Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Super Bowl: A Promising Showdown of Unexpected Combatants

My sister in Maryland—and a lot of other people—simply adores Peyton Manning. So she's miffed that he's not in the Super Bowl. What can we say? The Pittsburgh Steelers took it to Manning's Colts, outmuscled 'em, and then did the same thing to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. I've been picking against the Steelers all postseason, but they keep showing us something: undeniably superior physicality, a young QB with moxie to spare and playmaking ability, and balance throughout their starting 22. You know you're in trouble when Hines Ward and Antwan Randle El, the Steelers' main receivers, are playing support roles, while Cedric Wilson, an underrated refugee from the 49ers, is coming up big catching TD passes from Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers didn't put up big rushing numbers against the Broncos, but they got enough tough yards out of Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis to complement what they were doing through the air. The Steelers have now won seven straight games, including three straight on the road in the playoffs. It's unlikely as hell, but they did it, and they won each game convincingly. If you look back at their streak, it all makes sense, since they were kicking butt throughout, but bucking the odds through all the plane travel might alone be a sign of their destiny.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks emerged as the NFC's best, after a season in which they put up the best won-loss record in their conference. Still, they were disparaged, since the level of their competition was called into question by many experts. Carolina, their foe in the NFC Championship Game, looked like a team wilting under the ravages of road travel, not to mention their tough divisional-round game against the Bears, in which they incurred injuries to key players. Carolina also got outmuscled, and Seattle's defensive line looked a lot more fearsome than anyone could have predicted. I hardly knew who Rocky Bernard was before this past Sunday, but he's one tough customer. So is rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu. With running back Shaun Alexander re-emerging from his concussion against the Redskins in the divisional playoff, the Seahawks were hitting on all cylinders, and QB Matt Hasselbeck seems to grow in leadership with every outing.

So, even though we didn't necessarily expect these two teams to make it to Super Bowl XL, here they are, and this actually might make for a pretty good game. It's too late now to say the Steelers will feel the effects of road travel; hell, they haven't been home for over a month. And we can't accuse the Seahawks of choking, because so far they certainly haven't; they don't look merely lucky, either. And so, as we weigh in with our prediction, we're going to simply look at the personnel, assume everyone's biorhythms are on an even keel, and pick a winner.

ANALYSIS: The Steelers' wide receivers are superior to the Seahawks. All things being equal, I think Ward, Randle El and Wilson have a better chance of piercing the Seattle defense than Seahawks Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram and Joe Jurevicius have against Troy Polamalu & Co. Alexander might have a decent day running, but as the Steelers shut down the passing game, they'll be able to marshal more resources against the league's MVP, eventually rendering him ineffective when it counts. Both QBs are playing error-free ball, and there's certainly something cuddly and likeable about Hasselbeck. And yet, Roethlisberger looks like Goliath back there; his arm is strong, and he seems to have gained more mobility as the playoffs have progressed. If he's getting production out of his RBs, he knows how to run a low-risk offense; if he has to throw, he has experienced and gifted weapons on his side, who seem to have the speed and elusiveness to outfox the Seahawks' secondary. If the game comes down simply to smash-mouth football, I haven't seen anyone this year do that as well as the Steelers. Plus, they're representing the AFC, clearly the superior conference this season. (The early betting line has the Steelers by 4.)

PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 23, Seattle 17

That said, it'd sure be fun to see the Seahawks rise up and prove me wrong. I'd rather see a surprise result than a boilerplate one.

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