Super Bowl XLV as good as it gets, plus 10 things to watch for Sunday
DALLAS -- Super Bowl 45, as championship games with a taste of history attached go, is as good as it gets. In fact, it's as good as it can get. Consider:
• The Packers, in their 90th year of existence, and the Steelers, in their 78th, are the two longest-running single-city franchises to appear in a Super Bowl. By far.
• In the past 50 seasons, these two teams are tied for the most NFL titles, with six. That means a quarter of all NFL championships in the last two generations have been won by the two teams playing Sunday. And one of them will win the 13th, obviously.
• Green Bay (21) and Pittsburgh (18) have a combined 39 Pro Football Hall of Famers, which accounts for 15 percent of all Hall members.
And the fans. As I have traveled to NFL games big and small while covering the NFL since 1984, there are three fans bases that travel and support their team like no other: Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Dallas. In 2001, in Tampa, with the Steelers playing against a Buc team that was a Super Bowl contender, the crowd was at least 40 percent black and gold; I heard rolling chants of "Here we go Steelers, here we go!''
Two weeks ago, at the NFC Championship Game at arch-rival Chicago, I was shocked to see so many cheesehead head-toppings. StubHub must have done a land-office business that day because the cost of those tickets were sky high, and no self-respecting Bear fan would sell his seat to such a hated enemy. And there's a reason the Packers did $17-million in business in their Lambeau Field Packer Pro Shop a few years back: Fans come from all over the country to worship at the Lambeau shrine. A few years ago, I walked through the parking lot and counted license plates from 26 states after a training-camp practice. Including Alaska.
The reason both of these franchises have such tremendous fan bases? Easy. Green Bay dominated the '60s, winning five championships (1961, '62, '65, '66, '67). Pittsburgh dominated the '70s, winning four (1974, '75, '78, '79). No teams have won more championships in a decade in NFL history. Extrapolate that. In the '60s, the Packers were the first team to be nationally televised consistently. Ray Scott came into most fans' living rooms every Sunday, and the Vince Lombardi ethos and stolid leadership of Bart Starr made many Americans fans of the burgeoning game. Not to mention that idea that small-town Green Bay could beat big-city New York for an NFL Championship. So even if you didn't live in Green Bay, and you lived in Santa Fe, you chose the Packers to be your team.
Same thing with Pittsburgh in the '70s, maybe in a slightly different way. When the steel mills starting shutting down, and Pittsburghers had to relocate south and west to find work, they didn't lose their love of the Steelers. "Sometimes our road games feel like home games,'' safety Ryan Clark said last year.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin and Green Bay's Mike McCarthy both speak about team history like they could teach it. They draw on it, too. Tomlin loves when the old guys come back, and he exhorted his team after beating Baltimore in the playoffs: "This is what we do! This is what the Steelers always have done!''
Said McCarthy this week: "The history of tradition with the Green Bay Packers is a tremendous asset for us as a football team and for us as an organization. It's something that's embraced on a daily basis. The continued support of Bart Starr and Willie Davis, personally, throughout my tenure in Green Bay, has been special. You definitely want to win this game for the Packer nation, and represent the tradition and history of the great players -- Jerry Kramer and all the way down through. It's the standard of the Green Bay Packers, it's about winning Super Bowl trophies.''
Add to that this fact: The game could end up as one of the best Super Bowls ever. That guarantees nothing, of course. But look at what will be on display Sunday: two of the top seven quarterbacks in football, two of the best young coaches, two of the best defensive coordinators (one who's in the Hall of Fame) of the generation, big defensive stars who may be bronzed in Canton one day. It's 60 hours before the game as I write this, and I can legitimately say I can't wait for kickoff.
"It's time for the Lombardi Trophy to go back home,'' McCarthy said this week.
Well, either home to Green Bay or to Lombardi's summer home, where it has spent so much time, at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers.
With standout rookie center and offensive-line leader Maurkice Pouncey out for the game with a high ankle sprain, the second-year fireman on the line from Marshall is set to the make the first start at center in his NFL career. (Legursky has started four games at guard for the Steelers.) He is a squat, low-to-the-ground player with surprising quickness to pull to the outside. That's what Mike Tomlin has emphasized to him in the last 10 days -- be fast, be the leader of the line, and set the pace. Pouncey was often the first lineman to get out on the flank and lead blocks for Rashard Mendenhall or Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers will need him to do that Sunday -- and to hold the point against powerful noseman B.J. Raji.
Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller's numbers, because of an offensive line that will bend and allow pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, and force him to look for his security blanket over the middle and on short hooks:
Picked up on waivers from the Jets the week before Halloween, Green has been a valuable first-down run player for the Pack, and was integral in stuffing the run in the NFC Championship Game. Playing left end on most first-half run downs, Green gave the Packers, essentially, three nose men playing at once, if you add B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett. Look for Green to play on run downs again to make the Steelers struggle for anything they get in the run game.