Thursday, February 3, 2011
"We have four quarters left." Throughout the playoffs, Mike McCarthy has discussed the Packers' goal to play 16 quarters of football in the playoffs. The time for those last four quarters has arrived. Charles Woodson, by contrast, focused on the word "one," in his famous speech after the NFC Championship Game: "One mind, one heartbeat, one goal, one more game." (This is the same speech in which he called out the President for saying that he would go to the Super Bowl if the Bears won.)
What a week this must be for Woodson. Even though I live in Oakland Raider territory, I pay as little attention to the Raiders as possible. Which is easy since most of their home games are blacked out anyway. But as a result, I guess I did not realize all the things that were going on with Charles Woodson when he was a Raider. One of the local ink-stained wretches wrote a very nice piece on Woodson this week, reflecting on the years he covered him when he was with the Raiders. Woodson was arrested a couple of times, while enjoying way too much of the nightlife, and he would fall asleep in team meetings, getting by on his pure athletic ability during the games. But just look at him now and the transformation he has undergone with the Packers. He has settled down, started a family, become a student of the game, and a leader on and off the field.
Woodson is one of only two current Packers to have played in a Super Bowl before. I remember about half of that Super Bowl very well. We were in Utah, and watched the first half of the game, and a little more, in our hotel room. But the Jon Gruden-led Buccaneers were beating his former team, the Raiders, so badly that by some point in the third quarter we decided the rest of the game was not worth watching, and we went out to do other things, listening on the car radio instead. So Woodson saw his former team blown out in the Super Bowl, then saw his career head downhill until the Packers were the only team that would take him. He then saw his current team fall just short of the Super Bowl after the 2007 season, and then lose its Hall of Fame Quarterback. I imagine that, in training camp of 2008, he must have wondered if he had enough time left to get another shot. And yet here he is, preparing for Super Bowl XLV.
One more note before getting to my prediction. ESPN's NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert, and my friend Dick Karth, brought a great article to my attention, written by Wright Thompson of ESPN. It is about Vince Lombardi's house in Green Bay. Just go read it - you won't regret it. (Vince Lombardi Lived Here.)
The expectation of most commentators, as well as those who set the point spread, is that the Super Bowl will be a close game. That is not necessarily good news, since the Steelers seem much better than the Packers in finishing on the winning side of close games. I find it not at all surprising that the point spread is only 2 or 3 points, but I don't think it will be that close.
First, let's take the intangible or psychological elements. Yogi Berra was supposed to have said that "90% of the game is half mental." While his math is questionable, and he was of course talking about baseball, still there is a significant mental aspect to the game of football. One of the themes of the media coverage this week is how much of an advantage the Steelers get out of the fact that they have been to two recent Super Bowls, and that many, if not most, of the Steelers have Super Bowl experience. I don't see this as much of a factor. I am perfectly prepared to concede that the experience factor is a plus for the Steelers. But I believe that the Packers get at least as much of a psychological edge from the desire to go out and get Super Bowl rings for their aging veterans, guys like Charles Woodson and Donald Driver, plus the desire to take the Brett Favre monkey off of Aaron Rodgers' back, so that they can put the issue behind them forever.
On the purely physical side, I think a few comparisons are pretty clear (feel free to take issue in the comments): (1) the Steelers have a better running game; (2) the Packers have a better passing game; (3) while the defenses in general are pretty equal, the Packers defensive backs, as a unit, are better; and (4) the Packers receivers, as a unit, are much better.
The point of treating the defensive backs and receivers as units is this. The Steelers have a great defensive back in Troy Polamalu, assuming he is completely healthy, a great young receiver in Mike Wallace, and a great aging veteran receiver in Hines Ward. Let's just say (without quibbling about which is better) that they are roughly the equivalent of Charles Woodson, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver on the Packers side. But even if Charles Woodson is balanced out by Polamalu on the Steelers side, with the development of Tramon Williams and Sam Shields this year, along with Peprah and Collins, I think the overall group of defensive backs likely to get significant playing time in the game is just stronger on the Packers's side. Same story for receivers. The Packers' third and fourth receivers can run circles around the third and fourth receivers for the Steelers (although, in fairness, their tight end, Heath Miller, is much better than the Packers' tight ends with Jermichael Finley on injured reserve).
I think the depth at receivers and defensive backs will be the difference in the game. In the Packers' 3 and 4 receiver formations (not to mention the 5 receiver set), who is going to cover all those guys? The Packers need a game plan involving protection for the quarterback on long balls, and quick release on all others. If they have that, and if they continue to have at least a credible running game, I think the Packers win the battle of the Packers' offense against the Steelers' defense. On the other side of the ball, the depth at defensive backs (and lack of depth of the Steelers' receivers) should allow the Packers to be good enough in coverage to avoid getting burned like the last time they played the Steelers, while freeing up Dom Capers to run some creative blitzes by Woodson, Williams, and others. Add in the relative weakness of the Steelers' offensive line (particularly if rookie center Maurkice Pouncey does not play) and there is the potential for the Packers' defense to do some real damage.
If the game ends up being close in the final minutes, I will be terrified, because of the Steelers' superior ability to pull out games in the closing minutes or seconds. But if the Packers get ahead early and keep the pressure on on offense and defense, this game might not be as close as some expect. I am picking the Packers, by a score something like 34-24.