The playoffs have been kind to me – an 8-2 record in the playoffs. (143-119 overall.) And now, onto the biggest game of the year.
SUPER BOWL – Pittsburgh Steelers vs Green Bay Packers. Back in September, I picked the Packers to win the Super Bowl over Baltimore. (Click here to see all my preseason picks.) I know, I know – seems like just another homer pick (for those who don’t know, I am a Packer fan living in Wisconsin). But the fact is, I haven’t picked the Pack to go this far for over a decade and I wasn’t exactly alone in taking them to win the Super Bowl before the year started. The team was bringing back a quality defense and a high-powered offense that only figured to get better with TE Jermichael Finley’s late-season emergence. The pick made a lot of sense before the season started. Then, a rash of injuries to starting players in the first half of the season caused most folks to seriously doubt a Super Bowl run would still be possible: RB Ryan Grant, RG Mark Tauscher, LB Nick Barnett, rookie starting safety Morgan Burnett, several different starting LBs, and the big one – breakout TE Jermichael Finley. As great as Finley was early on, it was almost as though Mike McCarthy built his entire offense around the dream match-up advantage that is Jermichael Finley. With Finley hurt and Grant out, the offense was quite inconsistent from week to week during the year as it seemed to search for its identity. Eventually Rodgers and company found their footing late in the season, just in time for a massive Super Bowl run. With the offense operating closer to potential, a defense playing sneaky well and a special teams unit that is no longer an embarrassment, the Packers are in a very good position to win the Super Bowl. And if the Pack had drawn the Jets or even New England, I would be more confident supporting my preseason pick that the Pack would win the Super Bowl. But drawing Pitt is a different story and it has me wavering a bit.
Pitt is led by one of the best coaches in the NFL – Mike Tomlin. He’s smart, he’s aggressive, he’s confident in his team and most importantly, he has a true feel for the flow of the game. And his staff isn’t bad either. In fact, I have no problem admitting that no defensive coordinator in the NFL is as good as Dick LeBeau. I also have no problem admitting I have a man-crush on the guy. Even Dom Capers, who would probably get the nod for best D-Coordinator in the league this year (primarily because of the magic he worked with a depleted roster), does not have the impressive track record of quality defenses that LeBeau does. The Pitt defense is physical, athletic, well organized, aggressive, very smart and they have great timing. As much as I like Clay Matthews and thought he should at least be considered for Defensive Player of the Year, Pitt’s defensive leader Troy Polamalu deserved the award as he had another dominant year. I’m not sure any single player in the NFL changes games more than Troy Polamalu. Even if you don’t hear his name called much during a game (like the last 2 playoffs games), Polamalu’s presence back there causes significant offensive confusion and generally, major anxiety for opposing QBs. He hits hard, tackles soundly, covers well, has great hands and he rises up for big moments. His hit on Flacco earlier this year was a great example of how he can change games by himself. (Actually, Ben Roethlisberger also has this same sort of quality.) But the powerful Pitt D is about more than just Troy Polamalu. You also have to throw in guys who are far from throw-ins like James Harrison (who got votes for Defensive Player of the Year), Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Lamarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior (slowing down but still good), Ike Taylor and even S Ryan Clark. An impressive unit with impressive leadership and an impressive coach.
I expect this game to be close, hard-fought and entertaining. I expect a chess match of sorts between Mike McCarthy/Aaron Rodgers and Troy Polamalu/Dick LeBeau. Pitt loves bringing different looks on defense and confusing opponents with Polamalu roaming. (Kind of like the Packers do with Woodson.) The Packers (particularly Rodgers) love mixing up plays at the line of scrimmage in response to defenses trying to mix things up. It should be fascinating to just watch Rodgers and Polamalu playing off one another right before the snap. I also expect the Pitt offense and the Packers’ D to wage a brutish battle (…can you wage a battle?). Roethlisberger, like Polamalu, is a gamer and he has a flair for the dramatic. Think of their last Super Bowl win over Arizona. Pitt O-Coordinator Bruce Arians’ recent inclusion of rookie WRs Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown opens up the Pitt offense significantly. It’s no longer sufficient to just focus on shutting down Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Heath Miller. If Pitt can establish any kind of running game with Rashard Mendenhall against the Pack’s D, and then open it up through the air to any of their 5 quality receiving targets, the Packers could be in for a long night defensively. But I don’t expect that to happen in part because I expect both Mendenhall and Packers RB James Starks to be quiet in this one. In the end, I think the Packers will win primarily because of the advantage they’ll have over the Pitt secondary. Yes, Polamalu is scary and yes, Ike Taylor can at times play like a shut-down corner. But Pitt’s #2, #3 and #4 cornerbacks will likely be no match for Packers WRs Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson…if Rodgers has enough time to throw…which is a big if. I also can’t shake the thought that some critical turnovers may lead to Pitt’s undoing (probably caused by underrated LB Desmond Bishop or underrated CB Tramon Williams). Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 26. Super Bowl MVP – Desmond Bishop.
One last note: I would like to thank the Daily Caller for allowing me to share my crazy thoughts on the NFL this year. I had a blast writing this column. I also want to thank you all for reading the column and commenting. Have a great off-season!