Super Bowl XLV as good as it gets, plus 10 things to watch for Sunday
Storied franchises, potential HOFers and great fans make this an epic game
Steelers center Doug Legursky will be the man under most pressure Sunday
Hall of Fame vote, labor meeting and other things to watch for this weekend
DALLAS -- Super Bowl 45, as championship games with a taste of history attached go, is as good as it gets. In fact, it's as good as it can get. Consider:
The Packers, in their 90th year of existence, and the Steelers, in their 78th, are the two longest-running single-city franchises to appear in a Super Bowl. By far.
In the past 50 seasons, these two teams are tied for the most NFL titles, with six. That means a quarter of all NFL championships in the last two generations have been won by the two teams playing Sunday. And one of them will win the 13th, obviously.
Green Bay (21) and Pittsburgh (18) have a combined 39 Pro Football Hall of Famers, which accounts for 15 percent of all Hall members.
And the fans. As I have traveled to NFL games big and small while covering the NFL since 1984, there are three fans bases that travel and support their team like no other: Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Dallas. In 2001, in Tampa, with the Steelers playing against a Buc team that was a Super Bowl contender, the crowd was at least 40 percent black and gold; I heard rolling chants of "Here we go Steelers, here we go!''
Two weeks ago, at the NFC Championship Game at arch-rival Chicago, I was shocked to see so many cheesehead head-toppings. StubHub must have done a land-office business that day because the cost of those tickets were sky high, and no self-respecting Bear fan would sell his seat to such a hated enemy. And there's a reason the Packers did $17-million in business in their Lambeau Field Packer Pro Shop a few years back: Fans come from all over the country to worship at the Lambeau shrine. A few years ago, I walked through the parking lot and counted license plates from 26 states after a training-camp practice. Including Alaska.
The reason both of these franchises have such tremendous fan bases? Easy. Green Bay dominated the '60s, winning five championships (1961, '62, '65, '66, '67). Pittsburgh dominated the '70s, winning four (1974, '75, '78, '79). No teams have won more championships in a decade in NFL history. Extrapolate that. In the '60s, the Packers were the first team to be nationally televised consistently. Ray Scott came into most fans' living rooms every Sunday, and the Vince Lombardi ethos and stolid leadership of Bart Starr made many Americans fans of the burgeoning game. Not to mention that idea that small-town Green Bay could beat big-city New York for an NFL Championship. So even if you didn't live in Green Bay, and you lived in Santa Fe, you chose the Packers to be your team.
Same thing with Pittsburgh in the '70s, maybe in a slightly different way. When the steel mills starting shutting down, and Pittsburghers had to relocate south and west to find work, they didn't lose their love of the Steelers. "Sometimes our road games feel like home games,'' safety Ryan Clark said last year.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin and Green Bay's Mike McCarthy both speak about team history like they could teach it. They draw on it, too. Tomlin loves when the old guys come back, and he exhorted his team after beating Baltimore in the playoffs: "This is what we do! This is what the Steelers always have done!''
Said McCarthy this week: "The history of tradition with the Green Bay Packers is a tremendous asset for us as a football team and for us as an organization. It's something that's embraced on a daily basis. The continued support of Bart Starr and Willie Davis, personally, throughout my tenure in Green Bay, has been special. You definitely want to win this game for the Packer nation, and represent the tradition and history of the great players -- Jerry Kramer and all the way down through. It's the standard of the Green Bay Packers, it's about winning Super Bowl trophies.''
Add to that this fact: The game could end up as one of the best Super Bowls ever. That guarantees nothing, of course. But look at what will be on display Sunday: two of the top seven quarterbacks in football, two of the best young coaches, two of the best defensive coordinators (one who's in the Hall of Fame) of the generation, big defensive stars who may be bronzed in Canton one day. It's 60 hours before the game as I write this, and I can legitimately say I can't wait for kickoff.
"It's time for the Lombardi Trophy to go back home,'' McCarthy said this week.
Well, either home to Green Bay or to Lombardi's summer home, where it has spent so much time, at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers.
Doug Legursky, center, Pittsburgh.
