— We almost expect a surprise in the Super Bowl by now.
The Giants knocked off the undefeated Patriots the year before the 9-7 Cardinals had Pittsburgh on the ropes. Despite a great record, the Saints were solid underdogs last season against the Colts.
There will be no upset this year. Packers coach Mike McCarthy is right when he says Green Bay is nobody’s underdog. Pittsburgh has the higher seed, more experience, and the best defense in football.
Since we’ve established both teams could win this year, let’s look at how they can do it. Here are 11 reasons the Steelers can win. (We also offer 11 reasons the Packers can win.)
1. They know how to manage their weakness
Throughout the 2008 season, we repeatedly heard that the awful Steelers offensive line would be their downfall. Then they averaged 28 points per game in the playoffs on the way to a Super Bowl title.
This season, the Steelers lost their starting right tackle in the offseason and their starting left tackle in November. Pro Bowl center Maurice Pouncey is expected to miss the Sunday’s game and the team’s blind side replacement, Jonathan Scott, was a reject from Buffalo.
On paper, the Steelers shouldn’t be able to survive. But they’ve made it this far with an offense that has vastly out-produced the ’08 squad in every facet. They must be doing something right.
2. No defense for Ben Roethlisberger scrambles
The Steelers have the perfect quarterback to pair with an inconsistent offensive line. The offense plays its best when Roethlisberger is shaking off defenders.
The Packers defense knows this. I watched the Packers blow at least five sacks when the teams faced off in 2009. Roethlisberger finished with 504 yards passing.
Pittsburgh has built the perfect big-play offense to match Big Ben’s improvisational deep ball strengths. He finished first in the NFL in yards-per-completion and third in yards-per-attempt.
3. Speed kills out wide
Roethlisberger has the weapons to go vertical early and often. Mike Wallace might be the league's fastest receiver, a player already more dangerous than Santonio Holmes ever was.
Throw in rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and the Steelers actually have more speed at receiver than the Packers. Green Bay’s talented cornerbacks will have to get physical with Pittsburgh’s youngsters at the line of scrimmage. Even when that happens, Roethlisberger makes cornerbacks cover longer than usual while he’s extending plays.
4. They can run on Packers
The dirty secret of the Green Bay defense? They're vulnerable to powerful running attacks. The problem is that the Packers trail so infrequently that the issue rarely shows up.
Only four teams gave up more yards-per-carry than the Packers, while the Dolphins, Vikings, and Lions all wore Green Bay down and racked up big rushing yards by remaining patient.
The Steelers would love to limit the Packers’ possessions by going on a long, slow drives like they did to open the game against the Jets. Steelers coordinator Bruce Arians told me that Rashard Mendenhall’s AFC Championship performance was his best game as a pro, and the team is eager to see if he builds on it.
Mendenhall is capable of big games and the Packers defense is surprisingly capable of giving them up.
5. They will stay aggressive
These are not the conservative Steelers of the '70s. They understand Roethlisberger is ultimately their most dangerous offensive weapon and they won’t just let their defense carry the entire team.
Before the team’s biggest series of the season, Arians asked coach Mike Tomlin what he wanted in the waning moments of the AFC Championship.
“Play to win,” Tomlin said.
Tomlin called for five receivers and an empty backfield set on the game’s biggest play — a third down. Roethlisberger delivered. Arians’ unpredictability passing in obvious running situations should help keep the Packers off balance.
6. Packers haven’t faced many 3-4 defenses
The AFC Final Four was completely filled with 3-4 defenses. In the NFC, the Packers were the only team that runs a 3-4 defense which made the playoffs.
The Packers are relatively inexperienced facing a versatile 3-4 team in game action. They played only two such teams all year: The Dolphins and Jets. The Packers went 1-1 in those games, averaging only 14.5 points.
The Steelers have football's best 3-4 defense. Green Bay’s lack of familiarity facing the scheme could lead to mistakes recognizing pass rushers on Super Bowl Sunday.
7. The linebackers are better
The Packers have a pretty sweet linebacker group, but they can’t match Pittsburgh. The Packers have one great pass rusher; the Steelers have two. James Harrison remains one of the most intimidating players in football. Lamarr Woodley is the only player to record a sack in his first six postseason games, with 10 sacks over that span.
Woodley and Harrison are the only two Steelers to record 10 sacks in three consecutive seasons. Lawrence Timmons had his best year on the inside and James Farrior is a coach on the field.
Add it all up, and the Steelers linebackers fit right in with the groups on the Steel Curtain defense.
8. They don’t need Aaron Smith back
Defensive end Aaron Smith is one of the best defensive linemen of the last decade, and certainly one of the most underrated. With that said, 2009 first-round pick Ziggy Hood has done a terrific job replacing the injured Smith and Casey Hampton remains a force at nose tackle. Brett “The Beard” Keisel completes the rock solid defensive front.
The veteran Steelers defensive line can expertly take up blockers to allow their linebackers to make game-changing plays.
9. They don’t have to worry about the Packers running game
Pittsburgh can stop Green Bay’s running game without really trying. That will allow Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau to use extra defensive backs and focus all his efforts on disrupting Aaron Rodgers. The extra numbers will help.
Cornerback Ike Taylor enjoyed a solid season and safety Ryan Clark doesn’t get enough credit for his role in making Troy Polamalu great. Still, Pittsburgh’s secondary is still the defense's weak spot. With that in mind, it’s a major bonus the Steelers don’t have to worry about containing the Packers' running game.
10. The Packers let teams hang around
In one sense, the Packers overachieved to survive their injuries and make the playoffs. Looking at it another way, they never should have lost six games because they let teams hang around too often.
In losses to the Bears, Redskins, Dolphins, and Patriots, the Packers out-played their opposition and still lost. They dominated the Eagles, but Michael Vick had a chance to win the game on the last possession. Green Bay manhandled the Bears in the NFC Championship, but Caleb freaking Hanie had Chicago in position late to tie the game.
Whether it’s mental errors or poor clock management, these talented Packers have a tendency to keep games closer than they should be. That’s a dangerous approach when you are facing a team with the fourth quarter pedigree of the Steelers.
11. The Steelers don’t lose big games
Pittsburgh is 9-1 in the playoffs since 2005, including two Super Bowl wins. Experience isn’t everything, but the experience of winning again and again when it matters most has to mean something.
The Steelers can fall behind like the did against Baltimore, and they believe they will win. They nearly gave up a huge lead to the Jets, and still believed they would win.
Perhaps the Steelers will get the ball late against the Packers after falling behind in the game for the first time. Ben Roethlisberger can look at his teammates and tell them he’s got it covered because he’s done it all before.