BY JAKE SALTZMAN
Boston Sports Desk Correspondent
For the first time in five months, the NFL failed to place a meaningful game on the schedule this week. Though the Super Bowl is a mere one week away, and NFL Network will undoubtedly spend the weeks between now and late-April’s entry draft force feeding those of us willing to watch replay feeds of must-sees such as a Browns week 6 muffed punt and what may appear to be a minor scrape on Tony Romo’s left knee, for football fans everywhere this week marks the beginning of the end of the 2010 season. With just two of thirty-two left standing, and thus 30 fan-bases aboard the same sinking ship of football misery, the only thing left to do, unfortunately, is preview the game of the year taking place Sunday evening in Dallas. And while many of us will struggle through Sunday, feeling of course that the AFC should be represented by the one seed and not the two seed, keep in mind that for whatever it may be worth, both the Steelers and the Packers are more than deserving of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy to conclude this season.
The Green Bay Packers were projected by many before the regular season even began to be playing in Dallas in early February. Aaron Rodgers was supposed to have a breakout year, Ryan Grant was as solid and consistent a running back as there was in the NFC and defensively hopes were high for youngsters B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews. After a week one injury knocked Grant out for the season however, and the Packers lost two of three games to the Lions, Redskins and Dolphins, (the week six contest being an overtime loss at home to Miami) many abandoned the Packers fearing they too would succumb to whatever it was that had been, and would continue to plague the Dallas Cowboys, another pre-season Super Bowl pick.
Things eventually turned around for the Packers in week eight, when bruised and battered following a narrow victory over the Minnesota Vikings, Mike McCarthy’s team came into New Jersey and shutout the Jets despite failing to score a touchdown. Mason Crosby connected on three of four field goals for Green Bay in that game, putting an end to much of the questioning regarding the Packers’ woeful special teams performances, and Clay Matthews, who would go on to lead the league in sacks with 13.5 was now more than ever becoming a near-unstoppable force on the D-line. Because everybody knew Aaron Rodgers would continue to lead the offense up and down the field at will, and that despite lacking a star in the backfield Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and James Starks were more than capable of providing a diversion to/for the passing game, a 9-0 win was essentially what the Packers needed to re-solidify team confidence. Because few teams in the league were capable of winning high-scoring affairs every week like the Packers, by winning a low-scoring, ultimately quite boring game on the road, the Packers had finally broken through and established themselves as a fairly deep, well rounded football team capable of winning games in multiple different ways.
Fast forward now to the NFL Playoffs, where despite entering play as the NFC’s sixth seed, and thus needing three road victories to advance to Super Bowl XLV, the Packers have pulled off the improbable and currently sit one game away from their first world title since 1996. Victories over the Eagles, Falcons and Bears so far this postseason have not only shown Green Bay’s ability to effectively run the ball with James Starks, a rookie not featured exclusively until week 13 of the regular year, but also improved play from both the offensive line and defensive secondary. Rookie Bryan Bulaga has taken significant strides in both run and pass protection after struggling with late-season penalty trouble, and veterans Charles Woodson and Charlie Peprah have found new life after slow beginnings in 2010. Though Woodson remains one of the best corners in the league, it is quite clear he is far from the player he was early in the season, particularly in week 2 against the Bills, when the rushing tandem of Fred Jackson and Corey McIntyre repeatedly took advantage of slow breaks by the 13-year veteran out of Michigan, even leading to the Buffalo’s only score that afternoon. If the secondary can have any sort of success slowing down the Steelers offense on Sunday, it is hard to think Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense won’t be able to capitalize on their opportunities, and make things tricky for Mike Tomlin’s squad. That is a mighty tall order for any defense however, and as a result you may wish to consider leaning towards the Steelers.
On the Pittsburgh side of things, 2010 turned out to be, perhaps, a year too good to have ever even been anticipated. And that’s coming from a franchise with more Super Bowl titles than any other. With starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suspended for the first four games of the season, the Steelers initially put their hopes and dreams on the shoulders of untested youngster Dennis Dixon, a collegiate standout from Oregon who had already been labeled one of the league’s biggest projects. Dixon could scramble and could certainly throw the deep ball, but given Roethlisberger’s absence and the fact that the Steelers were to play back-to-back road games in weeks two and three, things were somewhat murky to begin the year in Pittsburgh.
After a season-opening overtime win over the eventual NFC-winning Atlanta Falcons, and a significant injury to Dixon, the Steelers turned to veteran backup Charlie Batch, the-then 35-year old signal-caller and Pittsburgh native. Though the initial game-plan for Batch was essentially to manage the game without turning over the football, after an impressive victory over the Titans in Nashville in which Batch threw only eleven passes, the Steelers turned Batch loose, and in his best game in nearly four years, the former Eastern Michigan Eagle tossed three TDs and ran for 26 yards in a win in Tampa. At 3-1 after five weeks, and Roethlisberger set to return in week 6, the Steelers had managed to exceed expectations yet again, and would eventually go on to win the AFC North as well as the AFC itself, via a week 20 Super Bowl-send-off victory over the NY Jets.
In terms of skill and skill alone, few (if any) teams in the NFL are capable of playing with the Steelers. From the defensive secondary and offensive backfield to the offensive and defensive lines, there may not be a more talented group of athletes on any team in any sport. Part of the reason for this involves the fact that in terms of the draft, almost never do the Steelers miss on a selection. Though the talent level may vary from year to year and senior class to senior class, it is hard to remember the Steelers ever whiffing on an early round pick. This year’s first overall team pick, center Maurkice Pouncey, was named the AFC’s best center in 2010, and would have been a Pro Bowl starter had his team not reserved a spot in Dallas earlier this month. Much like the Patriots of the early 2000s, every single player on Pittsburgh’s roster has a role to play and for the most part does so flawlessly. Though I may be nitpicking here, if there is any flaw with the 2010 Steelers, it involves a tendency to make should-be blowouts closer than they need to be, as well as an inability to overcome deficits against high-powered offenses. Even still, in terms of talent and skill, virtually nobody matches up evenly with the Steelers.
For the Steelers to contain the lethal Green Bay offense on Sunday, more important than anything done by the defense will be Ben Roethlisberger’s utilization of all his offensive weapons. By spreading the ball around to multiple receivers and tight ends through the air, and at the very least a tandem of backs on the ground, the Packer defense may very well be forced to shift to more of a zone scheme. With more room available over the middle and in the flat, Roethlisberger should be able to develop a rhythm with Hines Ward, a man who has made a career out of snagging balls in the short/intermediate passing game(s.) Furthermore, if Rashard Mendenhall and Ike Redman are able to touch the ball regularly on the ground, the Green Bay secondary will become more and more of a non-factor, something you can bet Mike Tomlin would enjoy tremendously. Regardless of how it plays out, should Big Ben and the Pittsburgh offense get hot early, and not taper off completely in the second half, expect to see the Pittsburgh Steelers parading yet again this February, in what would be their second title in three years, and third in six.
*Just a side-note, with the Pro Bowl, East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl now behind us, and the draft the next big NFL event scheduled to take place after the Super Bowl, one player to keep an eye on may be former South Alabama wide receiver Courtney Smith. Smith, who impressed during Senior Bowl practice and made a reception in the game itself, is comparable in my mind to current Dallas Cowboys receiver Sam Hurd, and could surprise many come draft time. With a fairly talented group of receivers already draft eligible, look for Smith to go as a sleeper pick with a strong skill set, as well as a bright NFL future.