It’s not the Super Bowl that New York wanted, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of reasons to tune in and be excited on Sunday when the Packers and Steelers clash in lavish Cowboys Stadium (6:30 p.m., FOX).
The 24-point first half Pittsburgh (14-4) managed against the Jets in the AFC Championship Game was enough to survive Gang Green’s second-half surge. Steelers back Rashard Mendenhall broke tackles and plowed lanes two weeks ago, but the Packers defense (allowing only 69.7 rushing yards per game this postseason) should be stouter against the run.
The sixth-seeded Packers (13-6) are riding a five-game winning streak into Super Bowl XLV, having controlled their destiny since a lopsided 45-17 victory against the Giants in Week 16. That momentum is reminiscent of Big Blue’s resilient run to the Super Bowl through hostile ground after the 2007 season.
With two similarly built teams facing off in what threatens to be the last Super Bowl for a while — if a new collective bargaining agreement isn’t reached — fans should expect to be treated with a hard-hitting chess match featuring elite, young talent.
1. Scrambling quarterbacks
The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, respectively, are among the league’s best quarterbacks at escaping pressure and extending plays. Roethlisberger’s size makes him tough to bring down, while Rodgers’ quickness makes him tough to catch. Look for Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Clay Matthews and his luxurious golden locks to chase Roethlisberger out of the pocket often. The Packers’ pass-rushing artist has registered 3 1/2 sacks in the playoffs, adding to the 13 1/2 he notched in the regular season. It’s not any easier for Rodgers, though. The Steel Curtain has absorbed quarterbacks seven times in only two postseason games after leading the NFL with 48 sacks in 2010.
2. Steeling big plays
The Packers’ physical front seven is unlikely to allow Mendenhall to dice them for more than 120 yards, as the Jets’ defense did two weeks ago, but that’s because Green Bay emphasizes run support from the secondary. Without applying tight man coverage on Pittsburgh’s receivers, the Packers will struggle to limit Roethlisberger to another 133-yard passing performance. Steelers receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace should be able to break through the Pack’s zone coverage for big plays. An overemphasized Packers pass rush could also expose Green Bay to tight end Heath Miller and wideout Emmanuel Sanders in the middle of the field.
3. The Polamalu presence
Eighth-year Steelers star safety Troy Polamalu grabbed seven interceptions in 2010 in just 14 games to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors, but he hasn’t been much of a playmaker in the postseason. Perhaps his sore Achilles tendon can be blamed for the drop in production; it’s also likely that quarterbacks are instructed to avoid the three-time All Pro when making pre-snap adjustments. The risk in challenging Polamalu isn’t worth the reward given his proven ability to end drives. If Rodgers is under duress, the Steelers’ goal could be to force the 27-year-old slinger into errant passes in Polamalu’s vicinity.
4. The Pack’s unlikely heroes
With their ability to fight off physical corners and pile on yards after the catch, Packers receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver pose the most significant threat to the Steelers’ defense. If Pittsburgh is intent on neutralizing Jennings and Driver, Rodgers will look for receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones on quick strikes to move the chains. Rookie running back James Starks might not find much running room against the Steelers stingy run defense (52.5 rushing yards allowed per game this postseason), but the sixth-round pick’s fresh legs were good for an NFL-best 263 rushing yards during January.
5. Answering opportunity’s knock
Green Bay’s exciting front seven is complemented perfectly by an opportunistic secondary. Led by 2009 Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson, the Packers’ defensive backs use defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ coverage schemes to slide underneath routes for interceptions. Corners Tramon Williams and Sam Shields have combined for five picks in the postseason and threaten to take advantage of every opportunity Green Bay’s barbaric pass rush creates.