Beat the Heat: Celtics’ 35-Point Third Quarter Powers them to Top Spot in East

Coaches always stress that to win games in the NBA, you have to “play all four quarters.” But sometimes, all you need to do is play one quarter really well. The Celtics shot 83.3 percent in the third quarter of Sunday’s home game against the Miami Heat, scoring 35 points and building up a lead that survived a late Miami push and a double-double from Miami power forward Chris Bosh (game-high 24 points, 10 rebounds). Final score: Celtics 85, Heat 82.

With the victory, the Celtics retook the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference and clinched the season series, which would give them the tiebreaker should they finish the regular season with the same record as the Heat.

Celtics Come Alive in Third

The Celtics started the second half of the game down 43-39, but it didn’t stay that way for long. On offense, Rajon Rondo set the tone on the Celtics’ first possession, drawing a foul and getting to the line. He made one of two free throws, then two possessions later scored by dribbling straight at Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, drawing contact and laying it in. He missed the free throw, but the aggressive move sent a message to the Heat.

The defense increased its intensity to match the offense, forcing a 24-second violation early in the fourth when the Heat could not find any penetration into the paint.

The pesky Celtics play finally caused the Heat to lose their cool midway through the third quarter. Up 53-46 and on offense, Kevin Garnett set a hard but clean pick for Ray Allen on Heat shooting guard Mike Miller. Miller sprawled onto the ground, and Allen drained the wide-open jump shot. But as the ball splashed through the basket, Heat shooting guard Dwyade Wade (16 points, but six turnovers) ran up to Garnett and shoved him hard in the chest. Wade was given a flagrant-1 foul, and Garnett sank both free throws, putting the Celtics up 57-46 with 7:28 left in the quarter.

The Celtics went on a 22-6 run through the first six minutes of the third quarter, building towards their 13-point lead going into the fourth quarter.

Garnet finished the game with 19 points- including all seven free throws- and seven rebounds. He hit two key jumpers in the fourth to extend the Celtics lead, even as the Heat kept eating into it.

Allen finished with 13 points, including two more three-pointers to add to his record-setting career.

Six Celtics in Double Figures

Four other Celtics also scored in double digits on Sunday. Rondo put up a triple-double without ever really trying to. He finished the game with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. But his best moment came when, during a third quarter timeout, he walked over the Miami Heat and tried to eavesdrop on their huddle. He was pushed away three times, but he kept walking back over, craning his neck to see what they were talking about. Apparently, the Heat didn’t want to include him.

Kendrick Perkins scored 15 points, sinking seven of his nine free throws while grabbing six boards and leading the team with a plus-minus of plus-11.

Von Wafer, one of only four Celtics reserves available for Sunday’s game, quietly put up 10 points in 14 minutes, sinking two consecutive three-point shots in two minutes. He was also a major defensive contributor in the second quarter, in which the Celtics forced eight Heat turnovers.

But the hero of the game may very well have been Glen Davis. Playing 30 minutes at both center and power forward, Davis put up 16 points. He sank two free throws in the fourth quarter that pushed the lead to three points after LeBron James (22 points, seven assists and seven rebounds) missed a free throw with 12.5 seconds left that would have tied the game. The Heat got the ball back with six seconds left, but Miller’s three-pointer bounced off the back iron.

Davis did an excellent job of varying his offensive game. He made two jump shots from 19 feet away, but was just as good in the paint. In the second quarter, he spun through a double-team to give the Celtics a 31-30 lead. In the third, he used his size to back down his coverage, then barreled his way through the paint for the easy layup.

Scraping Together a Big Win

There’s no denying the Celtics are hurting right now. They dressed nine players for this game. They have one healthy true center and one backup for Rondo at point guard. Three starters played over 40 minutes Sunday.

Boston came into this game having lost three of their last four. In all three losses, the Celtics held leads that they could not maintain, mostly because they didnt’t have enough bodies to play for four quarters. But somehow, in the one game that really mattered, the Celtics found a way to win. The Heat’s Big Three outscored the Celtics’ 62-33, mostly because Paul Pierce missed all 10 shots he took, scoring just one point on a free throw. So the Celtics relied on their other two starters and a strong bench to outplay the Heat when their superstars weren’t on the floor.

