In recent years, the grand majority of Super Bowl predictions have always favored the same team. The New England Patriots were heavily picked against in their first Super Bowl appearance following the 2001 season, then were heavily favored in their next three. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were heavily favored over the Oakland Raiders in 2002, the Pittsburgh Steelers heavily favored over the Seattle Seahawks in 2005 and Arizona Cardinals in 2008, and the Indianapolis Colts over the Chicago Bears in 2006. But in 2009, analysts were more evenly divided between the Colts and the New Orleans Saints, and the result was a very exciting Super Bowl in which two of the best quarterbacks in the game traded bombs until an interception-touchdown sealed it for the Saints. Predictions don’t always translate to results (2007 Patriots ring any bells?), but they are a good indication of which way the media is leaning.
So who wins on Sunday: the #6 Green Bay Packers, who beat the top three NFC teams to get to Dallas, or the #2 Pittsburgh Steelers, who are playing in their third Super Bowl in five years and whose quarterback has the second-best playoff winning percentage of all time (discounting a few one-and-done quarterbacks)? Although 16 of the 24 ESPN.com writers picked the Packers, only two picked a victory by more than one possession. And as we all saw in the AFC and NFC championships, these two teams are almost identical. They both can score early and often, but their offenses can go cold in the face of pressure, although both quarterbacks can also beat the blitz by running. Their defenses both love to bring pressure from all angles, and can force turnovers via both strip-sacks and interceptions. Both field goal kickers have made eight field goals from beyond 40 yards, and their shorter field goal numbers are also comparable.
No holistic comparison of these two teams will result in a clear favorite, so we’re going to have to break down these two teams and see who has the advantage where.
Neither team uses a rush-first offense, so any offense comparison has to start with the quarterbacks. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has finally emerged as the quarterback everyone in Wisconsin hoped he could be. Rodgers has Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger beat in most statistical categories, including completion percentage, total yardage, yards per attempt, touchdown passes, and quarterback rating. He’s also taken one less sack then Roethlisberger, although he has thrown over twice as many interceptions (11 vs. six). Roethlisberger has the playoff experience, but he crapped out in his first Super Bowl appearance, going 19/21 for 123 yards, no touchdowns and zero interceptions. And Rodgers has a distinct advantage in indoor games: in 12 indoor games, Rodgers has thrown 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions; Roethlisberger has thrown 14 touchdowns and nine picks in nine indoor games. The indoor artificial turf will also boost Rodgers’ speed if he has to run (Roethlisberger uses his speed to side-step sacks, not rush for positive yardage). Edge: Green Bay.
The Packers might have the quarterback advantage, but the Steelers have the edge at running back. Rashard Mendenhall quietly had one of the most successful seasons of any running back in the NFL. His 13 rushing touchdowns was good for second-best among running backs. He can also break off long runs in the middle of the field, recording 11 20+ rushing carries in the regular season, good for fifth best. Green Bay’s James Starks is good enough to take some of the pressure off Rodgers, but Rodgers is still going to be doing a lot of running. That means he’ll be more vulnerable to hits by Pittsburgh’s lethal secondary, which could result in more turnovers, or even a game-ending injury to Rodgers. Edge: Pittsburgh.
The best receiver on either team is Green Bay’s Greg Jennings, who finished the regular season second in touchdown receptions, fourth in yardage and sixth in yards per game. But if you look at receiver numbers, you see that not only is Jennings having the best postseason of any wide receiver, but two other Packers wide receivers are also having better postseasons than anyone on the Steelers. This makes the Packers dangerous, because it means Rodgers always has multiple options. He can throw to Jennings, one of several other receivers, or tuck it and run. Edge: Green Bay.
As for offensive line, neither of these teams is fantastic. But Green Bay did a slightly better job of protecting Rodgers, giving up five fewer sacks and 68 fewer yards in losses. Tack on the Steelers losing their Pro Bowl center to an ankle sprain, and it seems like the Packers will do a slightly better job protecting Rodgers. Edge: Green Bay.
