Steelers-Pack Super Bowl a dream game for fervent fans, more Snaps
The Steelers and Packers may have the best traveling fan bases in the NFL
Cowboys Stadium, with its 100,000-plus capacity, will have no trouble being filled
The Super Bowl pits two of the league's best QBs: Rodgers vs. Roethlisberger
PITTSBURGH -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from an interesting, but rather uneven Championship Sunday in the NFL ...
It's a good thing the NFL is planning to squeeze more than 100,000 football fans into two-year-old Cowboys Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday in Arlington, Texas. Because now that the Packers and Steelers have earned their way to this year's big Roman-numeraled affair, the league is going to need every last bit of stadium capacity it can muster. Somebody tell Jerry Jones to get his "plaza'' ready. He's about to get an overflow crowd, no matter what he charges per head.
If there are two more fervent fan bases in the NFL, with loyalists who are willing to pick up and travel wherever their favorite team is playing, I couldn't imagine who would rank higher than the good folks of Pittsburgh and Green Bay. By the time the hype ends, Super Bowl XLV might just wind up being one of the toughest tickets in NFL history.
In the Packers and Steelers, we have a Super matchup of two old-guard franchises, with decades of winning tradition and almost unmatched history when it comes to their relationship with their fans (and beloved status) in western Pennsylvania and all of Wisconsin, respectively. Be it Cheeseheads or Terrible Towels, they both will be well represented in Texas.
These two giants have been playing pro football for what seems like forever, and they share much more than the similar color of their gold/yellow football pants. Pittsburgh and Green Bay fans live and breathe NFL football, and now their wildly popular teams will meet for the first time in the postseason, getting yet another chance to add to their impressive Super Bowl ring collections.
The Packers own three Super Bowl titles, and have the game's trophy named after their legendary head coach, Vince Lombardi. Pittsburgh has a league-record six Lombardis and will be making its record-tying eighth trip to the game (Dallas has the same number of Super Bowl appearances). Green Bay won the first two Super Bowls, but Pittsburgh has claimed two of the most recent titles (2005 and '08 seasons).
There are numerous Super Bowl storylines to be fleshed out in the coming two weeks. QBs Aaron Rodgers vs. Ben Roethlisberger could be intriguing. As could the chess game between Dom Capers (Green Bay) and Dick LeBeau (Pittsburgh), who once worked together in Pittsburgh and are both onetime Steelers defensive coordinators. But these two fan bases might be the real stars of the show, and their loyalties have again been rewarded.
A Packers-Steelers Super Bowl is in the offing, and two teams with history, tradition and a winning legacy are once again taking center stage. It could be a classic, but you had better get your tickets early.
Other quick-hit thoughts about the Packers-Steelers matchup:
-- Both teams employ 3-4 defenses, with LeBeau and Capers teaching out of the same defensive playbook. They feature pass-rushing star outside linebackers like Clay Matthews (Packers) and Pittsburgh's James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and big talented space-eating cogs on the defensive line (B.J. Raji in Green Bay, Casey Hampton in Pittsburgh).
-- These teams didn't face one another this season but played a doozy in 2009. The Steelers beat the Packers 37-36, with Roethlisberger throwing a 19-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace as time expired. It was Green Bay's only loss in the entire second half of last season.
-- In Roethlisberger and Rodgers, we have a matchup that revolves around the showdown between the best quarterback to come out of the deep 2004 draft (Roethlisberger, 11th overall) and the best QB to come out of the disappointing 2005 draft (Rodgers, 24th). And it's worth noting that neither was the first passer off the board. Big Ben is pursuing his third Super Bowl ring in just seven NFL seasons, while Rodgers is trying to win his first.
-- I don't believe Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has any Packers ties, but Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy is a native of western Pennsylvania and once worked as both a bartender in Pittsburgh and a toll-taker on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I'm pretty sure he'll be asked about those gigs a couple times in the coming weeks.
Have to admit I was somewhat surprised by how many current and former NFL players took to Twitter Sunday to criticize Bears quarterback Jay Cutler for exiting the NFC title game with a knee injury early in the third quarter. Players far and wide -- including Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, ex-Bronco turned ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth and NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders -- questioned Cutler's absence and whether his injury was serious enough to keep him out of a championship game.
It's pretty tricky terrain, obviously; but in Cutler's case, the fact that no one initially identified the play he was injured on led to some of the questions. And Cutler's nonchalant and even disinterested sideline demeanor didn't help his cause. In fairness, the Bears say their team doctors and trainers made the call, and it wasn't Cutler's decision in any way, shape or form.
This much we do know: Before he was hurt, Cutler was in the midst of one of his worst games this season and clearly didn't come up big in the most important Packers-Bears game ever played. And that alone is going to make it a difficult and challenging offseason for him in Chicago.
Mike Martz endured many positives in his first season as Chicago's playcaller and offensive coordinator, but he's going to have to live down that terrible third-and-3 end-around call to receiver Earl Bennett on the play before Caleb Hanie's game-deciding interception. Bennett was dropped for a two-yard loss by Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop, putting Chicago into a tricky fourth-and-5 with 47 seconds remaining.
Making matters worse, the Bears carelessly burned their second timeout just before that play, an indication that perhaps Martz had too much time to think about a call that was too cute.
I thought Hanie played remarkably well given the tough situation he was tossed into against the Packers, but are people serious when they predict a quarterback controversy in Chicago next year? Really? Hanie over Cutler? I'm not the biggest of Cutler fans, but does anyone believe the Bears would have won 12 games this season with Hanie as their starter?
As if Green Bay's secondary isn't ridiculously strong enough at cornerback, with Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson both earning Pro Bowl invites, now the Packers have unearthed another playmaker in rookie nickelback Sam Shields.
In the first half against the Bears, Shields had a strip-fumble sack of Cutler (the ball was recovered by Bears running back Matt Forte), and later intercepted Cutler at the Packers' 3, snuffing out a late scoring threat just two plays after Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs had intercepted Rodgers.
Then, in the game's final, frantic moments, Shields provided the game-clinching play when he picked off Hanie with 37 seconds left at the Packers 12. Not bad for a guy who went undrafted and couldn't even get on the field for the Packers in the preseason.
The emergence of players like Shields is the silver lining to the wave of injuries that beset the Packers this season, with Green Bay placing 10 key contributors on injured reserve. The Packers' ability to fill those holes with players who have performed far better than expected is the most underappreciated part of Green Bay's success. Among them are Shields, rookie running back James Starks, third-year outside linebacker Erik Walden, and Bishop.
A lot of curious things happened to the Bears, but I still don't understand how Chicago decided to punt from both the Packers' 34 and 31 in the first half. It was cold and no doubt that would have made long-distance field goals more challenging than usual. But isn't Robbie Gould one of the league's better long-range kickers? In another strange move later on, Chicago ran Forte on third-and-eight from its own 4. Forte lost two yards on the run and the Bears had to punt from their own end zone.
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