Friday, February 4, 2011
Packers is the answer to tough question
By Gene Wojciechowski ESPN.com
DALLAS -- It's not that I'm worried about the Pittsburgh Steelers using my head as a calypso drum and pummeling me like I was Anderson Cooper in Cairo. And if Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews wants to mock me for being hair challenged, I can take it.
No, the simple, sincere and absolute truth is that I don't know who to pick in Super Bowl XLV. But I'm getting there.
In a tradition like no other (not counting the Masters), I've picked the Super Bowl winner for ESPN.com in each of the past five years. I didn't say I picked it correctly, but I did pick it using the time-tested 15 Reasons Why metrics method.
How's that working out, you ask? I'm 2-3, with the two wins courtesy of the 2005 and 2008 Steelers. Let's face it, the metrics method sucks eggs.
Time to try something different. Time for 15 Questions and Answers.
1. Whom do you trust more in Sunday's game, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers or Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger?
Big Ben, right?
He's 2-0 in Super Bowls, 10-2 as a postseason starter. This is his third Super Bowl appearance in his seven seasons. So nothing is going to freak him out, including a Dom Capers-designed Packers defense. After all, Roethlisberger is 4-0 versus Capers during his career.
Roethlisberger is also Captain Comeback. In those seven seasons, he has led the Steelers on 25 game-winning drives and 19 fourth-quarter comebacks.
But to me, picking between Roethlisberger and Rodgers is like trying to decide if Eva Mendes looks better with or without that mole on her left cheek. There are no wrong answers on this one.
Roethlisberger has the Super Bowl-experience edge over Rodgers, but what does that mean exactly? In Super Bowl XL, Roethlisberger soiled himself (9-of-21 for 123 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions) and the Steelers still won the game. And Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning all won their Super Bowls on the first try.
I can't ignore the fact that, in three seasons as a starter, Rodgers has only five game-winning drives and three fourth-quarter comebacks. His only game-winning drive this season came against the Chicago Bears in Week 17. By the way, all six of the Packers' losses this season were by no more than four points.
But no quarterback has played better this postseason than Rodgers. His numbers are outrageous: 71 percent completion rate six TDs two interceptions. Maybe he'll do a Big Ben XL-like meltdown, but I doubt it.
So I'm calling this one even.
2. Really? A draw? You're already wussying out after only one question? (This is interesting -- me ridiculing myself.) OK, we'll make it simple: Who will have the better game, Big Ben or A-Rod?
Rodgers puts up PlayStation numbers when playing indoors. I'm not a big passer-rating guy, but his QB rating under a dome in recent years is impressive (111.5). And in 12 career indoor games he has thrown 25 TD passes and only six interceptions, compared with Roethlisberger's 14 TDs and nine INTs in nine indoor games.
Both players are mobile, but in different ways. Roethlisberger is mobile because of his strength and size. There's the play the Steelers call in the huddle, and then the play that Roethlisberger creates because of his ability to extend plays.
Aaron Rodgers can escape pressure with his speed and athleticism.
Rodgers can escape pressure with his speed and athleticism. Rodgers has a quicker release and has learned the benefits of sliding on scrambles. Two concussions will teach you that lesson.
I know James Starks has given the Packers' rushing game some muscle mass (Green Bay is averaging 118 rushing yards in the postseason), but Rodgers is going to be asked to do more than Roethlisberger.
3. How much weight should we give to the Steelers' 37-36 win against the Packers in the 2009 season?
The weight of an empty can of Iron City beer. The weight of a slice of cheddar cheese.
The Steelers' entire offensive line is different from the one that started against the Packers more than 13 months ago. Safety Troy Polamalu wasn't active for that game. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes is gone.
For the Packers, tight end Jermichael Finley has been on injured reserve since suffering a knee injury in Week 5. He had nine catches for 74 yards and a touchdown in the Dec. 20, 2009, game.
Rookie offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga has replaced Mark Tauscher (IR). Running back Ryan Grant's season came to an end after an ankle injury in Week 1. He also scored against the Steelers last season.
Of course, both staffs have dissected that film like a frog in biology class. What worked? What didn't work? The Steelers used all sorts of crossing routes and completions in the middle of the field to rack up yardage. Will they do it again? Count on it.
But too much time and too many roster changes have made that game less of a factor. Remember, it was played outside at Heinz Field on grass. Sunday's game will be indoors at a neutral field and on an artificial surface.
4. Why should I bet my 401K savings on the Steelers?
Because the Steelers have the best defense in the league.
Because Roethlisberger's pulse somehow decreases when it's the biggest moment of the game.
Because Polamalu has had two weeks to sort of rest his Achilles.
Because the Steelers can run the ball more consistently.
Because tight end Heath Miller can have a big game against the Packers.
Because linebacker James Harrison is a baaaad man.
Because coach Mike Tomlin is 5-1 in the postseason and already has a Super Bowl ring.
Because Roethlisberger, if necessary, can chuck the ball just as much as Rodgers.
Because, as corny as it sounds, the Steelers find ways to win.
5. Why should I bet my 401K savings on the Packers?
Because the Packers had to beat the New York Giants in Week 16 and the Chicago Bears in Week 17 to reach the playoffs -- and did.
