Super Bowl XLV will be like any other game, at least in the sense that it will come down to matchups. Every contest does, whether it's Week 3 or the Super Bowl.
Kansas City didn't have the horses on offense to compete with Vince Lombardi's Packers defense in Super Bowl I. The key matchup in Super Bowl XIII -- perhaps the greatest Super Bowl ever -- was the Dallas corners on Pittsburgh receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann. That mismatch gave the Steelers their third Super Bowl trophy.
The faceoff that could define Sunday's game between the Packers and Steelers is how Green Bay's defense deals with Ben Roethlisberger.
Love him or hate him -- and there was some question this week as to where his teammates fell on that issue -- the guy is a street baller. Oh, Roethlisberger can be a classic pocket QB with a big arm, but he's often most effective throwing ugly passes on the run after squirming out of a sack. So how does Green Bay defend against that kind of player?
The Packers might have already received the ultimate PowerPoint tutorial earlier this season -- twice -- when they were forced to stop Eagles quarterback Michael Vick in Week 1 and again in the playoffs. Are Vick and Roethlisberger the same player? No, but besides facing Aaron Rodgers every day in practice, there exists no better warm-up for facing Roethlisberger's improvisational ability than Vick.
"With Roethlisberger, it's always a night at the Improv," NFL Network analyst Matt Millen said last week. In our production meeting, we discussed the X-factor of this Super Bowl. Roethlisberger's mobility was the first subject to come up.
Similarly, Vick made so many great plays with his feet this year -- especially in the season opener against the Packers -- that he finished second in the AP Offensive Player of the Year award voting.
Back in September, coordinator Dom Capers' defense was caught unaware when Vick declared war on them. The Packers knocked starter Kevin Kolb out of the game, and into the fold came a guy who hadn't received first-team reps in practice and was left to play street ball.
Whereas Kolb's mobility is more like Kevin McHale's, Vick made sandlot play after sandlot play. When the Pack employed numbers in the secondary, Vick waited until contain broke and just took off. When he did throw, he was accurate. Capers watched almost helplessly as Vick went 16 of 24 for 175 yards against his defense, ran for another 103 yards, and nearly brought Philadelphia back from a 17-point deficit.
"Our ready list in that game dramatically changed when Michael Vick came into the game," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think we'll be more prepared for him this time, that's for sure."
Those were McCarthy's words in the week leading up to the wild-card matchup. Knowing the outcome would rest on Vick's performance, the Packers devised a game plan in which he and Eagles coach Andy Reid couldn't get comfortable with what they were seeing -- the Packers mixed up their defensive fronts and coverage beautifully. The result: A mediocre game from Vick, including only 32 yards rushing, and an interception that sealed a Green Bay win.
So how does Capers translate that success into stopping Roethlisberger?
» Have numbers in coverage more so than in pass rush, much like Green Bay did when it picked Vick in the end zone on the final drive of the playoff win.
» Blitz conservatively, in spots, similar to what the Packers did in that game, and reminiscent of Rex Ryan's formula against the Patriots in the divisional round. Vick's passer rating was actually higher when the Packers blitzed.
» Roethlisberger is not quite the running threat, so they don't need to spy him with a linebacker. But when he does take off, the Packers must hit him.
» Capers loves rushing with his corners, especially Charles Woodson. But Woodson has to attack the pocket under control. If he comes flying in with reckless abandon, Roethlisberger will either side-step him or do his little spin move before Woodson can wrap up.
Supposing the Packers do sell out and rush seven, Roethlisberger will kill them if someone doesn't get him on the turf, just like Vick did to nearly every team this season. Roethlisberger seems to thrive on taking contact, and then breaking out of the pocket to hit a big play downfield.
In that sense, he is eerily reminiscent of Steve McNair. Who can forget the former Titans quarterback shaking off two Rams defensive linemen and completing a big pass on that last-gasp drive in Super Bowl XXXIV? McNair once unloaded 295-pound Chad Hennings after he jumped on McNair's back and still completed a pass downfield like it was drawn up that way. Former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart said McNair was "country strong." The same can certainly be said of the current Steelers quarterback.
Vick clearly doesn't have the Herman Munster size or strength that Roethlisberger does. Still, both quarterbacks are equally hard to contain and often better when the play breaks down. That's why the two games Capers and his unit had against the Eagles earlier this season are so important.
Roethlisberger is clutch. His fourth-quarter passer rating this season was a staggering 110.3. If this Super Bowl plays out like Roethlisberger's last one did, and all the chips are in the middle of the table on the final drive, that practice run against Vick might not be enough for the Packers.
News and notes
» Tough call on who should've been Defensive Player of the Year. Clay Matthews was no doubt a shoo-in at midseason, before slowing down. Julius Peppers had a great year. But NFL sack leader DeMarcus Ware must feel like he can't catch a break. He racked up 20 sacks two years ago, which is about as rare as a 2,000-yard season by a running back, and didn't win. This season, Ware -- despite getting 15.5 sacks and scoring a touchdown -- didn't get a single vote.
The Chiefs' Tamba Hali warranted as much attention for his great season as Ware, or anyone else for that matter. As if his 14.5 sacks weren't impressive enough, Hali says he played with a tear in each shoulder and his foot. Having a shoulder labral tear myself, I can tell you that playing at the level he did with TWO tears is nothing short of phenomenal.
No one can quibble over Troy Polamalu's selection. You don't have to be an NFL expert to see he makes that team better.
» Speaking of, it's easy to see how Ron Rivera got his first head-coaching gig with the Panthers. His Chargers defense was ranked No. 1 all season, despite not having one guy anywhere close to being the league's best defender.
» Does anyone wonder how many people truly care about football in Los Angeles? One of the biggest indicators of the NFL as a dominant sports enterprise has been its success without a franchise in the country's second-largest market. Living in L.A. myself, I've noticed that many football fans here are just fine watching the best game of the week on TV. They aren't exactly eager to see David Garrard taking snaps at L.A. LIVE (if the Jaguars move).
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.