Sunday, February 6, 2011

My Sure To Be Mocked Probably Wrong Super Bowl XLV Prediction

I felt a strange twinge of nostalgia this week when I came across the news that Andy Pettitte, stalwart postseason pitcher of the Yankees' recent championship era, was announcing his retirement from Major League Baseball. Obviously, as a Mets fan this doesn't exactly change my life or make me yearn for the good ol' days, but Pettitte had a few things working in his factor me me. Most prominently, it was hard to ignore his ability to pitch in big games -- he is the winningest postseason pitcher in history after all. As well, he is, well, pretty likeable all things considered. But biggest among those quirks for me is the fact that despite not being a Yankees fan, it was impossible to grow up in New York or New Jersey in the 1990s and not have been impacted or influenced by the Yankees' dynasty one way or the other. And when I attended my very first Yankees game in person, it was Andy Pettitte who stood on the mound.

Because of those reasons, there is a twinge of sadness for me in seeing that Pettitte is retiring as well as a wariness of the fact that "is he a Hall of Famer" or not debates sprang up almost instantly. These are all silly since the Hall of Fame has rendered itself completely bunk, but fortunately for all of us, that bit of news has thoroughly been tossed to the backburner because there's a football game this Sunday.

You might have heard of it.

If not, no worries, but something tells me if you had no idea the Super Bowl was this evening, you probably wouldn't be the sort of person who spends their time reading this. Now, if you're part of the other 99% of the population (people cognizant of the Super Bowl, not people that read my blog), well then you must be pretty excited about the impending kickoff between Green Bay and Pittsburgh in 18 and a half hours or so.

Hopefully you're handling the impending excitement better than Dallas has. Then again that wouldn't be hard.

Not that "North Texas", as the city of Arlington wants it to be known since the game isn't actually in Dallas, hasn't done a decent job preparing the excitement. I'm sure the preparations for what will happen later today at Jerry World are first rate, but the North Texas area has seen its fair share of problems that fall well outside of the NFL's control or responsibility. Of course, some of these issues aren't as big as others, but the massively unfortunate influence of bad weather can hardly be anyone's fault. The apparent dangers are real, but no one can really say they expected a blast of harsh winter weather and snow that has actually made the Dallas/Ft. Worth area about as unpleasant to be in as the northeast corridor. The game is in Texas. Texas generally is warm if not hot. Moreover, with the truly big problems solved any concerns that the Super Bowl might not be returning to Dallas because of the cold weather seem ill-founded for three basic reasons.

1) The average high in Dallas on Feb. 6, is 59 degrees. Clearly this is an abnormal case of bad luck.
2) The Super Bowl has been played before in cold weather sites like Minneapolis and Detroit (twice), and will be played in three years in New Jersey.
3) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, tonight's game is being play indoors.

Speaking of which, let's get to that whole ordeal. Who the hell is going to win this damn thing? And why?

Well, there are many schools of thought and considering I have a number of friends who hail from or consider themselves fans of both the Steelers and Packers, I know I'm going to leave at least one person peeved, assuming they actually read this or put stock in it. And both of those ideas are silly. Being that it's late, I don't really have time or energy to break things down bit by bit, so I'll simply talk about where the crux of this game will fall. And that, in my opinion, will rest on five people: Ben Roethlisberger, B.J. Raji, Doug Legursky, A.J. Hawk and Clay Matthews.

Yes, I know, Aaron Rodgers still has to face one of the toughest defenses in the League, but given the kind of zone he was in earlier in the playoffs and that this game will be inside, I have little concern that he will be able to produce. Whether Green Bay's offense will outwit Pittsburgh's defense is a mystery that won't be solved until the two sides take the field -- both units are top notch. And while one will certainly get the better of the other in the end, there is no discernible mismatch here that a prognosticator like me can exploit.

But that isn't so on the other side of the ball.

A fact that has gone somewhat unnoticed for the first two games Pittsburgh has played this postseason is that Pittsburgh's offensive line hasn't been playing too well. Both Baltimore and New York had their way with the Steelers' offensive front for significant stretches and this looms particularly large when one considers that Green Bay's Raji has been absolutely stellar at eating space, disrupting plays and penetrating into the pocket to wreak general havoc on offenses he opposes. If Raji and the rest of Green Bay's impressive defensive line can play as well as it has this postseason, it will pose a massive problem for Pittsburgh's offense. This problem is exacerbated enormously by the absence of rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who will miss the game with multiple ankle and foot injuries he suffered against the Jets in the AFC Championship Game. In his place will be Doug Legursky, an undrafted free agent who has never started a game at center before.

Sunday will be Legursky's first ever start at center. Sunday is the Super Bowl.

Call me crazy, but I can't see Legursky having an easy time of it against the quick, massive block that is Raji, and given that Legursky fumbled a snap to Roethlisberger in the AFC Championship Game, resulting in a safety, this does not bode well for Big Ben's protection. Luckily for the Steelers, this hasn't always been an issue. Roethlisberger, despite his size, is known for his impressive mobility, his ability to extend plays with his legs and his ability to throw on the run outside the pocket. Typically he has evaded pressure and found open receivers on broken routes with little problem. But he's also never faced two linebackers like Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk. They are big, strong and they have speed to burn.

This is where the fate of this game lies.

Yes, Pittsburgh has faced impressive defenses, with New York featuring the likes of Bart Scott and Baltimore showing Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. But Scott had no partner to match the combined ability of Mattews and Hawk, and Ray Lewis, despite his sideline to sideline speed, is old. He is one of the greatest middle linebackers of all time, but he didn't get the chance that Green Bay's middle linebackers, in their primes and with a defensive line that could potentially eat Pittsburgh's offensive line apart Sunday night, will have in the Super Bowl. I see Raji getting a huge push up the middle, I see Roethlisberger leaving the pocket earlier than he wants to, and I see Matthews and Hawk chasing the Pittsburgh QB all around the field to keep him from having enough time to make plays work. It won't be easy and it won't be a blowout -- the Packers' offense will be given plenty of fits -- but ultimately this is how I imagine the game playing out.

That's why I'm taking the Green Bay Packers to win Super Bowl XLV.

Score predictions are meaningless, but if you all really want me to give one, let's go with Green Bay 23, Pittsburgh 17. It'll be exciting enough and we'll all be happy it happened in the end. I can't promise you I'll be right, but I can promise you that if I am, I won't be as obnoxious as some sportswriters who had the mysterious good fortunate to pick the right Super Bowl matchup in their season preview even if they actually changed their picks after the regular season.

And if I'm wrong, well, let's just forget I picked Green Bay just like we all forgot I picked Indianapolis last year. Enjoy the game everyone.

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