That the Celtics have won so many games is remarkable, given that at no point this season have they had their entire roster healthy. Someone has always been hurt, meaning the Celtics have scrambled all season to put rotations together. But the Celtics still find a way to win.

Doc Rivers has said certain players have been held back so they’ll be fresher for the playoffs. This worked last season, and this year’s Celtics squad is absolutely a better team than last year’s. Should the Celtics find a way to get completely healthy, all the playoff-bound teams that the Celtics have squeaked past during the regular season will suddenly pose far weaker challenges.

ESPN: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It is undeniable that ESPN has permanently changed the way sports are consumed in this country. In the past, sports coverage was limited to a section of the newspaper and a five-minute recap of local stories on network television. Someone with more national sports interests would be left in the dark. But thanks to ESPN, sports reporting has leaped wholeheartedly into the 24-hour news cycle. Between ESPN’s many stations, you can find “SportCenter” on at pretty much any time of the day. And when the flagship program isn’t on, one of several sport-specific knockoffs, covering all four professional sports and the college scene, takes its place.

ESPN has also fully embraced the Internet. Every year it seems that ESPN changes its layout and functionality, constantly making use of knew Internet technologies as they become available. Blogs? Check. RSS subscriptions? Check. Video and photography for every game story? Check. The latest trend in journalism is hyper-local sites like AOL’s Patch and Boston.com’s MyTown. ESPN has already designed five city-specific sites, encompassing five of the biggest sports markets in America: Boston, New York, Chicago, Dallas/TX and Los Angeles/California.

For those who want to pursue sports journalism as a career, ESPN offers many employment opportunities and state-of-the-art technology to do it. And despite its size, ESPN still has standards for all writers. There’s no room for Deadspin’s Will Leitch at ESPN. Leitch is a drug-dealer, pushing a poisonous product that he must constantly convince consumers they need in order to keep his product profitable. Were sensationalist sites like Deadspin (or TMZ) to go away, after an initial period of mourning, would anyone miss them? But if ESPN were to go away, every sports fan would feel cut off from the sports world.

This is not to say ESPN does not have some serious problems. ESPN is incredibly management-friendly, even when it says otherwise. It’s very rare that any move by management is criticized. When Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb had their dispute, ESPN came down very heavily on McNabb, wondering if he’d be employable after all of this. No criticism whatsoever of a Shanahan-led Redskins team that went 2-6 over the second half of its season.

Very rarely is a trade criticized either. At worst, ESPN analysts will admit the player “isn’t what he used to be.” They’ll then muse on how a return to past form would make the trade seem brilliant in retrospect. But there’s never an analyst who outright says “this was a bad trade.” Occasionally, they’ll say “this player is done,” but even then they won’t criticize the trade, just the player.

Even Bill Simmons, whose popularity allows him a measure of independence from ESPN’s editors, follows this convention.

One of the reasons this is so commonplace is because ESPN loves to employ ex-athletes. And athletes are taught from a young age not to criticize management. Some of this comes from a desire to avoid punishment, some of it comes from a belief that “players play and managers manage,” as Lisa Simpson would say (“do alligators alligate?”).

ESPN’s reliance on ex-athletes is another one of its flaws, much as that gives athletes opportunities after their admittedly short careers end. By pushing athletes on television (not all of whom, by the way, are actually intelligent or well-spoken… Shannon Sharpe), ESPN perpetuates the idea that only athletes truly understand the game. This takes credibility away from actual writers, and probably perpetuates the misogyny that has long-infected the world of sports journalism.

But ESPN’s biggest problem is that too often it lacks teeth. Its ability to cover every team in every sport is undeniable. But what do ESPN writers ever actually say? Take a look at much of ESPN’s program. “Pardon the Interruption. “Around the Horn.” “1st and 10.” “Jim Rome is Burning.” Are any of these shows more than people yelling at each other? Is there any real analysis? Any real research or reporting? Is any of this journalism? Didn’t think so.

