After two eyebrow-raising upsets in the NFL Divisional Playoffs last week, nobody was surprised to see the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers prevail in the Conference Championship games yesterday.
Green Bay continued its improbable ascent to the top of the NFC from the sixth and final playoff berth by defeating the NFC North Champion Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, while Pittsburgh took care of the New York Jets at Heinz Field, enacting its revenge from a home loss to New York just five weeks earlier.
Both teams played strong first halves on Sunday, with smothering defense and ball control. A defining stat for both teams is the time of possession for the game; both teams held the ball for roughly nine minutes more than their opponents.
The strong starts eventually dissipated for both teams, and the Bears and Jets both stormed back into the doors that were left open for them. After trailing 24-0, the Jets took a field goal into halftime and then scored all 16 of the game's second-half points. A 16-0 shutout in the second-half was impressive for the Jets and disturbing for the Steelers, but not enough to propel the Jets past Mike Tomlin's crew.
The Bears had an impressive rally of their own. After being shut out all day, in part because of Jay Cutler's controversial injury that forced third-string QB Caleb Hanie into action, they broke through the stout Packer defense for a 67-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 14-7. The Chicago defense, which had done just enough to keep them in the game early on, ramped up for a couple stops late, but Hanie threw a pick-six to defensive end B.J. Raji that effectively sealed a Packer trip to Dallas.
All in all, the Steelers and Packers put together strong performances when it mattered most Sunday, and their playoff runs to this point speak for themselves. However, their inability to shut the door and finish their opponents raises some questions about each team's weaknesses heading into Super Bowl XLV.
Let's start with the NFC Champion Packers.
Potentially Fatal Weakness #1: The running game
The Pack has been ravaged by injuries all year long, and the impact has been felt the most at running back. Starter Ryan Grant went down on opening weekend, and Brandon Jackson got nicked up and was ineffective. Mike McCarthy was so desperate that seldom—used John Kuhn got some work late in the season until rookie James Starks took over.
Starks, who carried the ball more six times than just once all season and played in only three games found himself as the feature back on Wild Card Weekend in Philadelphia.
McCarthy apparently had no qualms about handing off to him often as he's carried the ball 23, 25, and 22 times in consecutive weeks. He has totaled a respectable 263 yards in three games and has not fumbled once. This is a fortunate and encouraging development for the Packers, who after winning on Sunday, had to be rooting strongly for the Jets.
Instead, they get the Steelers, who are like a clogged toilet when stopping the run.
Pittsburgh has not allowed a 100—yard rusher in 18 games this season, and has given up the century mark just once in the last two years. Seldom do teams even reach 20 carries in a game because they know they are probably wasting their time trying to beat Pittsburgh with the run.
This could spell doom for Starks and the Packers, because when the going gets tough, they will revert to the passing game almost exclusively. In a league where running the ball and playing good defense supposedly wins Super Bowls, the Packers better hope they can find daylight on the ground with Starks, or else Aaron Rodgers will have to drum up some serious heroics.
Potentially Fatal Weakness #2: Run defense
We've got a trend going with Packer weaknesses. This time, it's the defense that could be a problem. While strong against the pass (5th in the league), the Pack are mediocre against the run (18th). The Steelers have a beast in Rashard Mendenhall, who they love to hand off to. He came in at 7th in the league in rushing yards, and the Steelers as a team rack up 120.3 yards on the ground per game.
For a team that relied so heavily on controlling the ball and the clock on Sunday in Chicago, the Packers are at risk of getting significantly out-possessed by a Steeler team that loves to punch you in the mouth with the run. Clay Matthews will need to be huge in stopping the run for Green Bay to win the battle up front against an experienced offensive line.
The Packers have peaked in all areas recently, including the run stop, but on the other side of the ball, the Steelers present a challenge that the Cheeseheads haven't seen before.
Potentially Fatal Weakness #3: The return game
Pay attention to the logic here. The Steelers tied for second in the league in opponent third down conversions and were fifth in total first downs allowed. Once their offense gives the ball away, the defense is typically among the best in the league at getting it back to Ben Roethlisberger pretty quickly.
Because of this, field position will be huge for a Packer team that will struggle gaining yards on the ground. The best way to combat getting killed in the battle for field position is to be opportunistic on kick returns, which Green Bay is not good at.
In terms of average return yards, the Packers are 20th on kickoffs and tied for 8th on punts with only one touchdown return all season, which is about average for the league.
Couple those numbers with the league-leading 36 pins inside the 20 by the Pittsburgh punt team, and you won't be surprised to see the Pack backed up in their own territory quite a bit come February 6.
On to the Steelers.
there aren't many overt shortcomings for the AFC's #2 seeded team, but some under the surface trends are cause for concern.
Potentially Fatal Weakness: Falling Asleep
The Steelers got through their side of the AFC playoff tree as expected with two wins at home, but they really had to earn both. They beat Baltimore in the Divisional Round, but only after erasing a 21-7 deficit at halftime with a furious second half rally. They fumbled twice and missed a field goal in that sloppy first half, and didn't seem like they wanted to win, only to come back with four scores (3 TDs) in seven second-half possessions to win with a late touchdown.
In the Jets game, the script was flipped. The first half was fantastic for the Steelers, who were in complete control of the Jets at 24-3 heading into the locker room. Led by Ben Roethlisberger and their nasty defense, they looked like the Super Bowl caliber team from the second half against the Ravens a week earlier.
But then they fell asleep again as the Jets controlled the clock and the scoring in the second half. Roethlisberger came out and was intercepted right away after the Jets opened with a five play, 90 yard touchdown drive. After forcing a Jets' punt, they could not take back the momentum and put the Jets away. The defense settled in again with a goal-line stop, but then the Jets immediately forced a safety, cutting the score to 24-12.
After another Jets' touchdown drive, Pittsburgh was reeling and on the verge of squandering their three-touchdown lead. They looked completely out of sync and rattled, so contrasted with the team that owned the first half.
Fortunately, it was too little, too late for New York as the Steelers escaped with a win despite not scoring in the last two quarters, 24-19.
The only real, concrete weakness I see with Pittsburgh is their recent tendency to play only part of a game. Independent of their opponent, they seem to go in and out of focus in a moment, which makes for some intensely dramatic games. I would compare them to the Lakers: superior roster and talent, flashes of dominance and maddening fits of inconsistency with the knowledge of what it takes to win in crunch time.
Their greatest counter to inconsistency is Big Ben. The guy doesn't necessarily pile up huge stats, but he has proven that he knows how to win. If the Steelers have been playing bad but are in a close game, he does what it takes to win, as evidenced by two Super Bowl rings in two very dramatic, pressurized games. He is clutch, experienced, and the unquestioned leader of his team, which is the greatest comfort a coach can have.
Because of Roethlisberger's ability to be the stopgap when momentum swings away from his team, I don't think the Steelers will ever lose a game they should win.
Super Bowl XLV prediction: Steelers 21, Packers 10