It's "Big Ben" vs. "A-Rodg." It's the terrible towels vs. the title towels. It's the top two scoring defenses in the league against each other in the most important sporting event of the year. It's two of the most historic franchises in all of sports. It's the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Green Bay Packers. Does it get any better than this?
Both of these teams are on fire and one of these defenses has to give. The Steelers took care of business and took down the red hot New York Jets two weeks ago and the Packers won three road games in a row and defeated their rival Chicago Bears two weeks ago. Who has the edge? Who will make the big plays? Who will be hoisting the Lombardi trophy in Dallas this Sunday?
When the Packers pass the ball:
The Packers have the league's most explosive passing attack. They have the best receiving core in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers is one of the top quarterbacks and is on a tear right now in the playoffs. Will the Steelers secondary be able to contain them? The latest Defensive Player of the Year, Troy Polamalu, will have to be at his absolute best Sunday in order to contain them.
If there is one weakness to this scary Steelers defense, it's the secondary outside of Polamalu. The Packers will look to take advantage with short passes to move the chains in order to set up the long ones. This is what they did to the Atlanta Falcons three weeks ago. The Packers will look to spread the Steelers out with five wide receivers. There is no better group than the Packers: Pro Bowler Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. They are all dangerous in their own way. If Rodgers catches fire, the Steelers will be in trouble. The Steelers need to get pressure on Rodgers with guys like Casey Hampton, James Harrison and Lamar Woodley.
When the Packers run the ball:
This is where the Steelers have a clear advantage. James Starks is having a fantastic postseason, but has not faced a defense like the Steelers. The Steelers have the best front seven in in the NFL and the league's best run defense. The Packers will not have much success running it, unless Starks has the game of his career. They will try to switch things up if Starks gets stuffed and we might see more of John Kuhn and Brandon Jackson in this game. Look for Rodgers to air it out against the Steelers.
When the Steelers pass the ball:
Ben Roethlisberger is one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league to sack, but the Packers present the best possible matchup to try and take him down. With playmakers Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji, Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett, Ben will have his hands full Sunday. There's another huge problem: Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is doubtful to play. Their offensive line was already the team's weakness on offense and now Pouncey probably won't play. The Steelers will be in trouble Sunday without Pouncey.
Ben is used to having a weak line all year, but this presents the biggest mis-match, because B.J. Raji will be lining up against the back-up center, Doug Legursky. Raji is playing the best football of any nose-tackle in the NFL right now and he will be a force once again. The Steelers have a great core of receivers as well with the veteran Hines Ward, the speedy Mike Wallace, the reliable Heath Miller and newcomers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. They will need to step up against the Packers' defensive MVP of the playoffs, Tramon Williams and rising star Sam Shields. This means star cornerback Charles Woodson will be free to blitz and play the run.
Edge: Even (Big Ben is great at avoiding sacks and the Packers secondary is matched evenly with the Steelers weapons)
When the Steelers run the ball:
Rashard Mendenhall had the best game of his career last week against the Jets defense, but a lot of that was due to poor tackling by the Jets. Once the Jets regrouped, Mendenhall wasn't much of a factor in the second half. Mendenhall had 121 rushing yards and a touchdown in that game and will need to have the same kind of game in order for the Steelers to take pressure of Ben. Mendenhall will have more trouble this week against the Packers run stuffing defense. Raji, 337 pounds, is a beast on the line, Jenkins,305 pounds, is also great at stopping the run, add in the 340-pound Pickett and he won't have much running room Sunday.
Mendenhall will need to break his share of tackles if he wants room to run. He is the biggest x-factor for the Steelers. If he has a great game, the Steelers have a big advantage, but if he struggles it puts the pressure back on Ben and their weak o-line. If the Packers stop Mendenhall, they will have a huge advantage.
Edge: Even (Mendenhall is a top running back, but faces one of the best run-stopping defenses)
Emmanuel Sanders (WR Steelers)
Sanders is having a solid postseason and will need to step it up against the Packers strong secondary. Sanders is quick and has been making some clutch catches for the Steelers. If Ward and Wallace are locked up, look for Ben to look Sanders' way.
Heath Miller (TE Steelers)
The Packers struggled against tight-ends in the regular season, but have clamped down on them in the playoffs. They have held guys like Brent Celek, Tony Gonzalez and Greg Olsen in check so far. Miller has been making clutch catches for Pittsburgh for years and will also be asked to block more if Pouncey is out.
Doug Legursky (Center Steelers)
Legursky will have his hands full with Raji, but if he can somehow contain him, that gives Ben more time to throw and gives the Steelers the upper hand. No lineman has been more relied upon in recent years for the Steelers than Legursky will be on Sunday. Stepping in for a Pro Bowl center is never easy, but the Steelers must stop Raji is they want to win and he didn't do a bad job against the Jets last week.
Troy Polamalu (Safety Steelers)
In a battle of defensive stars, Polamalu is the best one in this game. He can line up anywhere and Rodgers will need to avoid throwing in his direction if he wants to have a big game. Polamalu can come out of nowhere and play the run or drop back in coverage. He had seven interceptions in the regular season and will need to make more big plays.
Jordy Nelson (WR Packers)
Nelson is having a great postseason and will need to keep it up Sunday. Nelson has 146 yards in the playoffs with a touchdown. The Steelers will need to keep him in check or else the Packers will be a machine.
Bryan Bulaga (Tackle Packers)
Bulaga is a rookie and will have his hands full against the Steelers pass-rush. Chad Clifton is their best lineman, but Bulaga will have a tall task on his hands if the Steelers line up James Harrison, Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisal or Lamar Woodley against him. Bulaga needs to shine in the spotlight if the Packers want to win this game.
Charles Woodson (Cornerback Packers)
Woodson can play the run or drop back in coverage like Polamalu. He is the best tackling corner in the game and is a leader for this team. Woodson can do whatever he wants with Tramon Williams and Sam Shields covering the wide-receivers. The reigning 2009 Defensive Player of the Year will give the Steelers trouble and Ben has to know where he is at all times.
Clay Matthews (Linebacker Packers)
Matthews got snubbed out of the Defensive Player of the Year award for 2010, but will prove people wrong Sunday. There's no one way of stopping Clay. He has to be double-teamed, but if they do that then that frees up guys like middle-linebacker Desmond Bishop and AJ Hawk. Matthews presents the biggest matchup problem in the game, because he can line up anywhere. The Steelers must contain Clay.
Prediction: Packers 24 Steelers 21
The Packers have been on a roll since week 16 against the Giants. They have won five straight elimination games and are ready for the big stage. The Steelers have the experience, but the Colts did last year over the Saints and the Saints took it down. Rodgers will outperform Roethlisberger and the Packers defense will make one more stop.
Super Bowl XLV MVP: Tramon Williams
Williams has been making plays every week and has won two games for them already this postseason. He will make some huge plays and have a key interception in the Packers victory. Williams is a rising star and everybody will know it after Sunday.