ESPN covers the broadest spectrum of sports possible, but in so doing settles for the lowest common denominator of sports journalism. Its writing is crisp and clean, but also white-washed. Yahoo! Sports basketball writer Adrian Wojnarowski once said he loves ESPN, because he knows that station will never do more than what is absolutely necessary to tell the basic story without rocking the boat. This leaves writers like Wojnarowski free to pursue actual scoops, to find the real stories in sports that might mean something in the greater scheme of things.

The worst example of this I’ve ever seen by ESPN was a pre-Super Bowl piece on Hines Ward. It was billed as piece delving into what really drives Ward. But what actually aired was three minutes of cotton candy — light and pretty, but ultimately substance-less. The clip opened with some chaotic shots of Korean drums (he was born in Seoul). Then were some still shots of Ward sitting in a locker room. If you listened to his words, you quickly realized that he was spewing the same tired sports cliches that every professional athlete gives when he gets a dumb question. But ESPN edited the pauses out of the cliches so that they sounded like he was shooting them out rapid-fire. It added some drama, but there was nothing to anything he said.

Ultimately, I felt the clip looked really cool but didn’t teach me a single thing. Just like ESPN.

Ozone Pilots: The Alternative Athletic World of Ultimate

Stall! Crash! Up! Broken! Turn! Ultimate’s language is a staccato code, designed to convey information in a single breath. In a sport where players don’t stop running until a change of possession or a score, extra breaths are hard to come by.

The Ozone Pilots, Boston University’s Ultimate team, practice on BU’s Nickerson Field. Head-high snowdrifts ring the field, but the artificial turf is green and clean. The air is icy; the wind gusts at 15 miles per hour.

The white plastic discs, Ultimate’s “ball,” absorb the cold and transmit it with every throw and catch. The players wear hoodies, track pants, thermal long-sleeves, stocking caps, and sometimes gloves.

The team warms up with synchronized stretches, then moves to drills. First, each player practices “break throws,” passes that fly to the side of the field blocked off by the closely guarding defender.

Then, they practice “zone” defense, in which three to four defenders surround the player with the disc, while the remaining players cut off up-field or overhead throws.

After two hours of drills, it’s time to play. Dark shirts vs. light shirts.

Ultimate uses approximately 70 percent of a football field. It’s a seven-on-seven sport, where teams score by passing a 175-gram disc to players in an end zone without it touching the ground or getting intercepted. When a player catches the disk, he or she must stop running after a few steps. Players can still pivot, as in basketball, but that’s all. The games are self-officiated – no refs. At the regional and national levels, “designated observers” settle disputes.

Game play is fast, fusing football’s straight sprints with basketball’s circulations. When an offense is really in synch, the passing is almost non-stop. As one player is about to catch the disc and turn, a teammate is already in mid-sprint to catch the throw.

When the teams play “zone,” more useful in windy conditions because players can’t throw the disc deep, the action is slower, more controlled, more lateral. The disc sails back and forth between three primary players, called handlers, as they wait for their teammates – the “wings” along the sidelines and the “poppers” in the middle – to find openings.

The early drills pay dividends. One drill practiced the inside-out forehand throw, risky because its close-to-the-body release point makes it easy for a defender to block. During the scrimmage, the dark-shirted team scores on that very inside-out forehand. “That was beautiful!” shouts junior Jonathan “Gump” Toll.

The team practices for three hours, its initial 27 players swelling to 34 by the end. Junior captain Daniel Bernays says practicing hard now will help them identify and rectify weaknesses before the spring season starts. The Ozone Pilots play in USA Ultimate’s Metro Boston region, against teams such as Boston College, Tufts University and Northeastern University.

Ultimate is colloquially known as “Ultimate Frisbee,” but that name is a misnomer. Most Ultimate players consider the Frisbee, made by the California-based Wham-O company, structurally inferior to the Ultra-Star, made by the Michigan-based Discraft company.

“Don’t bring a Wham-O to practice or we’ll laugh at you,” says Max Langevin, junior captain for the Ozone Pilots.

USA Ultimate is Ultimate’s governing body. Although it has divisions for high school and adult club teams, it is most popular at the college level. The USA Ultimate website claims there are currently 12,000 college students playing Ultimate on over 700 teams nation-wide.

