Tradition-laden Super Bowl has Pack favored
A Super Bowl matchup with a twist: The team with more losses is the favorite.
A 14-4 Steelers team with a defense that allowed the fewest points in the league takes on a 10-6 wild card from Green Bay that barely has a running game. Yet the Packers, with only three players who have been this far in the postseason, are 2 1/2-point favorites over a franchise that has won a record six Super Bowls, including two in the last five years.
Well, a run of five straight victories in which the Packers would have been done had they not won contributed to that betting line. So have the superior performances by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a defense that has taken control of games early.
''The motto is it's just another week for us,'' said All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews, the runner-up to Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu for Defensive Player of the Year. ''We're not going to get caught up in all the hype. It's just six or seven days that we have to tempo ourselves. We're holding up fine and we're going to be that way the rest of the way. We feel good about where we're at. We'll be fine.''
Fine might not be enough, though, against Pittsburgh, which not only has the experience edge in the title game, but has displayed tremendous resilience all season and into the playoffs.
Nobody runs the ball particularly well against the Steelers and their fast, mobile and powerful outside linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Both also are capable of keeping Rodgers from escaping the pocket and making productive plays out of breakdowns.
Polamalu is the most dangerous defender in the game, a guy who could pop up anywhere and become a game-changer. He might have made the defensive play of the season with his strip sack of Ravens QB Joe Flacco in a December victory.
''Troy's a great player,'' Rodgers said. ''He had an incredible season. Anytime you play a guy like that you have to find where he is on the field. Baltimore didn't find where he was and he had a sack-fumble that ended up winning the game against them late in the season.''
Matthews is that kind of player for Green Bay, which beat the Giants and Bears to get into the playoffs, then went on the road to win at Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago. So are cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, safety Nick Collins and nose tackle B.J. Raji.
If we consider the defenses a wash and give a slight edge to Pittsburgh on special teams, that means the ability of one of the offenses to establish itself - even if moderately - could be decisive.
Rodgers has been football's best quarterback of the last month or so, using his arm, his head and his feet to carry the Packers. His receivers are first-rate, particularly Greg Jennings, the top wideout in this game, and his line really came on this season.
But Ben Roethlisberger already has won two rings and could join the likes of Tom Brady and Troy Aikman with a third. Roethlisberger's leadership was key in Pittsburgh's comeback win over Baltimore, and his scrambling destroyed the Jets in the AFC championship game.
His receiving corps isn't quite as impressive as Green Bay's, but he has a big edge at tight end with Heath Miller over Andrew Quarless, and at running back with Rashard Mendenhall over James Starks.
And the Steelers have the extra incentive of being underdogs.
''We understand that despite our record, despite some of the things that we've done this year, they're a team that's heavily favored to beat us,'' Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. ''Not points-wise, but just the majority of the experts feel like they're a better team than us.''
That's it, exactly. The Steelers are terrific, but there's something about the Packers that will make them better Sunday.
Versus spread, 0-2 (overall 132-108-19); Straight up, 2-0 (overall 171-102)
Best Bet: 8-11 against spread, 11-8 straight up.
Upset Special: 11-8 against spread, 11-8 straight up.