburgh.  It all depends on how the game is going to play out.

The Steelers will try to shorten the game and limit the Packers’ touches with their running game.  I don’t think that strategy is going to work, and they’ll have to open up the offense, meaning they’ll use less time on their drives and end up giving the Packers their chances as well.  That plays into the Packers’ hands, and the Ravens and Jets have shown that the Steelers can be scored on.  The Packers know how to score, and score fast, and with no weather obstacles they should be able to put points on the board in Dallas.

The Packers have never trailed at any point during the postseason.  They’ve started fast in every game, but against both the Eagles and Bears they faded.  If they do that again they will be playing into Ben Roethlisberger’s hands, and he has shown what happens when you give him time at the end of a game to lead a comeback.   I don’t think they’ll fade this week.  I think that this time they’ll be able to keep scoring just enough to keep the Steelers at bay.

Overall, the Packers have played better than the Steelers in the postseason, and I think that’s got to count for something.  On Sunday it will, and the Lombardi Trophy will go back to its original home.  Packers 23, Steelers 20.

As always, thanks for reading.  Now go get your snacks ready, because we should have one heck of a football game to watch before the long, long offseason begins.

Be sure to visit NFL.com for all your Super Bowl XLV coverage