Despite its popularity, Ultimate players often find themselves up against a stereotype left over from the sport’s 1970s origin.

“The stereotype is ‘hippie,’” says Langevin. “When you say you’re an Ultimate player, it’s implied that you also carry a Hacky Sack around and wear Birkenstocks.”

There were no Birkenstocks worn today, only black cleats.

The four Ozone Pilots captains agree that Ultimate is also often associated with drug use, especially marijuana. Their team name, says junior captain Peter “Snappy” Wilson, is a veiled reference to being stoned. But this may be a nod to history more than a reflection on the team culture.

“Every team name in college Ultimate has a drug reference in it,” says assistant coach Casey Peters, although that isn’t true. Harvard University’s team is called Redline, after the MBTA line that runs through Harvard Square. Brandeis University’s team is named Tron, after the 1982 movie of the same name.

Ultimate appeals to college students as an alternative to NCAA-sanctioned sports. For a myriad of reasons, including talent level, competition, time commitment, and coach-defined atmosphere, many student-athletes come to college and choose not to pursue varsity athletics. Wilson says he didn’t think he was good enough to run Division-I track, whereas freshman Andrew “Panda” Hartman says he played soccer in high school, but found the skill level of BU soccer “daunting.” In both cases, and many others, Ultimate provides a way to stay in shape in what Bernays calls a “player-defined” team atmosphere.

All that, and it’s fun, too.

“The act of throwing a disc is one of those innately pleasurable things to me,” Wilson says. “It feels really good to do. That’s what made me come out. What initially made me stay was the community. As freshmen, you don’t know anybody, and it was like an instant community right there, with great guys that were really receptive to having you and welcoming you.”

After Sunday’s practice, the Ozone Pilots commandeer a group of tables at BU’s West Campus Dining Room and eat dinner together. An impromptu eating contest breaks out when Tracy Snyder, a member of the Lady Pilots, BU’s women’s Ultimate team, drops an apple pie in front of men’s senior captain Matthew Huynh and divides it in half.

Teammates surround the two Ultimate players, egging them on with cheers and catcalls. A man from Dining Services asks the group to quiet down, but he’s ignored. Huynh finishes his half-pie first and sticks his tongue out in victory. As the crowd leaves, a pained grimace appears on Huynh’s face.

“I might throw up,” he says.

Super Bowl XLV: Final Musings and Rantings

Rest easy, Roger Gooddell: Your Super Bowl champions aren’t a pack of cheaters. They’re not a bunch of bullies, either. Your Super Bowl MVP isn’t an accused rapist, a dog murderer or a penis-texter.

Though your season was plagued with publicity nightmares as varied as a concussion epidemic, a second illegal surveillance accusation and a potential lockout in 2011, on your biggest stage a victor emerged that was as pristine as fresh snow.

The Green Bay Packers are the national champions. Aaron Rodgers is your MVP. The Lombardi Trophy is returning to Vince Lombardi’s town. Cue the bathos.

The Game Itself

Anyone who watched the AFC and NFC Championships could not have been surprised by anything that happened at Super Bowl XLV. On offense, the Packers were the picture of efficiency in the first half, building a 21-3 lead that seemed insurmountable. On defense, they pressured Ben Roethlisberger from all angles, sacking him once and hitting him five times, to go along with five tackles behind the line. The Packers forced two first-half turnovers and turned them into 14 points. Although they allowed a touchdown late in the second quarter, they looked unbeatable going into halftime.

But injuries to wide receiver Donald Driver and cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Sam Shields threatened to simultaneously derail both the Packers’ offense and their defense in the second half. But as I predicted, ineffective running by Rashard Mendenhall– just 63 yards and a touchdown on the ground, plus a fumble at the Green Bay 36 that turned at least a field goal for Pittsburgh into an eventual Green Bay touchdown- put too much pressure on Roethlisberger, who finished the game 25/40 for 263 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Pittsburgh quarterback does not play his best football in Super Bowls, having now thrown five interceptions but just three touchdowns in three Super Bowls.

As I again predicted, the weakened Pittsburgh defense (3 sacks, no turnovers) could not make enough plays to keep Rodgers out of the end zone. Rodgers passed for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, for a quarterback rating of 111.5. The man is master of indoor football games, and his numbers would have been even better had it not been for at least four drops by his wide receivers.

