BY MIKE KEENEY
For the most part, the Super Bowl has rarely lived up to expectations. There have been the occasional thrillers in the past 39 Super Bowls leading up to the 40th edition this Sunday in tropical Detroit (why in the world is the ultimate game being played in a northern city in February? Bet the media is going to love covering this one!), but lets be honest, for the most part, mismatches and routes have been the norm in the game that determines who reigns supreme in the NFL.
But this year, as the NFL celebrates XL years of Super Bowl competition, fans should get the chance to view what could be one of the most competitive title games in Super Bowl history.
The game pits one of the leagues Super Bowl dynasties in the Pittsburgh Steelers, 4-1 in games that decide the Lombardi Trophy, against the Seattle Seahawks, a team that is making its first-ever trip to the championship game, but a team that is worthy of its berth and a team that is as hot as any team that has ever made it this far in the season.
Ironically, when Seattle entered the league in 1976, they were placed in the AFC, but when the Houston Texans arrived four years ago to bring the league to 32 teams, the league shifted Seattle to the NFC and Seahawks fans are glad they did.
Both teams enter Sundays game on a roll. The Steelers have won seven straight games to reach their sixth Super Bowl in franchise history, while Seattle has 13 of their last 14 games with the only loss coming in a meaningless season finale at Green Bay where head coach Mike Holmgren rested most of his starters.
The Steelers and Seahawks have also been dominant in the playoffs, with the Steelers earning easy wins at Cincinnati and Denver in addition to dominating Indianapolis in a game that was not as close as the final score of 21-18 indicated (the officials kept the Colts in that game or it would have been a double digit win for Pittsburgh), while Seattle cruised to wins over the Redskins and Panthers.
These two teams are evenly matched. The Steelers are averaging 28 points in the playoffs, while the Hawks are averaging 27 points in post season play, so expect a tight contest when these two meet at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on ABC (in what will be ABCs final NFL game and will be the swan song for Al Michaels and John Madden).
So, whos going to be holding the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the day?
Im glad you asked and Ill you my answer later in this column.
Both teams have quarterbacks who are playing well at the most important time of the season. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has completed 49-72 passes for 680 yards and seven touchdowns in three playoff games with only one interception, while Seattles Matt Hasselbeck is 36-54 for 434 yards and three touchdowns and no picks in two post-season games (the Steelers had to play one extra playoff game because they were a Wild Card team, while Seattle earned a first-round bye thanks to winning the NFC West). Both QBs have each recorded a rushing touchdown as well. Big Ben and Hasselbeck manage the game well and know when and when not to take chances, Expect both of them to be cool customers come Sunday, but Im giving the edge to Big Ben because he is on a roll and I expect him to continue to play well in the Big Game on Sunday.
Seattle gets the edge in the running game thanks to NFL MVP and leading rusher Shaun Alexander. Alexander shredded Carolina for 132 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC title game and appears to have shaken off the effects of the concussion he sustained in the Divisional game against Washington. The Steelers do not have a go-to guy in the backfield, instead opting for the running back by committee formula, which has been effective. Willie Parker usually gets the start and does the heaving lifting, but when Pittsburgh gets close to the goal line, Jerome The Bus Bettis is called on to finish the job. Bettis will have extra incentive for this game considering it might be his last and he is playing in his hometown of Detroit, so looked for him to come through when called upon.
Both teams have solid offensive lines, so thats a wash. Expect both lines to excel in pass protection on Sunday.
So, if the two teams are evenly matched on offense, who gets the edge on defense? The Steelers, of course. This is a franchise that was built on defense and took pride in striking fear into foes. The Steel Curtain of the 70s (when the Steelers won three of their four Super Bowls, the fourth game in the 1980 game against the Rams) was perhaps the greatest defensive unit of all time, and this group is pretty fair itself. Led by safety Troy Polamalu, who seems to come up with a key tackle or turnover when its most needed, the Pittsburgh defenses play would make their forefathers proud. The unit has stepped up its game since the regular season and has been a major factor in why the Steelers are in Detroit. Aside from Polamalu, there are no stars on the defense, which makes even a Cowboys fan root for them. They play hard, hit hard and dont look for credit. Expect another outstanding effort from them on Sunday.
Dont get me wrong, Seattles defense has also played well in the playoffs and is an underrated bunch. They will makes some plays against Roethlisberger, which should keep them in the game until the fourth quarter. Thats when the Pittsburgh defense will take over and come up with a key turnover or sack to seal the Seahawks doom and hand the Steelers their fifth Super Bowl title, tying them with Dallas and San Francisco for the most in NFL history.
This should be an entertaining game and one that could turn into a high-scoring affair. Both teams have enough weapons on offense to turn this game into a shootout, but as stated earlier in this space, the Pittsburgh defense will have the final say in the outcome. My pick, Pittsburgh 27, Seattle 23
SUPER BOWL HAS MAKINGS OF A CLASSIC
BY MIKE KEENEY