Five reasons Packers will win XLV
DALLAS -- In a dream matchup of storied and beloved franchises, Super Bowl XLV looks like a classic in the making on paper. But we've heard that tune before during Super Bowl week and not gotten the taut thriller we were hoping for. After starting off thinking the Steelers' Super Bowl experience might be pivotal, I've come around to seeing the Packers as the hotter, more explosive team, and one that is playing its best football when it matters most. Here are my five best reasons why Green Bay is about to once again be known as Titletown:
Consider the last two times Green Bay has played a playoff game in a domed stadium: The Packers scored 45 at Arizona in a first-round loss last season, and hung up 48 against the top-seeded Falcons in Atlanta three weeks ago in this year's NFC divisional round. That made Green Bay the first team in NFL postseason history to ever score at least 45 points in consecutive years.
Rodgers in those games scorched the Cardinals and Falcons for 789 yards passing, seven touchdowns and a completion percentage just north of 75.0. And that's no two-game aberration. In his career, Rodgers is 6-6 when starting indoors, but he has certainly done his part to win, throwing 26 touchdowns, with just five interceptions and a 111.5 passer rating that leads all dome-field passers since 2008 on. Green Bay scored an average of 31.8 points in those games, and 33.7 points in the 11 indoor games Rodgers both started and finished.
"Oh, man, I'll go back to the days of probably St. Louis when it was the 'Greatest Show on Turf,' '' Steelers linebacker James Farrior said of Green Bay. "Those guys look amazing on turf. The game I watched on the turf was the Atlanta game and I think Rodgers was almost perfect that day. It's going to be a little tougher defending those guys on the turf.''
Farrior might have been underestimating the challenge he and fellow Steelers defenders face. When the Packers play inside, they love to use four and even five-receiver sets to spread the defense out and make it play in space against the speed of Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Rodgers is adept at hitting his guys in stride and letting them roll up the yards after catch, and he spreads the ball around superbly, almost always finding the open man. Simply put, Green Bay is deeper at receiver than Pittsburgh is at cornerback, and that advantage shows up even more on a fast track when the Packers know their footing won't be an issue.
But Green Bay is also the first team since the 1962 Lions to never trail by more than seven points at any point all season, and it hasn't lost anything lately, winning five consecutive games that would have ended either its playoff hopes or its season since falling to 8-6 with that impressive 31-27 defeat at powerful New England in Week 15 -- a game in which Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn made his first career start.
Come to think of it, maybe we missed some significant symmetry at work with that loss to the Patriots. Like the 2007 Giants, Green Bay might have launched a Super Bowl-winning road run with a respect-generating late-regular season loss to New England. Both teams played way better than expected against the Patriots, lost narrowly, but then used that game as a springboard to bigger and better things.
No wonder the Packers are slightly favored in this game despite being a wild-card playoff qualifier. Recent history has shown that winning three straight road games in the postseason means you don't have to take a backseat to anyone in the Super Bowl. Only three teams in NFL history have won three road playoff games in the same year -- the 1985 Patriots, the 2005 Steelers and the 2007 Giants -- but both Pittsburgh and New York used the momentum and confidence generated in those games to go on and post Super Bowl victories.
All told, a quarterback playing in his first Super Bowl has won six of the past nine years: Brady in 2001, Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson in 2002, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in 2005, Indy's Peyton Manning in 2006, the Giants' Eli Manning in 2007, and New Orleans' Drew Brees in 2009.
In three of those cases, including the most recent two, a newbie Super Bowl quarterback has beaten an opponent with multiple Super Bowl starts: Brees over Peyton Manning last year; Eli Manning over Brady in 2007; and Brady over Warner in 2001. And the only recent example of Super Bowl experience winning out at quarterback can all be pegged to one guy: Brady and his machine-like Patriots of 2003-2004, the NFL most recent repeat champion.
Brady beat Carolina's Jake Delhomme in 2003 and Philly's Donovan McNabb in 2004, giving both opponents 0-1 career marks in the Super Bowl. (In 2008, Roethlisberger bested Warner, in the first matchup of Super Bowl vets since Denver's John Elway beat Green Bay's Brett Favre in 1997).
Rodgers' chances in this game seem all the better when you consider that Pittsburgh hasn't beaten a quarterback of his caliber all season. The Steelers lost to both the Saints' Drew Brees (20-10 in Week 8) and the Patriots' Brady (39-26 in Week 10), with those two combining for 655 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception. No matter how you feel about the progress of both the Jets' Mark Sanchez and Baltimore's Joe Flacco, you can't call either one of them an elite quarterback by consensus opinion.
The next week, in a 23-7 home win against Cincinnati, Polamalu was at it again, returning an interception for a touchdown. But he re-injured his Achilles in that same game, and his impact has been noticeably lessened ever since. Polamalu has played, but he hasn't dictated what the opposing offense can do with his normal blend of aggressiveness and knack for finding the football. In short, he hasn't been Troy Polamalu. They have been few or no big plays, and even some displays of shoddy tackling in the playoffs.
Without Polamalu playing with his usual reckless abandon, the Steelers secondary can look quite average at times, and that's bad news when you're facing a Rodgers-led Green Bay passing game that goes at least four quality receivers deep and can riddle even the best of defensive backfields. Steelers cornerbacks Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and William Gay can make some plays and have their moments, but it's the Steelers defensive front seven and Polamalu who usually fill the starring roles. Pittsburgh needs No. 43 at his best on Sunday night against Green Bay, and we haven't seen that version of Polamalu for quite some time now.
Roethlisberger was sacked 32 times in his 12 games this season, with eight more sacks suffered in Pittsburgh's two playoff games. That's 40 sacks in 14 games, or not quite three per game. And Green Bay knows it can add to that total, because the last time these two teams played, in December 2009, the Packers defense sacked Roethlisberger five times and, according to defensive coordinator Dom Capers, missed another five sack opportunities. That's a lot of pressure created, and sometimes it's more about bringing consistent pressure than the actual sacks themselves.
Expect Capers to take numerous chances with his blitz packages, trying to get to Roethlisberger early and maybe exploiting a Pittsburgh offensive line that is almost certain to be missing its superb rookie center, Maurkice Pouncey (ankle sprain). Backup Doug Legursky won't necessarily be a weak link in filling in for Pouncey, but the Steelers offensive line has been a jig-saw puzzle of sorts all season due to injuries, and that could play into the hands of a Green Bay defense that totaled 47 sacks in the regular season -- second only to Pittsburgh's league-leading 48.