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Super Bowl 2011: Greg Jennings and 5 Matchups That Will Decide the Champion

Jason HeimCorrespondent IJanuary 31, 2011

Super Bowl 2011: Greg Jennings and 5 Matchups That Will Decide the Champion

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    No matter the disparity in regular season record or playoff seed, the remaining teams that reach the Super Bowl are usually very well-matched by the time the big game rolls around.

    This year is no different, as the No. 6 seed Green Bay Packers arrive in Dallas as a favorite against the No. 2 seed Pittsburgh Steelers.

    Even with the seed gap between the two, a nip-and-tuck contest is expected, which would fall right in line with recent Super Bowl final scores. In fact, eight of the last 11 Super Bowls have been decided by 12 points or less, and five of those by four points or less.

    History tells us that more uneven matchups than this year's have resulted in very close finishes, so we should expect something dramatic all the more in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday.

    Oftentimes, these tight games come down to one or two signature plays that result from a broken play call, an exploited matchup, etc. One small misstep gets magnified a thousand times in the Super Bowl and can cost your team its chance at history.

    Here are some of the key matchups that might make all the difference when the clock ticks down on Sunday.

1. Packers WR Greg Jennings Vs. Steelers CB Ike Taylor/Bryant McFadden

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    The Steelers' corners must contain Jennings both early and late.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    The last two Super Bowls have come down to one deciding play made by a receiver or corner.

    Two years ago, the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals on a last-second, acrobatic catch in the end zone by Santonio Holmes. Last year, Saints cornerback Tracy Porter pick-sixed Peyton Manning to put the game on ice.

    This Super Bowl could complete the series of three with Greg Jennings and whoever Steelers coach Mike Tomlin decides to put on him.

    Ike Taylor is 6'2" and would have a height advantage over the 5'11" Jennings, but he isn't a top-flight shutdown corner.

    Bryant McFadden is the other Steeler corner capable of drawing the assignment on Jennings. He stands closer to Jennings at six feet and might be better able to keep up with Jennings' speed on slants and deep routes.

    This is one of the most crucial matchups that Pittsburgh is guaranteed to focus on this week in practice because they cannot afford to let the Aaron Rodgers-Greg Jennings combo get going, and they certainly cannot let them have confidence to connect at the end of the game.

2. Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall Vs. Packers OLB Clay Matthews

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    Mendenhall must find some daylight in the run game for the Steelers to control the ball.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The key to both the teams' wins in the conference championships was ball control and time of possession. This allowed the Steelers and Pack to keep their defenses off the field and let their offenses dictate the pace of the game.

    Nowhere will the time of possession battle be more decided than in the Steeler run game.

    While plenty proficient in the passing game, handing off to Rashard Mendenhall is the team's bread and butter. They rode Mendenhall to 120 rush yards per game during the season and have maintained that number in two playoff games.

    Clay Matthews needs to dominate the outside and fill all the holes in Pittsburgh's 3-4 for the Packers to get their defense off the field. The Pack struggled against the run this season, giving up 115 yards/game, but really turned up the run D in the playoffs, allowing just 69 yards in their three road playoff wins.

    Matthews and the Packer defense will need to continue that trend to capture a ring this Sunday.

3. Steelers C Doug Legursky Vs. Packers NT B.J. Raji

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    Raji came up huge against the Bears in the NFC Championship with his first career interception.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    This key matchup is an extension of the last one. The battle to own the line of scrimmage is crucial in close games, and the Steelers need an undrafted free agent to make a big contribution to that effort.

    Doug Legursky will have the unenviable task of blocking mammoth nose tackle B.J. Raji, who tips the scales at 337 pounds. Legursky is forced into action with the announcement that starting center Maurkice Pouncey is out with a fractured ankle, a big blow to the Steelers.

    Legursky has a lot of responsibility in this game, both in the run and pass games. He is the first line of protection for Rashard Mendenhall's between-the-tackles run game and for Ben Roethlisberger's passing game.

    If Raji gets penetration on Legursky, he could disrupt every kind of Steeler offense just by being in the backfield. If Legursky consistently gets a good push on Raji, it could open up holes for Mendenhall to scamper through or give Ben the time he needs to find the openings in the Packer secondary.

    Keep an eye on the middle of the field for this one-on-one duel that, as of now, favors the Packers.

4. Special Teams

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    Jeremy Kapinos will be important in the field position battle.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Both Pittsburgh and Green Bay are clicking on all cylinders on defense. They are first and third in total defense in the playoffs, respectively. Assuming that good defense will trump good offense, then this might turn into a low-scoring punt fest where field position is critical.

    Both teams have pedestrian punt and kick return numbers, so we're not looking at a Devin Hester-type impact in the special teams battle. What we do have are two punters who are capable of giving the opposing offense no help.

    Tim Masthay of the Packers is going very well right now, with six punts inside the 20-yard line in three postseason games. Do you think that has made a difference for a team that has the best average points allowed in the playoffs?

    Pittsburgh's Jeremy Kapinos, a former Packer punter, has not fared as well in two playoff games but was eighth in the NFL in net yards per punt during the season.

    There are no returners of note in this game, though both teams know it is critical to defend kicks and punts well. After the game, check the box score to see which team won the special teams battle because it is sure to have an impact on the final score.

5. Packers Coach Mike McCarthy Vs. Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin

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    This isn't Mike Tomlin's first rodeo at the Super Bowl.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    All the things that we mean when we talk about "coaching"—play-calling, personnel groupings, challenge decisions, timeout usage, clock management—are included here.

    Mike Tomlin, since entering the league four seasons ago, has a 43-21 record, a 5-1 playoff record (including one Super Bowl) and is returning to the big game again. That's a pretty good track record for a guy who is 38 years old.

    Tomlin brings with him a wealth of experience, good instincts and a top-line group of assistants and coordinators.

    Mike McCarthy is 48-32 in five seasons at the helm in Green Bay and before this year's 3-0 run was winless in two playoff games. He has never coached in a Super Bowl and has been criticized at times for the way he spends his timeouts and handles end-of-game situations.

    You can't be worrying about your coach in the Super Bowl. There are too many important things happening on the field to wonder how the coach is going to handle the game and adjust on the fly. The Steelers have nothing to worry about with Tomlin, who is as solid as they come wearing the headset. McCarthy, however, poses some worries for Packer fans because of his inexperience and shaky game management.

    It would be a shame for a coaching disparity to decide the outcome of this game, but there is a clear difference in quality between Tomlin and McCarthy. I'm hoping that both coaches throw out the perfect game plan, execute it to a tee and manage their resources well so that the players can be the ones who decide the outcome, as it should be.

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