The last decade has featured some of the greatest Super Bowl contests in the history of the game. The Giants and the Patriots in 2008, the Steelers and Cardinals in 2009, and all three of the Patriots victories between 2002-2005 were exciting games to watch. What I find most impressive about the Super Bowl every year is no matter how big the event gets, no matter the focus on commercials, halftime show debacles and anything and everything unrelated to football, the game still finds a way to be the real draw.
While the majority of our country huddles around a flat screen this Sunday, it'll be the true NFL fans who appreciate a battle featuring two of the most storied franchises in all of sports. The Steelers will be gunning for their seventh championship while the Packers are seeking their fourth. Both teams have similar styles of offense, stoic defenses and both feature a fan base larger than most other teams combined. Sure, the Black Eyed Peas half-time show should be entertaining, but I have a feeling "I Gotta Feeling" won't measure up.
After all, the key to a great Super Bowl is in the match up, and Super Bowl XLV might be the most even match up in the game's history. There have only been three games in the past 44 Super Bowls that Vegas gambling odds set the spread at less than a field goal, and there hasn't been one since 1982. The Green Bay Packers are currently favored by 2 1/2 points, and I wouldn't be surprised to see that spread drop even lower by kickoff. Who knows what factor will give either team the biggest advantage, but I believe the following three should play a big part.
Pittsburgh must pressure Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers is too good, and nobody's left the field unscathed when he gets the time needed to find the open man. The Steelers have one of the most ferocious defenses in the game, but Rodgers will not have any problem throwing the ball all over the field if they aren't able to get inside the pocket. Last year's Green Bay/Pittsburgh game resulted in a close 37-36 win for the Steelers— with Rodgers throwing for almost 400 yards and Roethlisburger throwing for 500. If the 2009 Aaron Rodgers can throw for 400 yards, the 2011 Aaron Rodgers could certainly eclipse Roethlisburger's mark and then some. If Pittsburgh is able to shutdown Rodgers, Green Bay will need to utilize James Starks. Starks has shown some serious talent in the playoffs, but the Steelers have the best run defense in the game. I can’t see the Packer’s running game being anything close to effective on Sunday.
Mendenhall first, Roethlisburger second
In my opinion, the best bet Pittsburgh has at winning this game doesn't come from Roethlisburger's arm, but from Rashard Mendenhall's legs. He's coming off a big game against the Jets and is certainly the best weapon from the backfield of either team. The Packers' B.J. Raji will be a big deterrent against the Steelers running game, but Green Bay is 18th overall defending the run for a reason. Pittsburgh must focus on the ground game before going to the air. It's not that Roethlisburger can't win the game on his own (he’s done so many times before), but burning the clock and keeping Rodgers off the field has the greatest upside. A 304-pound fly in the ointment that could foil this strategy is loss of Steelers Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey due to injury. If Raji can exploit that weakness in the middle, there isn't a talented enough running back in the game that would gain much yardage, and Roethlisburger would need to repeat his performance in 2009 to secure his third ring.
It's the little things...
When two teams of equal talent meet in a game of this magnitude, look for the little things to take the title down. For example, Green Bay is a No. 6 seed for two reasons—Aaron Rodgers' two concussions and the absurd number of penalties they've been assessed in its losses. If the Packers see too many yellow flags on the field, they'll see Pittsburgh's terrible towels waving victoriously. Also look for special teams to play a bigger role than usual.
NFL champion may very well be decided by a name we don't all know versus all the weapons we do.
My prediction? Packers 35, Steelers 31. But I’m rooting more for a great game than anything else.