Halftime Show: Usher 1, Black Eyed Peas, 0

From 2007-2009, Super Bowl organizers found a winning strategy for an entertaining halftime show: find a veteran rock star with widespread appeal who’s experienced with large stadiums but not so old that he can’t play, and make sure his backing band is up to the challenge. Worked with Prince in 2007. Worked with Tom Petty in 2008. Worked with Bruce Springsteen in 2009.

This strategy finally failed (miserably) with the Who in 2010, but that’s because that band, like Paul McCartney in 2005 and the Rolling Stones in 2006, has crossed the threshold from “veteran” to “old.” They still have a huge fanbase, but they can’t actually play anymore.

This year, organizers went in a different direction, choosing the markedly younger Black Eyed Peas. And they sucked.

Yes, there were a lot of pretty lights flashing on the field of Cowboys Stadium during the halftime show. The better to distract you with, my dear. The Black Eyed Peas were the least-engaging halftime band the Super Bowl has had in quite awhile. Some bands play with enough energy and gravitas that they can fill a large stage despite their size. The Black Eyed Peas seemed to do the opposite, appearing tiny, swallowed up by the massive stage. Their singing was uninspired and uninspiring. Even an appearance by Slash couldn’t save them; Fergie’s rendition of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was positively painful.

All seemed lost, until Usher, clad all in white, literally descended from the sky: A messiah, resurrected at the last moment to save the halftime show from ruination and decay. There was even a choir of dancing angels behind him, helping to spread his message that all was not lost.

Usher was the halftime show’s salvation.

Ads: Has This Country Gone Nuts?

Seriously, what is wrong with advertisement executives these days? This year’s crop of ads were a strange batch indeed. Confusing at times, vulgar at other times, but always chaotic. The most popular ad, depending on who you ask, was either the Volkswagen ad with the tiny Darth Vader, or the Chrysler ad with Eminem. The former was adorable, sure. But the latter just goes to show that people value style way more than substance. Eminem’s Chrysler ad was very classy, but what did he actually say? “This is the Motor City. This is what we do.” Well, what do you do? Drive around empty streets and invade choir practices? You know why Eminem does that stuff? Because he’s probably the only person left in Detroit!

Other ads went out of their way to push the sex-appeal aspect of advertising to never-before-seen levels. I don’t normally consider myself prudish, but children are watching this game. The “mattresses are for sex” ad, the finger-sucking Doritos ad, the Pepsi Max “I want to sleep with you, I want to sleep with you, I want to sleep with you” ad, they’re all selling their products in a way that made me very uncomfortable. God help parents watching them with their kids.

The worst ad was Teleflora’s. “Your rack is unreal.” Seriously? That’s language that children don’t need to be exposed to. Ads may target adults with disposable income, but some consideration must be made for parents and young children. I refuse to accept that everyone watching the Super Bowl is a drunken 26-year-old male, but that seems to be the only people ad executives are targeting. And by doing so, all they do is perpetuate the stereotype that every football fan is a drunken 26-year-old male.

The rest of the ads were just insane, such as the Mayans summoning a car or Ozzie and Justin Bieber on what looks like the “Tron” set. I can’t even remember half the products they were selling. Even a half-assed new “Old Spice” commercial would’ve taken the trophy hands down.

Thankfully, the quality of the game itself dwarfed a crappy halftime show and a strange batch of ads. Tack on that the game ended by 10:30, and I give it an 8.5 out of 10.

Season-High Points for Rondo Lead Celtics Past Magic

All season long, Rajon Rondo has been more than happy to pass the ball to the Boston Celtics’ many strong shooters. Against the Orlando Magic on Sunday at home, he was a strong Celtics shooter. Rondo’s 26 points complimented a Celtics defense that held the Magic to just 34.4 percent shooting, including 3-24 shooting from three-point range, and the Celtics won, 91-80.

Rondo’s 26 points were a new season-high, his most since scoring 29 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers in last May’s Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. The Celtics are still undefeated at home against the Eastern Conference this season.

