To me the matchup that's going to define this game is Green Bay's corners, Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson, against Pittsburgh receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace. The Packer duo each has lockdown capability and if they can take out the Steeler receivers one-on-one, defensive coordinator Dom Capers can then focus on pressuring Ben Roethlisberger with a 9-to-8 advantage on the rest of the field, with one of those nine being Clay Matthews. It's tough to see how Pittsburgh moves the ball with any consistency if this happens. I think the Packer corners are better than the Steeler receivers, but there are caveats. Ward is a savvy veteran and if they can get him matched up on the young Williams, the Steelers can get some key third-down and red-zone catches. Wallace has game-breaking speed deep and 2-3 big catches might be all he needs to significantly impact this game. Finally, even if the Packer corners do the job and the defense pressures Roethlisberger, Big Ben doesn't go down easily and can be at his most dangerous when he's improvising.
The next big matchup is the race between Aaron Rodgers and the Pittsburgh linebackers. Green Bay is going to get its receivers open. The tandem of Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson is clearly superior to the Pittsburgh defensive backs. The Steelers' best hope--and it's a reasonable one--is that James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley can dominate the edges, pressure Rodgers and get sacks, hurries and force mistakes. In the latter case, Troy Polamulu is fully capable of capitalizing and turning this mistakes into defensive points for Pittsburgh. I think Rodgers is going to get his numbers, and the receivers will get their catches. It's how many big plays Pittsburgh can make to counteract that which will determine this battle.
Running backs Rashard Mendenhall for the Steelers and the Packers' James Starks are the wild-cards in this game. Mendenhall came up with an unexpected big game against the Jets. Starks was fantastic in the first two playoff games. If either one can give his team a lift tonight, it can be the difference. I don't see it happening. The Pittsburgh run defense is the best in the game and Green Bay's front three can clog up the running lanes as well, especially with Steeler center Maurice Pouncey out with an injury. The only way Starks or Mendenhall gets loose is if either defensive coordinator, Capers or Dick LeBeau, just concede the run and focus all energies on stopping the passing game.
Overall, I believe Green Bay is a better team--not by a lot, but I do see clear edges for the Packers across the board. But there are two intangibles to consider. The first is Super Bowl experience generally and Roethlisberger's incredible improvisational ability specifically. Big Ben has a way of pulling games out of his posterior if its close and this one is likely to be close. I respect this line of reasoning for picking Pittsburgh, but disagree with it--it presumes the Packers lack that same ability, and I think Rodgers is more than capable of doing the same thing and that Green Bay has shown a game-closing ability on defense down the stretch as well. Super Bowl experience won't work against the Pack tonight.
The other factor is tougher to measure and that's the AFC-NFC exchange rate. I think it difficult to argue against the notion that the AFC is the better conference and that Pittsburgh comes in much more battle-tested. I think it further difficult to argue that as impressive as Green Bay's run of three straight road wins was, beating Philly, Atlanta and Chicago, doesn't quite measure up to the run the Jets faced in having to go to Indianapolis, New England and Pittsburgh in succession, and that a #6 seed was unlikely to escape the AFC bracket this year. But when it comes to the Super Bowl in particular, I'm also ruling out this reason for favoring the Steelers. Green Bay has matched up with the best in the AFC this year, shutting out the Jets in the Meadowlands and nearly beating New England in Foxboro with a backup quarterback. I believe that Green Bay is on a par with the AFC's top four--Patriots, Jets, Ravens and Steelers--over the course of a long season. If that's the case, then there's no reason to give a difference in conference strength any weight in a game on a neutral field where everybody's had two weeks rest. In the end, while Rodgers and the Pittsburgh defensive playmakers fight to a draw, each side making their share of plays, it's the Green Bay defense, especially on the corners that make the difference here. The Pack wins it 31-20.
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary on the NFL playoffs and coverage of college basketball.