It’s the pinnacle and precipice for football fans, a day long celebration, following two weeks of madness and absurdity, before three final hours. After five months and 266 games, countless hours of debating and arguing and speculating, the end is here. It’s always a bittersweet experience for football fans, made even moreso by the possibility of going longer than normal without football if the owners and players don’t get their act together.
Pittsburgh began without their quarterback, suspended for four games. Many didn’t think they could survive a rough early schedule without Roethlisberger, but the defense rose to the challenge. They won in overtime against Atlanta in the opener, forced 7 turnovers in Tennessee, and won convincingly at Tampa Bay. After Roethlisberger returned, the team seemed to go through a little lull defensively, and the offense was uneven. They were fortunate to win in Miami, after a controversial goal line call. The Steelers were beaten twice by teams with elite quarterbacks (Brees and Brady) and surrendered over 260 passing yards in both games (the only two times this year that has happened). They were able to win in Baltimore in a defensive slugfest when Polamalu made the key sack and forced a fumble, and then closed out the season with dominant performances against Carolina and Cleveland after losing at home to the Jets.
Green Bay got off to a good start, just like Pittsburgh ,with a road win at Philadelphia and a blowout of Buffalo. The injuries started early, though, and Ryan Grant was lost for the year after week 1. Star tight end Jermichael Finley would follow a month later. The Packers lost three out of four, losing a game at Chicago where they struggled with penalties, barely beating Detroit, then losing consective overtime games to Washington and Miami. At that point, just a few months ago, Aaron Rodgers was a stat guy who couldn’t win close games.
The Packers righted the season, with a big win at the Jets and consecutive coach killing destructions of Dallas and Minnesota. A close loss at Atlanta still meant they could win big, but not when it mattered. After consecutive losses at Detroit when Rodgers was concussed, then at New England, Green Bay stood on the edge of elimination. They got help from Detroit (over Tampa Bay in overtime) and took care of the Giants and Bears. They’ve basically won 5 straight elimination games by 14.8 points.
The tale of the tape shows that the teams are pretty even. Green Bay has a slight advantage in pass offense, and despite the injuries early in the year, is now healthier than Pittsburgh, who will be missing starting center Maurkice Pouncey. Pittsburgh has the pronounced advantage at rush defense, where they have been basically impenetrable (the Jets’ 27 carries for 106 yards is the season high in yards allowed).
I’ve already made my pick of Green Bay, but there is honestly no outcome that would surprise me. Both of these defenses are capable of creating turnovers and shutting down an opponent. Both passing offenses are able to score when they need to, and could come from behind. I think the Packers need to pass the ball and spread the field, trying to implement the plan that both New Orleans with Brees and New England with Brady utilized to success. I look for Jordy Nelson and James Jones, the two other receivers for Green Bay, to be a big part of the plan.
Just because that is the best strategy for Green Bay doesn’t mean it will work. Pittsburgh is “on scholarship” and can make big defensive plays and create turnovers also. When Pittsburgh has the ball, I look for Mendenhall to be a bigger part of the gameplan, and like Heath Miller to be featured in the passing game. Mike Wallace has the speed to stretch the Packers defense, but Roethlisberger will have to be selective with shots he takes on Green Bay’s talented corners, particularly Tramon Williams.
Let’s get it on. But let’s not get it over with. I’m not ready for that.
[photo via Getty]