Super Bowl Sunday: Saving the best for last

Today can be both a very joyous and very somber day, for pretty much the same reasons.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, a day that has become a non-sanctioned national holiday of far more significance than some others the government chooses to recognize — I’m looking at you, Flag Day.

People in every state gather to watch this final game of the season, typically between the NFL’s top two teams. Those lucky enough to still be playing are hoping to get their hands on the Lombardi Trophy and tell the whole world they are headed to Disneyland.

However, this year’s game has an ominous cloud looming over it. No, it’s not the one about to dump another eight inches of snow on Dallas.

It’s the labor disagreements that could strip us of football next season, or at least a complete schedule of games.

An impending lockout seems more than possible, if not downright likely.

But rather than harp on that scenario, which would inevitably send me into the seven stages of grief, let us instead put anything beyond today out of our collective consciousness.

Today is about the biggest stage, the biggest prop bets, the biggest pupu platters and hopefully the best game of the season.

Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers (-3) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

So good have the Packers been recently, the story of this team as a 6-seed and favored in the Super Bowl has been completely stripped from the public discourse.

Green Bay, which went 10-6 in the regular season and needed to win its final two games to even make the playoffs, has been adopted by most of the country as the team du jour for a full month. Much of that love has been justifiable, thanks to the incredibly consistent and dominant play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Beginning with a 45-17 win over the Giants in Week 16, Rodgers has led the Packers to a 5-0 record, while throwing for an average of 285 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has also utilized his legs by rushing for a score in each of the past two playoff wins.

The man who used to reside squarely beneath Brett Favre’s monstrous shadow has almost fully crept out into the mainstream. His name is now spoken along with Brady, Manning and Brees as the league’s elite QBs.

It’s ridiculous to think Rodgers would have a less-than-stellar game today, since his personality seems unflappable. The bright lights shouldn’t affect his performance.

His counterpart has had an interesting season, to say the least.

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger began the year on the sidelines, forced to sit the team’s first four games by Commissioner Roger Goodell for what he deemed inappropriate behavior off the field. Though no charges were ever filed, Roethlisberger was involved in a situation with a girl in a bar restroom that Goodell felt went far enough that he put the league’s image in a bad light.

So following that four-game hiatus, in which Pittsburgh went 3-1 with backups Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch, Roethlisberger did what he has done his entire NFL career — win football games.

He led Pittsburgh to a 12-4 regular season and the No. 2 seed in the AFC, while throwing for 3,200 yards, 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions for a 97.0 quarterback rating.

After beating the Ravens and Jets in the postseason, Roethlisberger has a 10-2 lifetime playoff record to go with a 60-26 (.698) regular season mark.

Those are amazing numbers when you realize Tom Brady has a 97-30 (.764) career record through the Pats’ phenomenal run with a 14-5 playoff record. Peyton Manning is 131-61 (.682) in the regular season and just 9-10 in the postseason.

Yet Big Ben is usually the guy left out of the top-tier quarterbacks conversation and will probably now take a back seat to Rodgers, as well.

Statistically, the teams are very evenly matched. Green Bay has the slight edge in total yards per game (358 to 345), while Pittsburgh has the stingier defense (277 yards given up, compared to 309 for Green Bay). But the ways each squad goes about moving the ball do differ.

While the mystique of the Steelers as a historically run-first team isn’t as true with this unit, they do run the ball over 29 times per game for 120 yards. The Packers, even while searching for anyone who could grind yards out of the backfield during the regular season, averaged over 26 carries a game, but for only 100 yards.

One surprising stat is how successful the Steelers’ passing game is, compared to the Packers. Though Green Bay seems to be the more known commodity through the air, it averaged 258 yards passing a game. While Pittsburgh averaged only 225 yards passing for the season, that figure jumped to 267 in the 12 games with Roethlisberger under center.

The group of Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordie Nelson are lethal for Rodgers, all of them proving capable of the big play.

Pittsburgh has lesser known names. Though Hines Ward is recognized most, Mike Wallace is the elite receiver of the crew. His blazing speed makes him maybe the most-feard big-play threat in the league. Along with other young speedsters Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, this is not the plodding Steeler offense of previous generations.

One weapon analysts seem to be pointing to this week has been Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller. A reliable target when healthy, Miller had 512 receiving yards in 14 games on the season. But when he played Green Bay in 2009, a 37-36 thriller for the Steelers, Miller caught seven passes for 118 yards.

The Packers have continued to be vulnerable to tight ends all season, so Miller could again have a large impact today.

The Packers continued to run with little effectiveness all year, following the Week 1 injury to Ryan Grant. That seems to now be changing as rookie James Starks is the clear feature back. He has 263 yards in the three playoff wins, averaging 3.8 yards per pop.

Not gaudy figures, but reliable enough that he must be accounted for. It will be a much bigger test running against the vaunted Steeler front today.

Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall had a solid season, but exploded for a tremendous performance in the AFC Championship game against the Jets. He was the driving force behind the Steelers’ ability to mount a 24-0 first-half lead and hold on for the Super Bowl berth.

The Steelers have to have the edge in the run game, both because of their backfield and ability to stuff the opposition.

But Pittsburgh is vulnerable through the air, giving up 214 yards a game, compared to a measly 63 on the ground. The Packers are stronger at limiting aerial attacks, giving up 194 pass yards a game, but 115 rushing.

While both teams have been crushed by injuries all season long, they remain the last two standing and are relatively healthy now, given their earlier circumstances.

The biggest injury lingering will be the absence of Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey, who was hurt against the Jets and will not play today.

Replacing a center is a huge obstacle, but Doug Legursky did an admirable job filling in for the majority of that Jets game. However, this will be Legursky’s first career NFL start at center.

In the Super Bowl.

That seems like a bad recipe.

Each team has a ton of playmakers on defense, with James Harrison and Troy Polamalu the most notable for Pittsburgh; Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and B.J. Raji for Green Bay.

The special teams edge clearly goes towards Pittsburgh, due to Green Bay’s penchant for surrendering big kick returns. The Steelers should get at least one run back into exceptional field position.

All in all, this game is a toss-up. I’ve been seeing most folks picking the Packers, which is reflected in them being a 3-point favorite.

Green Bay has performed far better than a 10-6 team, which makes it less egregious that it sits as the favorite over a 12-4 division champion, with two Super Bowl wins in the past six seasons.

But there is a reason the Packers lost six games.

Yes, all six were close. They didn’t lose a single game by more than four points, and that 31-27 loss was to the Patriots without Rodgers. So clearly, this team hasn’t been soundly beaten by anyone.

But three of their losses were to the Redskins, Dolphins and Lions. I’m still not sure how they lost that game in Washington, which they completely dominated.

A common theme for Green Bay the past few seasons has been its underachievement due to an inability to put teams away.

Pair that tendency with Roethlisberger as an opponent, who has a long history of coming up with big plays in dire situations, and it’s just enough for me to tip the scales in one direction.


Steelers 30, Packers 28

Big Ben leads a late fourth-quarter drive to win his third Super Bowl.

Enjoy what should be a great game!

Playoff picks record: 4-6


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