Rondo the Scorer

The Magic came into this game very familiar with Rondo’s passing acumen, and their defense played accordingly. The Orlando defenders not guarding Rondo would play very tight to their men, rarely allowing a Celtic to get open for a Rondo pass. Whoever defended Rondo then usually gave him several feet of free space, hoping to cut off bounce passes into the lane. Since he couldn’t pass into the lane, Rondo drove through it, sinking six layups through the game, including two on consecutive possessions in the second quarter. He also got himself to the line five times, making seven of nine free throws.

Rondo was not the only Celtic getting to the line, as Boston attacked the paint far more aggressively. Although they tied Orlando with 38 points in the paint, the Celtics shot 34 (making 28) free throws to the Magic’s 16 (making 13). Paul Pierce was the best at the line, sinking 10 of 12 free throws as part of his 18-point performance. As Rondo became the go-to scorer, Pierce became the team’s facilitator, finishing the game with a scoring differential of plus-20.

When Rondo was not scoring on layups, he was sinking jump-shots. Midway through the third quarter, Rondo hit a 20-footer as the shot clock expired to push Boston’s lead to 61-49. Two minutes later, he hit his ninth three-pointer of the season from 24 feet away to make it 68-55 Celtics.

When he wasn’t scoring, Rondo was still more than capable of running the offense, dishing out seven assists. The Celtics won the overall assists battle, 21-13.

Other Starters Still Contribute

Although Rondo and Pierce were the Celtics’ biggest scorers, three other Celtics also scored in double figures. Kevin Garnett scored 16 points and collected nine rebounds, good for a plus-17 differential, second only to Pierce.

Ray Allen scored 11 points, including two key three-pointers. His first tied the game for the first time at 34 late in the second quarter. His second capped a 7-0 Boston run to open the second half, stretching a three-point Boston lead at halftime to 10. The Celtics never looked back after that.  Allen is now just four treys away from breaking Reggie Miller’s all-time record.

Glen Davis scored 11 points, grabbed six rebounds and stole two coming off the bench. Davis banged his head on the court after drawing a charge on Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson in the first quarter, but later returned to the game.

Defense Contains Howard in the Second Half

The game began with Dwight Howard abusing Kendrick Perkins from the post and underneath the basket. Howard made four of his first five shots, and Perkins looked like he could do nothing with the faster, stronger, higher-jumping Howard. But Perkins got more physical with Howard as the game went on, fouling him hard on shots and boxing out for rebounds (13 total, tied with Howard for most in the game). Although Howard still scored 22 points, the defense definitely took its toll on him, both physically and mentally.

In the second quarter, a hard Perkins foul caused Howard to lash out and elbow Perkins in the chest, resulting in a technical.

In the second half, Howard did not score a field-goal until there was 1:10 left in the fourth quarter and the game was out of reach. He had just six second-half points, four on free-throws.

Shutting down Howard forced the Magic to settle for mid-range jumpers and three-point shots. This led to just 34.4 overall shooting, and an average of 31.9 percent shooting through the final three quarters. The Magic sank just three three-pointers, two in the first quarter.

The Celtics defense stole the ball seven times and blocked four shots. They also out rebounded the Magic on defense, 37-30. Every time an Orlando player went up for a jump-shot, a swarm of Celtics hovered around the basket for the rebound. This didn’t stop the Magic from grabbing 16 offensive rebounds, but it made it impossible for Orlando to make a dent in the Celtics’ large second-half lead.

Daniels Leaves on Stretcher

With a minute gone in the second quarter, Marquis Daniels bent his neck back while trying to drive past reserve point guard Gilbert Arenas and went to the floor. He lay there for over five minutes before being loaded onto a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance.

In his post-game press conference, Doc Rivers said that Daniels suffered a bruised spine. He will be out at least a month, but he has full motion in his extremities.

Who Wins the Super Bowl?

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.

Offense

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.

Defense

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

Special Teams

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

Final Prediction

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.

Mr. Gooddell, What Did You Expect?

