But it was the runner-up who wound up exulting in victory and the winner who finished on the losing end.
Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who came up two votes short for the defensive player award, and Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who won the award for the first time in his career, faced off on the biggest stage of all. But it was Matthews who celebrated afterward; Polamalu experienced the sting of a Super Bowl loss for the first time in three appearances.
Both players were relatively quiet and didn't figure much in what turned into an offensive shootout. But in the handful of plays they were a big part of, Matthews came out the winner.
His biggest play of all: forcing a fumble by Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall on the first play of the fourth quarter.
It was a huge play at the time. After falling behind 21-3, the Steelers had closed to within 21-17. And after Green Bay's offense was stopped cold again in the third quarter, Pittsburgh took over at the Green Bay 41.
The momentum had switched, and it looked as if the Steelers were ready to take their first lead of the game.
And then - boom! - Matthews knifed through the Steelers' line and crushed Mendenhall, forcing a fumble that gave the Packers the ball at the Green Bay 45. Aaron Rodgers then led a drive capped by his 8-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings that made it 28-17. The Packers held on for a 31-25 victory.
Said Matthews, "It was a run my side. All I need to know is I need to make the play, and I did. You try and get turnovers and give it back to our offense. It's a critical point in the game.''
And who did the touchdown come against? Polamalu.
"That was completely my fault," he said. "[On a previous play], they ran Jennings down the middle, and I was anticipating that same pass play. I guessed wrong."
"We weren't able to get any turnovers on defense," Polamalu said. "They made plays on defense and we didn't. We were just hoping to get a taste of the lead. We were confident that we could keep that taste for a while."
Polamalu called it an "incredibly humbling" feeling. "I had some opportunities to make plays,'' he said. "I was just a step off here and there."
Matthews, meanwhile, made the most of his limited opportunities. He didn't have any sacks but had arguably the biggest defensive play of the game, especially at the most crucial moment.