So, who ya got: Packers or Steelers?
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question in the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLV, I’d have, well … about $17 (OK, $18 if you count my senile uncle asking me twice). The point is, people are seeking my opinion, and not just because they want to go in the opposite direction (although I’m sure that’s part of it, seeing that this column debuted one year ago with me issuing Super Bowl selections on the Colts and Colts-Saints “over” the total, both of which missed the mark as badly as a Tim Tebow 10-yard sideline throw).
All kidding aside, “Packers or Steelers?” has surpassed “fake or real?” as man’s most hotly debated question—at least for a couple of weeks—because this truly is a toss-up game, one of the most difficult Super Bowls in recent memory to handicap. Consider:
• Green Bay, which had to play one more postseason game to get to the Super Bowl, is 13-6 straight up and 12-7 against the spread, and arrives in Dallas on a five-game winning streak. Pittsburgh is 14-4 SU and 12-6 ATS, and has won four in a row and eight of nine.
• Green Bay averages 25.2 points per game and allows 15.3 ppg. Pittsburgh averages 24 ppg and gives up 15.3.
• Green Bay’s offense is powered by a strong-armed, deceptively mobile Pro Bowl quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, who ranked third in the NFL in passer rating in the regular season. Pittsburgh’s offense is powered by a strong-armed, deceptively mobile Pro Bowl quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, who ranked fifth in passer rating.
• Green Bay’s defense attacks the quarterback (47 regular-season sacks) and forces mistakes (39 combined interceptions and forced fumbles). Pittsburgh’s defense attacks the quarterback (48 sacks) and forces mistakes (45 combined INTs and forced fumbles).
Add it all up and it’s easy to see why this is the first time since San Francisco vs. Cincinnati in January 1982—and just the third time ever—that the Super Bowl point spread has been less than a field goal.
Indeed, sometimes picking the Super Bowl is as easy as wagering on whether or not Charlie Sheen’s latest rehab stint will take. This year, it’s more like betting on which affliction will befall Sheen first: liver failure or venereal disease—now that’s a tough call!
But that’s why they pay me the small bucks: to make the tough calls. (I went 8-9 with my batch of basketball picks last week, losing $74 to drop my bankroll to $6,157.)
$550 (to win $500) on PACKERS (-2½) vs. Steelers: On Dec. 19, Green Bay (without an injured Rodgers) went to New England and suffered a heartbreaking 31-27 loss to the NFL’s hottest team, a defeat that pushed the Packers to the brink of elimination. All they’ve done since is go 5-0 against four teams (Giants, Bears, Eagles, Falcons) that had a combined 44-20 regular-season record. Three of those opponents won their division; the other (Giants) finished second.
Not only has Green Bay won five straight elimination games, it won them in every way imaginable. There were three tight low-scoring contests (10-3, 21-16, 21-14) and two high-scoring blowouts (45-17 and 48-21). There were two home wins to close the regular season followed by three playoff wins on the road. They played from ahead (jumping out to leads of 14-0 vs. New York, Philadelphia and at Chicago) and came from behind (trailing the Bears 3-0 at home and the Falcons 7-0 on the road).
Now, am I worried that Pittsburgh has the edge in terms of Super Bowl experience? Mildly. It certainly helps, but the Saints last year and Giants in 2008 overcame the inexperience issue. What about the fact that Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy can’t manage a clock and turns more conservative than Glenn Beck when playing with a lead? I’m not at all worried about that … I’m freaking terrified! But those two concerns are offset by the fact that this game is being played in a dome on a fast track (which benefits the Packers). Plus, Green Bay looks like a team of destiny.
Finally, ask yourself this: Are you more impressed with Green Bay’s Super Bowl journey (road wins against three division champs that were the NFC’s top three seeds) or Pittsburgh’s (two home wins over the two lowest AFC seeds)? Pretty easy answer, especially when you recall that the Steelers had to rally from a 21-7 halftime deficit against Baltimore in their first playoff game and nearly blew a 24-0 lead to the Jets two weeks ago.
$110 (to win $100) on Packers-Steelers UNDER 44½: Much is made of the explosiveness of these two offenses, and that was certainly evident in Pittsburgh in December 2009 when the Steelers scored on the final play of the game to win a 37-36 shootout. However, Pittsburgh didn’t have menacing safety Troy Polamalu that day, and Green Bay’s defense is vastly improved over last year. I already noted that both defenses barely surrender two touchdowns per game; what I failed to add is no team in the league gave up fewer points than the Steelers and Packers.
Pittsburgh’s games have gone over 43 points just twice in the last nine (one was a 41-9 season-ending win at Cleveland); Green Bay has done so just seven times in its last 18 games; and the “under” has hit in five of the last six Super Bowls. Predicted final score: Packers 23, Steelers 17.
$60 (to win $50) on Packers WR Greg Jennings OVER 5 receptions (-120): Jennings has been Rodgers’ favorite target all season, especially the last two games, when the duo connected for eight completions each time. Going back to Week 7, Jennings has caught at least four passes in 13 of 14 games, including five catches or more 10 times.
$60 (to win $50) on Packers WR Jordy Nelson OVER 39½ receiving yards (-120): Nelson didn’t catch a pass in the playoff opener at Philadelphia, but in the Packers’ other four wins during their current hot streak, he’s contributed 124, 39, 79 and 67 yards.
$60 (to win $50) on Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger OVER 232½ passing yards (-120): Roethlisberger threw for just 133 and 226 yards in playoff wins over the Jets and Ravens, respectively. However, he had 246 passing yards in 10 of 12 regular-season games, including the final eight in a row (when he averaged more than 285 yards per game). If I’m right that Pittsburgh will be playing from behind, Big Ben—who threw for 256 yards in the Super Bowl two years ago—figures to be chucking the rock.
$46 (to win $40) on Packers QB Aaron Rodgers UNDER 22½ rushing yards (-115): Rodgers will never be confused with Michael Vick, but he certainly has the ability to avoid pass rushers and extend plays with his legs, as evidenced by the fact he’s rushed for more than 21 yards seven times in 19 games. That said, he hasn’t done it against aPittsburgh defense that led the NFL by a mile in rushing defense, allowing just 61.6 yards per game.
$50 (to win $40) on Steelers WR Hines Ward UNDER 3½ receptions (-125): Ward used to be Roethlisberger’s favorite target, but not so much this season with the emergence of several young Steelers wideouts. Including the playoffs, Ward has just 64 receptions (down from 95 in 2009), and he’s caught more than three passes just six times (including once in the last five games).
$25 (to win $40) on will there be at least one defensive or special teams touchdown? (YES: +160): The Packers’ D has found the end zone in each of its last two games, and both of Pittsburgh’s playoff wins included a defensive score. This prop has hit in three of the last four Super Bowls, including each of the last two.