Anyone remember “V For Vendetta?” Pretty good movie, definitely the best Alan Moore adaptation so far (“Watchmen” was more accurate, but also more boring), even if some of its message about terrorism’s potential upside hasn’t held up in the five years since its release. Point is, there’s a line in it where Mr. Creedy, head of the black ops “fingermen,” tells police inspector Finch, “At this time it would behoove you to cease any investigation of matters that have long since passed, and concentrate on the concerns of the present.”

Minus the approving opinion of mass murder and scorched earth strategies (unless he thought he might get a mid-level draft pick out of it two years down the road), we have a real-life “Creepy” Creedy in Patriots coach Bill Belichick. And NFL Commissioner Roger Gooddell is definitely Mr. Finch. In a recent article by Sports Illustrated, Gooddell said that he feels “deceived” by Belichick’s stonewalling the press on the “SpyGate” issue. Gooddell said he expected Belichick to clear the air about the decision-making process that led to his getting fined a half-million dollars for illegally videotaping opponents’ sidelines and coaches. But when Belichick was told of Gooddell’s reaction, he basically told ESPN that he never agreed to full public disclosure, only saying that he felt he dealt with the issue appropriately at the time. Cue Sinatra singing “My Way.”

So now Gooddell is pissed. I only have one question for Gooddell: really? Well, o.k., here’s a few more questions: You’re actually going to get mad that Belichick wasn’t forthcoming with the press? Have you ever talked to Belichick? Have you ever watched a press conferece? Belichick is never forthcoming. When his team wins, he spreads credit all around without singling out a single player for a specific achievement. When his team loses, he similarly spreads blame, often onto himself. His voice never wavers, his emotions never change. Straight, flat affect, all the time.

And let’s not even start talking about Belichick’s injury reports. For some reason, Belichick gets off on sticking it to the press, and he does so by revealing as little as possible, week in and week out. The injury report is Belichick’s idea of a joke. The only other time Belichick shows a sense of humor is when he can evade a reporter’s question with a quick, sarcastic barb. Belichick isn’t forthcoming about anything. Why on earth would he be forthcoming about an incident as humiliating as the fines and lost draft picks of “SpyGate?” If he won’t talk about why his team won or lost, who’s injured, or what the Patriots’ strategy is for their next opponent, why on earth would he talk about why he cheated and for how long he’s been doing it?

And don’t pretend that any of these tendencies are somehow new. We all remember Bill Belichick’s press conference after winning his third Super Bowl with the Patriots, cementing the team’s dynasty status and his personal place in history as one of the all-time great coaches. Did he allow himself a moment to reflect on the magnanimity of what he’d just accomplished? Did Belichick even smile?

Gooddell took over in 2006. Belichick’s song-and-dance was old long before then. So for Mr. Gooddell to sit there and say he felt deceived by Belichick’s withholding SpyGate details from the press shows an ignorance that borders on delusion.

Look, Commissioner, you got what you secretly wanted. The Patriots lost their bid at perfection in 2007, and have since lost two straight home playoff games. Their credibility as a franchise wanes a little more with each consecutive playoff loss. So why are you still harping on something that happened over three years ago. Don’t you have more pressing matters to deal with? Maybe the public relations nightmare that will result if the accused rapist quarterbacking the Steelers wins the Super Bowl? Or how about the two possible class-action lawsuits you’re about to face from former players who suffered brain damage playing for your league?

The matter of SpyGate has long since passed. Gooddell would do well to let it fade into history, and concentrate on the concerns of the present.

Patriots Fans Should Wear Cheeseheads on Sunday

If Aaron Rodgers wins the Super Bowl, he will most certainly take his place in the uppermost echelon of quarterbacks. When ESPN and the NFL Network endlessly debate the best quarterback in the game, he will be considered with established greats like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Patriots fans should not feel threatened by this: there is a difference between “best in the game” and “best of the 21st century.”

Quarterbacks du jour show up, are talked about for a few years, then fade back into obscurity until they win again. When was the last time anyone really talked about Donovan McNabb? How about Daunte Culpepper? Or Chad Pennington? Rodgers winning a Super Bowl will extend his celebrity, but not indefinitely. Brady had to win two to earn a permanent sport on the public’s radar, and a third to cement his place near the top. There’s no conflict of interest in rooting for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, because Rodgers poses no real threat to Brady’s legacy.

