Unfortunately, this is my first preview piece for the 2010-11 NFL playoffs. I’ve been incredibly busy with work, as well as life outside of work, and haven’t been able to do as much with the site as I’d like to. From OTAs, I had the Packers/Patriots plugged in as my SuperBowl matchup. Almost got it. In terms of predictions for this year’s playoffs, I’m on record as going 7-3. Here’s my run through of the big game:
Why the Steelers can win:
Pittsburgh has the higher seed, more experience, and the best defense in football. They know how to manage their weaknesses. They’re offensive line is very depleted (C Maurkice Pouncey & DE Aaron Smith out), and on paper, they shouldn’t stand a chance. But that’s exactly what they said in 2008 when the Steelers won it all. If QB Ben Roethlisberger can scramble, they’ll have some success: the Pack blow at least five sacks when the teams played in 2009, and Roethlisberger finished with 504 yards passing. Big Ben knows big plays: he finished 1st in the NFL in passing YPC and 3rd in passing YPA.They also have incredible speed at wide receiver, with Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders all able to get separation. The Packers also have a soft spot when it comes to running the ball: only four teams gave up more YPC than the Packers. The problem, however, is that Green Bay rarely trails games, so the opporunity to continue running it against them is rare. Look for the Steelers to limit the Packers’ possessions by going on a long, slow drives like they did to open the game against the Jets. They’ll go to RB Rashard Mendenhall early and often.
The AFC Final Four was filled with 3-4 defences, while the Packers were the only 3-4 defence team in the playoffs in the NFC. In fact, the only two 3-4 defence teams they played all season were the Dolphins and Jets, and the Pack went 1-1 in those games, averaging only 14.5 points. That’s not good, especially considering the Steelers have the best 3-4 defense in the NFL. Lack of familiarity facing the scheme could lead to misreads. Since the Packers don’t have much of a run game outside of QB Aaron Rodgers, Pittsburgh should be fine defending against the run. RB James Starks is going to have a tough time getting through LB James Harrison and LB Lamarr Woodley.
The Packers also have a tendency to let teams hang around. Looking at their losses from this season, their biggest loss all season was by just 4 points. Realistically, this team should’ve gone undefeated had they put the final touches on their respective games. For example, in losses to the Bears, Redskins, Dolphins, and Patriots, the Packers out-played their opposition and still lost. They dominated the Eagles, but QB Michael Vick had a chance to win the game on the last possession. Green Bay dismantled the Bears in the NFC Championship, but third-string QB Caleb Hanie almost tied the game late. Whether it’s mental errors or poor clock management, the Packers have a tendency to keep games closer than they should be. Against a team as dominant as the Steelers, with such a good fourth-quarter reputation, you’re playing with fire.
Pittsburgh is 9-1 in the playoffs since 2005, including two Super Bowl wins. The experience of winning on multiple occasions does a lot for their confidence and psyche. They trailed the Ravens and won, and almost blew a huge lead to the Jets and won.
Why the Packers can win:
FS Troy Polamalu is hurting and needs to be exploited. In Week 14, the Flyin’ Hawaiian injured his Achilles and hasn’t been the same since. Polamalu missed more tackles than he made against the Ravens a few weeks ago, and didn’t play a big role against the Jets. If he’s not functioning at 100%, Rodgers has a great chance to slice and dice the Steelers’ D. Speaking of Rodgers, his arm is incredible. His throwing strength and accuracy allows him to throw into tight coverage and closing gaps and still make solid passes. His ability to read defences has improved significantly over the years, and he has matured into an elite NFL quarterback. The Packers’ wideouts corps gets so many YACs because of Rodgers’ ability to separate them from the defence, even when they’re well-covered. One of their keys to success will be opening up the run game. Rely on the air-game, then use it to run the ball, just like the Saints and Patriots did this season.
Green Bay is also excellent in domes. Both teams play well battling the elements, but the advantage in a closed stadium goes to the green-and-yellow. Rodgers was lights-out twice against Atlanta and in Minnesota, all indoors, and his passing game will be even more precise when he’s not having to battle the wind. The Packers’ receiving corps is also very deep with quality route-runners, while the Steelers’ cornerback depth is their biggest weakness. Offensively, head coach Mike McCarthy is one of the best coaches at making adjustments to changes in the other teams’ defences. Because of the Steelers’ speed at wideout, Green Bay’s strong cornerbacks will have to get physical at the line of scrimmage to give them a hard a time as possible when running routes.
The best way for the Packers to win is through the air. The only way to beat the league’s best defence is to have an elite quarterback, and Ravens’ QB Joe Flacco and Jets’ QB Mark Sanchez don’t fit the bill. Realistically, Pittsburgh has only faced two top-level quarterbacks all season: Patriots’ QB Tom Brady and Saints’ QB Drew Brees. The outcome? The Steelers went 0-2, and the Brady/Brees combo carved up the Steelers for 655 yards, 5 TDs and 1 INT.
On the defensive line, the Steelers are very shaky. DT B.J. Raji and DE Cullen Jenkins, on paper, should have a field day, and both have flown in under the radar for quite some time. Both can create some serious problems on the outside.
Green Bay is full of big-game players. First, it was CB Charles Woodson. Then, MLB Clay Matthews. Now, Raji, CB Sam Shields and CB Tramon Williams. Meanwhile, LB Erik Walden, MLB Desmond Bishop and MLB A.J. Hawk have been a solid duo. What does this mean? No one is safe to attack.
The biggest thing is that the Packers have been playing must-win games for 5 consecutive weeks. They join the 2005 Steelers team as the only other 6th seed to make the Super Bowl, and in that, the Steelers won. Only three teams in NFL history have won three straight road games to make the Super Bowl: The ’85 Patriots, the ’05 Steelers, and the ’07 Giants, and of them, two won the Superbowl. Only the truly elite teams are capable of dominating so often on the road, and since the Packers have had their backs against the wall for 5 weeks and won each and every “elimination game,” they’re in that company. After all this, the Packers are still underrated heading into the Superbowl–they haven’t trailed by more than 7 points all season, and are the first team since the ’62 Lions to pull that off. And considering how decimated the team is in terms of injuries, it’s a miracle that they even made the playoffs, let alone making it to the big game.
This team is capable of it all. They can win low-scoring games (9-0 over the Jets, 10-3 over the Bears.), they can win blowouts (45-17 over Giants, 31-3 over Vikings, 48-21 over Falcons.), and they can make big 4th-quarter plays (31-28 over Vikings, 21-16 over Eagles, 21-14 over Bears.)
When 49ers’ QB Joe Montana won two Superbowls and retired, QB Steve Young was left in the wing to take the reigns. After much doubting, even Young won a Superbowl ring. The same situation is occurring with QB Brett Favre’s legacy overshadowing Rodgers’ career. This is the year that the Rodgers pulls a Young and creates his own legacy.
Pick: Packers 27, Steelers 24.
2007-08: 12-3 (80%)
2008-09: 10-5 (67%)
2009-10: 9-6 (60%)
Total: 31/45 = 69%
2007-08: 11-4 (73%)
2008-09: 9-6 (60%)
2009-10: 11-4 (73%)
Total: 20/30 = 67%
2008: 5-2 (71%)
2009: 4-3 (57%)
2010: 3-4 (43%)
Total: 12/21 = 57%
2008-09: 9-2 (82%)
2009-10: 7-4 (64%)
Total: 16/22 = 73%