Ben Roethlisberger emerged from the Steelers’ plane Monday, filming the scene with a pocket camera and looking more like a Super Bowl newbie than a two-time world champion.
But in this case, looks definitely are deceiving.
While there’s plenty of room to debate which participant in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLV (FOX pregame at 2 p.m. ET, kickoff at 6:29) has the hotter quarterback, the stouter defense or the more astute coach, there’s no disputing which team has the edge in the questionably important category of Super Bowl experience.
Almost half of the Steelers’ roster (25 players) has played in at least one Super Bowl, including fourteen current starters. Seventeen active team members own a matching set. In contrast, only two Packers have ever played in the big game (Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett), neither of them did it while with Green Bay and neither of them got their hands on the Lombardi Trophy when all was said and done.
It may not provide much of an advantage when the Super Bowl proper kicks off Sunday. But it sure doesn’t hurt during Super Bowl week, when the media circus, the parties, the demand for tickets and the incessant hype can distract even the most disciplined team.
“You know the lay of the land; you know the direction some of those things are going,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “It probably lessens the anxiety in terms of some of the non-football things. If that allows you to focus your energy more clearly on preparation, and ultimately play, then if there is a benefit, it’s that.”
“It can be overwhelming,” Roethlisberger said. “You get off the plane and you’ve got helicopters, you’ve got police and media and then this. If you’re not used to it, it can be overwhelming. I think it helps a little bit to at least have some prior knowledge and experience with it.”
That prior knowledge undoubtedly came in handy Monday, as Roethlisberger faced the assembled media in Dallas for the first time and spent much of his 22 minutes at the podium dodging questions about his four-game suspension to start the season and the events in Milledgeville, Ga., that led to it.
“I’m just taking it in stride, enjoying this opportunity, regardless of what comes and the outcomes,” Roethlisberger said. “I’m just taking it all in.”
Just taking it all in like a veteran Super Bowl participant.
The Packers, on the other hand, won’t have that experience to fall back on as they attempt to diffuse their made-for-Super-Bowl-week controversy – the Twitter-driven firestorm over whether injured Green Bay players would be allowed to participate in the team photo Tuesday after Media Day.
“It’s resolved,” said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who prolonged the PR debacle like the Super Bowl rookie that he is, pointing out to reporters last week that when he was on injured reserve, he chose to rehab in Green Bay. “That’s the only comment I have.”
That may be the only comment Rodgers has, but he’ll likely have to make it several dozen more times this week. The question is whether having to answer that increasingly impertinent query over and over again is going to distract Rodgers as he attempts to prepare for the biggest game of his career.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, for one, thinks the answer is a resounding no.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a factor,” McCarthy said. “We’re really focusing on keeping it between the lines. The advantage Pittsburgh has over us in my opinion is today through Saturday. We’ll continue to work and educate our football team. They are a dedicated and focused bunch, so I’m not really concerned about it.”
There’s ample recent evidence to support McCarthy’s claim that any benefit derived from having been here before ends well before kickoff.
Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl MVP trophy didn’t keep him from throwing a pick-six in the final moments of Super Bowl XLIV, allowing a bunch of first-timers from New Orleans to walk off with the trophy. Two years before that, the Giants were suitably unimpressed with the Patriots’ three rings (and their 18-0 record, for that matter) and sprung a Super Bowl upset for the ages.
So while the Steelers may have the experience edge on paper, both teams are acutely aware that this game won’t be played on paper.
“Whoever wins this game depends on whoever plays the best football,” Woodson said. “It doesn’t matter who has played in the most Super Bowls. Whoever plays the best game is going to win and that’s it.”
“You still have to play the game,” Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. “For us, it’s a comfort level of being here before. A lot of guys have experienced this. At the end of the day, it doesn’t give us an advantage or disadvantage. You still have to play the game.”