But what if Rodgers doesn’t win? What if the Pittsburgh Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger win? Two things would then happen:

Roethlisberger would be inducted into the Hall of Fame when he retires. Only four quarterbacks have won three or more Super Bowls: Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman and Brady. Montana, Bradshaw and Aikman are all in the Hall of Fame. It seems unthinkable that Brady would not get in when his career ends. A third Lombardi trophy for Roethlisberger would probably assure his eventual induction as well.

The conversation for “best quarterback of the 21st century” would get a whole lot more complicated. Up until now, the debate is exclusively a two-man argument, between Brady and Manning. Brady has the hardware, Manning has some of the better stats and regular-season accolades. But if Roethlisberger wins a third Super Bowl, football analysts will have to include him in the conversation.

Statistically, It’s Still No Contest

Neither Manning nor Brady need fear Roethlisberger ever passing them in passing stats, unless Roethlisberger’s career extends significantly longer than Manning’s or Brady’s. Roethlisberger trails in passing yardage, accuracy, touchdowns and quarterback rating. Manning dwarfs Roethlisberger in yardage (54,828 vs. 22,502) and touchdowns (399 vs. 144), and Brady’s 122-touchdown lead (266) will be hard for Roethlisberger to beat, given that Brady’s only been in the NFL three more seasons. Even if we give Roethlisberger a fourth post-Brady year due to Brady losing a year to knee injury, he would still have to average 30 touchdown passes per season to make up the difference, a feat Roethlisberger has only accomplished once.

Brady is also the only quarterback of the three to average less than 10 interceptions a season, which explains why he leads with a quarterback rating of 95.2. He started the 2010 season behind Manning, but a 19-point difference in quarterback rating (111 vs. 91.9) this season gave Brady the lead. For Roethlisberger, whose quarterback rating is weakest at 92.5, to catch Brady would require a similar meltdown. Roethlisberger is unlikely to ever catch either of the other transcendent quarterbacks, so he’ll have to earn his spot in the playoffs.

Winning Isn’t Everything, but It’s the Only Thing

Roethlisberger’s lack of stats has hurt him in the awards category. After winning Rookie of the Year in 2004, he hasn’t done much. No regular season MVPs. No Super Bowl MVPs, despite winning two titles. Only one Pro Bowl selection, in 2007. And he hasn’t performed noticeably in the playoffs than in the regular season. His two best playoff games came in 2005. He has thrown 14 interceptions and been sacked 30 times. He plays worse in the playoffs, where his quarterback rating drops from 91.9 to 85.0. And in 2005, he set a Super Bowl record for worst passer-rating by a winning quarterback, at 22.6 (9/21, 123 yards, zero touchdowns, two interceptions).

But if he wins, Roethlisberger will be 11-2 in the playoffs. By comparison, Brady is 14-5, and Manning 9-9. Roethlisberger’s winning percentage, .833, is currently second only to Bart Starr (.900) and a couple of one-and-done quarterbacks nobody’s heard of (Frank Reich, anyone?). By the end of Roethlisberger’s career it will likely be lower. But Brady will never have a winning percentage like that again, and Manning never has. Roethlisberger gets it done in the playoffs. If teams are defined exclusively by winning or losing, then we won’t be able to look at Roethlisberger’s accomplishments and deny his place as one of the all-time greats. As good as Brady or Manning? Maybe, maybe not. But no longer a third wheel to their dynamic duo? Absolutely.

On Sunday, a Green Bay victory will catapult Rodgers name to the top level, but his legacy will still be defined within the context of a single season. But a Pittsburgh win (especially if Roethlisberger wins MVP) will put Roethlisberger in the realm of best of the new millenium. Patriots fans don’t want a third choice muddying up this conversation. So on Sunday, red and blue shirts should be swapped for green and gold ones. Break out the Styrofoam cheese wedges, and put down the Sam Adams in favor of a Spotted Cow (you’ll thank me… if you can find one). Sing “Teach Me How to Raji,” or whatever strange new YouTube video comes out of the Frozen Tundra. But most of all, hope and pray that the quarterback with the rape allegations chokes away his chance at history. Otherwise, he may never go away.