So it comes down to this. Let’s put aside the hype for the next 1,500 words and just examine the important questions.
No, I’m not talking about finding out what the heck started the diva fight between Elton John and Billy Joel. I’m talking about Super Bowl XLV. Who’s got the better players and who’s gonna win. Let’s hit it.
Quarterbacks: Much has been made of the signal callers playing in this game, and for good reason. Beyond the obvious juicy storylines: Ben Roethlisberger coming back from being the poster boy for bad behavior in the NFL (or is that honor still held by Rae Carruth?), Aaron Rodgers living up to – and perhaps hoping to surpass? – his legendary predecessor, both men are simply amazingly gifted athletes, as likely to excel when a play breaks down as when their offenses are clicking, which is often.
Both Big Ben and Rodgers finished in the top five in passing rating in 2010, with Rodgers having the clear edge in touchdowns (28 to 17) while Roethlisberger threw far fewer interceptions (11 to 5). Of course it must be pointed out that Roethlisberger played three fewer games than Rodgers; so perhaps the fact that their per game stats are so close is the clearest indication of their equality: Rodgers threw for 261.5 yards a game while Roethlisberger threw for 266.7 yards per game.
What’s also striking is that both quarterbacks are coming off subpar performances in their respective conference championship games – Rodgers channeled Brett Favre to throw one of the worst interceptions of his young career in the red zone in the victory over Chicago, while Roethlisberger had as nearly as many fumbles (2) as completions (3) in the second half of the Steelers’ win over the Jets.
Arguments could also be made for either’s superiority based on their team’s supporting cast. Roethlisberger puts up big numbers even though having one of the league’s best rushers in Rashard Mendenhall behind him allows his team to be balanced. Aaron Rodgers puts up big numbers even though he has at best an inconsistent run game behind him causing him to face pass-heavy defensive formations a majority of the time.
Stats aside, a simple eye test says that when he’s on, Aaron Rodgers is a more skilled all-around quarterback than Roethlisberger. But you can’t discard the fact that Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls before (despite the fact that he stunk in his first win). Nor can you discard the fact that Rodgers, with his two concussions earlier in the season and another faux-concession suffered in the NFC Championship Game, is at a greater risk to not be able to finish Sunday’s game.
If I had to take a quarterback to win any game, I’d probably take Rodgers. But if I had to take a quarterback to win a Super Bowl, I’d take one that’s done it twice before. For anyone just tuning in, Sunday’s game is a Super Bowl. Edge: Steelers.
Running backs: No rusher has gained more yards in the postseason than Green Bay’s rookie James Starks (263). Of course, only the Jets and Packers have played as many as three games this postseason, and the Jets had the misfortune of going up against the league’s best rush defense in one of their games. Who has the league’s best rush defense? That’d be the Steelers, and it’s not even close.
Pittsburgh allowed a mere 62.8 yards on the ground this season, more than 27 yards fewer than the second-best rush defense, the Chicago Bears. Starks actually fared pretty well against the Bears (3.4 tough yards per carry) in the NFC title game, but it’s difficult to see him (not to mention Brandon Jackson or John Kuhn) being much of a factor against the Steelers.
In contrast, former Fighting Illini Rashard Mendenhall has quietly put aside his disappointing 2008 rookie season (he only played in four games before being injured) to quickly become one of the best backs in the league. He’s a very powerful runner with enough speed to break off a long run most games, and his 13 touchdowns were tied for second in the NFL among running backs. Not only that, but Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians must have been drooling in his Iron City Beer when he saw what Matt Forte was able to do against the Packers’ defense two weeks ago. If the Steelers can use Mendenhall nearly as effectively as the Bears used Forte – and Mendenhall is the better player – Mendenhall has as good a chance as any player to end up the Super Bowl MVP.
Basically it boils down to this – The Steelers can’t win without Mendenhall running the ball. The Packers, recognizing not only their limitations here but their opponents’ defensive strengths, may not even bother running the ball. Edge: Steelers.
Wide receivers: Kurt Warner, one of many retired football players making the sports talk show rounds over these last two weeks while promoting some asinine promotional venture with Amway or Gatorade or Liquid Paper or something, has repeatedly said that the Cardinals should have gone to a spread-type offense against the Steelers when they lost to them two years ago in Super Bowl 43. He is advising the Packers to do the same. The reasoning seems obvious: The Cardinals’ strength two years ago was their core of wide receivers and the Packers’ strength now is their core of wide receivers.
Few teams – OK, maybe no team – enjoy such an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position as the Packers do. Greg Jennings is an outright stud, Donald Driver should be headed to Canton, and most teams would be happy to have James Jones and Jordy Nelson as their starters.
The only downsides: Driver has a nagging quadriceps injury and James Jones often has hands of stone. But Driver will likely play – and you know Rodgers will be looking for the veteran playing in his first and probably last Super Bowl – and Jones is as likely to break a big play as he is to drop one.
Meanwhile, the Steelers counter with the veteran Hines Ward and second-year player Mike Wallace. Both are undoubtedly upper-echelon wideouts, but Ward’s (like Driver’s) productivity dropped precipitously this year, and Wallace is young, relies too much on the big play, and is at times inconsistent – note that in the two playoff games this year, he has caught a total of four passes for 26 yards.
Where the Packers are hurting in the passing game is at tight end: Were he healthy, Jermichael Finley would be the “X-factor” that many are saying Steelers tight end Heath Miller could be. But I’d take the Packers list of “A” guys over the Steelers “X-factor.” Edge: Packers.
Defense: This is tough. The Steelers and the Packers are the very embodiment of the old axiom that defense wins championships, as Pittsburgh statistically has the best defense in the league while Green Bay has the second-best defense in the league.
Both defenses have their strong suit: The Packers are crazy good at defending the pass while the Steelers are crazy good at stopping the run.
Both sides have no-brainer playmakers that can singlehandedly change the direction and momentum of any game. For the Steelers, it’s safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison; for the Packers, it’s linebacker Clay Matthews and corner Charles Woodson, although corners Sam Shields and Tramon Williams have emerged as stars in recent weeks.
Bottom line: Both defenses are great. Both defensive coordinators – Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers – are two of the most important coordinators on either side of the ball in the league. But the Packers have more defensive playmakers playing better as of late. Edge: Packers.
Special teams: Do you care? Well, you better, because as Packers punter Tim Masthay proved against Chicago, defensive battles – which Sunday’s game could very well be – often come down to field position. Masthay was out of his mind good against the Bears and could be equally as important against the Steelers. Meanwhile, former Packer punter Jeremy Kapinos seems to have found a home in Pittsburgh with his 41-yard punt average. Both should benefit from playing indoors at Cowboys Stadium (providing their kicks don’t hit the absurdly large video screens.)
Both placekickers, Shaun Suisham and Mason Crosby, have been solid if unspectacular all season, with the slight edge going to Suisham, who has made 16 of 18 field goals since replacing the erratic Jeff Reed.
So the Packers have the punting edge, while the Steelers have the kicking edge. Makes the Edge: Even.
Intangibles: It’s cliché, but it’s the truth: Most of the Steelers players and coaches know what it’s like to go the Super Bowl and win. The vast majority of the Packers’ players and coaches do not. And while Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger may have found some interesting nightlife in Dallas to distract them from the task at hand, the Packers allowed the silly PhotoGate incident to, if for only a short while, derail their pregame preparations. Edge: Steelers.
Final score prediction: In what should be a great game, experience will triumph over what is, on paper, a slightly more talented Packers roster. Steelers 24, Packers 20.