With standout rookie center and offensive-line leader Maurkice Pouncey out for the game with a high ankle sprain, the second-year fireman on the line from Marshall is set to the make the first start at center in his NFL career. (Legursky has started four games at guard for the Steelers.) He is a squat, low-to-the-ground player with surprising quickness to pull to the outside. That's what Mike Tomlin has emphasized to him in the last 10 days -- be fast, be the leader of the line, and set the pace. Pouncey was often the first lineman to get out on the flank and lead blocks for Rashard Mendenhall or Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers will need him to do that Sunday -- and to hold the point against powerful noseman B.J. Raji.
Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller's numbers, because of an offensive line that will bend and allow pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, and force him to look for his security blanket over the middle and on short hooks:
Howard Green, NT, Green Bay, No. 95.
Picked up on waivers from the Jets the week before Halloween, Green has been a valuable first-down run player for the Pack, and was integral in stuffing the run in the NFC Championship Game. Playing left end on most first-half run downs, Green gave the Packers, essentially, three nose men playing at once, if you add B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett. Look for Green to play on run downs again to make the Steelers struggle for anything they get in the run game.
1. The quarterback battle. Ben Roethlisberger could cement his place among the immortals with a third Super Bowl win in his first seven years in the NFL, while Aaron Rodgers has been The Next Big Thing at the position since summertime. I wouldn't be surprised if either of these guys plays an MVP game and throws for 350 yards.
2. More points than most people think. The over-under on the game is 45. At my Tweetup in Dallas on Thursday night, a guy asked me my prediction of the score. "Pittsburgh, 33-27,'' I said. He gleefully said he was betting the over. Don't put that responsibility on me for losing the mortgage, but I will say I will be surprised, very surprised, if these teams don't score a combined 50 or more points.
3. Saturday's big labor meeting. In case you hadn't heard, this is the last football game for seven months ... or maybe quite longer. Judging by the harsh tone of the NFLPA's press conference Thursday, I doubt much will get done at the Saturday session, the first big meeting the two sides have had since Thanksgiving week.
4. Saturday's other big meeting. The 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors gather Saturday in downtown Dallas to pick the 2011 class of enshrinees. I expect Deion Sanders to moonwalk in, and from talking to some of my peers on the committee, I'd say the next most-logical guy is Marshall Faulk. After that, it's the usual maelstrom. My best guess -- and that is all it is, because I am consistently wrong on this -- is that the other three slots (assuming we elect the maximum five modern-era candidates) will go to Richard Dent, Shannon Sharpe and NFL Films founder Ed Sabol. But if Cris Carter, Charles Haley, Andre Reed, Tim Brown, Curtis Martin, Dermonti Dawson, Willie Roaf or Jerome Bettis have their name called Saturday night on NFL Network when the class is announced, I will not be surprised.
5. How this area handles the worst weather in 20 years. Good timing, eh? This place feels more like Calgary than Texas. I went to four stores in the past 48 hours, looking for a true winter coat. Sold out, everywhere. Plows ... what plows? Salt? For roads you need Zambonis to travel on? Who needs salt.
6. How Green Bay defends Rashard Mendenhall. It's no secret that the Packers will put their 1,117 pounds of noseman beef -- Howard Green, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji -- in the lineup on first downs and obvious run plays. And I'd guess the Steelers will counter by throwing more on first down than they normally do. It'll be an interesting chess match.
7. The distractions will mean nothing. Ben Roethlisberger and friends out until 1 a.m. at a piano bar, singing, "Piano Man,'' was reported by TMZ the other day. I care nothing about it. Absolutely nothing. But in Super Bowl week, a 28-year-old jillionaire quarterback having a few beers with his friends apparently is news (and don't give me this idiocy that Roethlisberger shouldn't have done it because the last time he was in a bar publicly it was a bad scene). I love what Mike Tomlin said about it: "Anybody who cares anything about what is reported during Super Bowl week is nuts.''
8. Doug Legursky-B.J. Raji. A vital battle on the line. How will Legursky, making his first start at center, fare against the powerfeul lineman? I'll be inside Steeler practice as the pool reporter today.
9. The Black-Eyed Peas. Last month, in a Super Bowl planning meeting, Commissioner Roger Goodell asked, "Are they going to play that, 'I Got A Feeling' song?' " I should hope so. If they do, Sunday night's going to be a good night.
10. The game. We might not see another one for a long time. Savor what should be a great Super Bowl.
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