Because to get to the Super Bowl they had to win at Philadelphia, at Atlanta and at Chicago -- and did.
Because Rodgers is a football god when he plays indoors.
Because the Packers' defense has given up only one more passing TD and one more rushing TD than the Steelers'. Green Bay has only one fewer sack than Pittsburgh. And the Pack's scoring defense was second only to the Steelers'.
Tramon Williams has developed into one of the best playmaking cornerbacks in the league.
Because Tramon Williams has developed into one of the best playmaking cornerbacks in the league.
Because the Packers convert on third-down plays and take advantage of red-zone opportunities.
Because the Packers haven't trailed an opponent this season by more than seven points. So they'll always be in position to win a game.
Because they have that same playoff mojo that the New Orleans Saints had a season ago.
6. Madden NFL 11 picks the Steelers to win 24-20. Should the Packers be concerned about this?
Yes. Madden has correctly picked six of the past seven Super Bowl winners. And it has been eerily close on the scores too. I'm just saying.
7. If I'm the Packers, what gives me the heebie-jeebies about this game?
That my offense hasn't scored a point since the 11:19 mark of the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game.
That a third-string quarterback named Caleb Hanie threw for 153 yards and a touchdown and led the Bears on two scoring drives in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. Hanie almost pulled off one of the great playoff comebacks.
That Rodgers had one fewer TD pass, the same number of interceptions (two) and a lower passer rating than Hanie.
That Roethlisberger throws for another franchise-record 503 yards against the Packers again.
That Super Bowl experience really does matter.
8. If I'm the Steelers, what gives me the heebie-jeebies about this game?
That center Maurkice Pouncey won't play.
That backup center Doug Legursky isn't Pouncey.
That Polamalu still isn't close to 100 percent healthy.
That rookie receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are asphyxiated by the Super Bowl pressure.
That the Steelers' offense doesn't get kidnapped like it did in the second half of the AFC Championship Game (minus-2 points, if you count Roesthlisberger getting sacked for a safety).
That the Steelers don't get outscored 19-0 as they did by the New York Jets from the :09 mark of the second quarter to the end of the AFC Championship Game.
That this is the first time the Steelers have played on the road this postseason.
That Roethlisberger was 10-of-19 for 133 yards and two interceptions against the Jets in the conference title game.
That the Steelers' play-action passes don't fool the Packers' defense.
9. What are the defining matchups?
That's easy. With Legursky starting at center, watch how the Packers' defense attacks that position.
On the flip side, watch how the Steelers try to mess with Packers rookie offensive tackle Bulaga.
10. Which quarterback will spend more time on his back Sunday?
The Steelers brought an extra pass-rusher against Rodgers on 30 of 50 dropbacks in that 2009 game. Rodgers completed 14 of 29 passes for 199 yards and two TDs when they did so.
So, how does that translate into 2011? Depends if the Steelers use similar blitz packages. But Rodgers' ability to figure out coverages, etc., in pre-snap situations is a huge bonus, as is his quick release.
Meanwhile, given the Pouncey/Legursky situation and the Steelers' offensive line in general, Roethlisberger is going to be under more pass-rushing duress.
Roethlisberger has an amazing ability to take hits, wiggle free and make a throw. But that playing style means he's more susceptible to sacks. For what it's worth, the Packers sacked him five times in the '09 game.
"They run the same blitz schemes that we run," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We see it all the time.''
11. Do you see any scenario in which the Steelers or Packers could run away with this game?
You mean, like when the Packers blitzed the Falcons in the divisional playoffs 48-21? Or when the Steelers took a 24-3 lead against the Jets in the first half of the AFC Championship Game?
Barring catastrophic injuries to Roethlisberger or Rodgers, etc., the answer is no. The coaching and defenses are too good for that sort of meltdown.
12. Fill in the blank: I can't wait to see what happens when
the Packers come out with their four- and five-receiver sets.
I know, it's a little X-and-O-ie, but don't be surprised if Green Bay bags the running game at times, spreads the field and dares the Steelers to figure out a way to cover the best receiving corps in the league.
The Patriots did the same sort of thing to the Steelers in mid-November at Heinz Field. Tom Brady finished with three TDs (all to tight end Rob Gronkowski) and completed 30 of 43 passes for 350 yards. And New England won 39-26.
13. Who is President Obama picking?
He hasn't said for sure, but he did tell a crowd at Penn State on Thursday that "I've got some love for the Steelers."
Obama picked the Steelers to beat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, and they did. But let's be honest: the Commander In Bears probably has a bias against the team that defeated Chicago in the NFC title game. And for the record, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland is the Obama-nominated Dan Rooney, chairman emeritus and owner of the Steelers.
14. You're still in a mental fistfight about which team to choose, aren't you?
Yes, Geno, I am. They're my two favorite teams in the league. I love everything about them -- their stadiums, their fans, their histories, their unis, their helmet logos, their ownership, their traditions, their defenses, their toughness, their styles of play, their cities, their veterans, their standards.
I can make a case for either team to win and would feel good about it. That's how even they are in terms of talent, coaching and schemes.
15. OK, you big weenie, who you taking?
Packers 24, Steelers 21.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.MORE COMMENTARY >>