Pittsburgh Steelers vs Green Bay Packers: GB
Like most of you know, this is perhaps the most over-analyzed game in all of sports. You will hear about every angle from every media outlet and by the time they blow the whistle for kickoff even casual fans will know what the subtle differences are between Dick Lebeau and Dom Capers zone defenses are. I'm not about to break down the game in as much detail as that because you'll get enough of it over the next two weeks, but I will reveal why I like GB to win and cover on February 6th.
To begin with, it's interesting to note that this is the first time in 28 years that a favorite has opened at less than a field goal. Also 32 out of 34 favorites have won and covered. For some that is all the information they need to ride GB, but it's clear that the public isn't blindly betting the favorite this time around. This isn't entirely surprising as PIT is very popular with the public, they have a great history of winning, and they are getting +2.5 points in what many see as an even matchup. The last point is where I would disagree though. I don't see this as even as many think so let's take a closer look at why.
Before I talk about why I think GB will win, let's focus on what PIT have going for them in this game. It's no secret that they have the best run defense in the entire league. Normally this would be a great advantage to have - especially in a Super Bowl. Yet, just like CHI this edge isn't going to pay the same kind of dividends against a team like GB. Starks has been a welcome addition to the team during the playoffs and gives GB a bit more versatility in the backfield, but this isn't where GB makes their bread and butter. PIT's defense is also excellent in the red zone, on third down, and in turnover differential. The only problem? GB's offense is almost as good with their red zone/third down offense and rank just below them in the turnover category. Therefore, I can't say that PIT's defense will have the same kind of dominant advantage in the Super Bowl that they would otherwise have against other teams.
Unfortunately for PIT fans, the good news for them ends there. As good as PIT's defense is, the one question mark they have is against the pass. It's not that they are bad because they aren't. They have improved considerably as the season has gone on, but Polamalu is not playing at 100% and has been a relative non-factor in the playoffs thus far. Yes he has two more weeks to rest and get closer to where he needs to be, but it's not going to be enough to completely shut down Rodgers. As the saying goes, you can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him. This is the challenge that Dick Lebeau is facing a couple weeks from now. He is masterful with his zone blitzes and PIT have the nastiest group of linebackers in the NFL, but the important stat here is that Rodgers is number one against the blitz this season. He is smart enough to read the coverage, elusive enough to avoid oncoming blitzers/rushers, quick enough to escape broken-down protection, and has the arm strength to deliver the ball on a dime without having his feet set. To make matters worse, this GB offense love to play on the fast track, while PIT's defense is more suited to the elements.
The problems for PIT don't end there however. One of the biggest areas to keep an eye on during the game is the protection that Big Ben gets. He is also near the top in the league against the blitz, but they also give up a lot of sacks too. Their offensive line has been hurting all year and now they will likely be without their standout starting Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey due to a high ankle sprain. Some say he could return, but given the nature of the injury it's doubtful he could be effective. In the betting community this is a known red flag because of how important the center position is. Yes PIT will have two full weeks to get the backup prepared, but it's not going to make up for a season worth of experience. Identifying coverages and making line adjustments before the snap is going to be a monumental challenge when Dom Capers is on the other sideline. B.J. Raji has the third most sacks from the inside tackle position and the return of Jenkins has also given them a lift in the playoffs, too. GB rank at the very top in sacks per game so Ben's escapability and decision making will be severely tested. GB's defense are also very solid in the red zone and on third down. PIT's offense have not been very good in these areas all year long. Despite what they did against a tired NY defense last week, they continue to struggle sustaining drives or scoring points once they do put something together. In fact, GB average almost a touchdown more per game than PIT off of drives of 60+ yards. GB also complete more plays per game and take far less penalties.
These stats might not seem like a big deal in a one game winner takes all matchup, but they often tell the story behind the story of why teams win and other teams lose. It wasn't an accident that GB marched through three home teams to reach the Super Bowl and it won't be a case of lucky bounces when they are hoisting the Lombardi trophy two Sunday's from now. I expected GB to be favored by at least 3 points in this one, so to get them at anything less than that is a bonus for me. In the preseason I predicted they would lose to IND in the Super Bowl, but now that Peyton is out I believe the door is open for Rodgers and company to cement their names in NFL history. I will confidently lay the points and side with the team that I think will be this year's champion. Prediction: Bank Green Bay Packers.