Overall offensive edge: Green Bay.
In the regular season, the Packers and Steelers had the two best sacking defenses, separated by a single sack. In the playoffs, it stretches to just three sacks. Green Bay has also forced three fumbles, while Pittsburgh only forced two. But the Packers only recovered two fumbles, and the Steelers recovered three. In the regular season, the Steelers had the league’s best rushing defense, but the Packers were better against the pass. The Packers will try to throw, and the Steelers will likely try to run, so each team’s defensive strengths won’t help as much as each team might hope.
The Packers’ defensive strength lies in its cornerbacks first, then its linebackers. Cornerback Tramon Williams already has three interceptions this postseason to go along with his fifth-best six picks during the regular season. And another Packers corner, Sam Shields, has two picks in three postseason games. Mendenhall will have to run well for the Steelers, because the Packers corners are going to be able to cover their wide receivers, quite probably in single coverage.
At linebacker, the Packers’ Clay Matthews had a monster season with 13.5 sacks, plus 3.5 in the postseason. But right behind him with three postseason sacks is Steelers linebacker James Harrison. The worry with Harrison is that he might go for a player’s head with the intent to knock him out of the game, then deal with the fines later. He pretty much said as such at various points during the regular season. And backing Harrison up is LaMarr Woodley, who has two sacks in two playoff games so far.
Any discussion of Pittsburgh’s defense would be incomplete without mentioning safety Troy Polamalu, the heart of the Steelers defense. He finished the regular season second in the NFL with seven interceptions, but his postseason numbers have been mediocre at best: seven tackles, no defensed passes, no turnovers. His Achilles tendon injury must really be limiting him. With or without him, the Pittsburgh defense is probably good enough to keep the score close (they allowed a half-point less per game than Green Bay). But without Polamalu (whose seven interceptions are the difference between Pittsburgh’s plus-17 turnover differential and Green Bay’s plus-10), the defense may not make as many big plays as Green Bay’s defense will. The Super Bowl can often hinge on a single interception (like last year), and the Steelers will be playing without their best turnover producer.
Overall defensive edge: Green Bay
Both Green Bay’s place kicker Mason Crosby and Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham are 2/3 in field goals in the playoffs. Suisham missed from 43 yards out, whereas Crosby missed from 50. Suisham was the more accurate kicker during the regular season, but Crosby attempted 13 more field goals (15 vs. 28). Neither has missed an extra point all year.
Green Bay has been one of the worst kickoff return teams in the postseason, ranked 11th with 13.5 yards per return. Pittsburgh ranks eighth with 19.0. Green Bay, however, was better at kickoff coverage than Pittsburgh in the regular season. Neither team has a good punt returner, averaging less than 7 yards per return. Pittsburgh allowed 9.2 yards per punt return, Green Bay 11.0. But Pittsburgh punter Jeremy Kapinos has been out-punting Green Bay’s Tim Masthay in terms of both average punt and net yardage each time.
Neither team’s special teams unit should strike fear into the opposing team’s hearts, but if there must be a winner, slight edge goes to Pittsburgh. A better punter may ultimately mean one less possession for the Packers. That might make all the difference.
Overall special teams edge: Pittsburgh
The Packers have both an offensive and defensive edge, but expect this game to stay close throughout. The Steelers defense is very experienced, as is their quarterback. Experience matters, as the bright lights of Dallas can overwhelm young players. But without a healthy Polamalu, the Steelers defense might not make enough big plays to keep the Packers out of the end zone. Roethlisberger, meanwhile, will face constant pressure while contending with Green Bay’s dynamic corner duo. Ultimately, as good as the quarterbacks are, the Vince Lombardi Trophy might be decided by the running backs. If Mendenhall struggles, the Steelers will really be in trouble. If Starks can add to his playoff-leading 263 rushing yards, Green Bay’s offense could build a big lead.
Pick: Green Bay 21, Pittsburgh 17.