First off, apologies for not being around the last 10 days or so. I've been ill and barely able to keep my head up long enough to do a talk show, much less sit down and post in my blog. Thank goodness for amoxicillin, as I feel better now than I have since before I hit the road to St. Cloud.
And, no, I'm not blaming St. Cloud for my getting sick. It's just an eerie coincidence.
Now, on to the matter at hand. The Big Game. Super Bowl XL is almost here, and the hype is overwhelming. I'm smart enough to avoid most of it, and I will avoid most of the stupid storylines here, preferring to instead actually talk about the game that is going to be played in Detroit on Sunday.
With that in mind, a few thoughts:
1. I don't give a crap what Jerramy Stevens said, or what Joey Porter said in response. Talk about overblown BS. There will come a day where the media doesn't arrive at the Super Bowl site a week before the game, and when that day comes, crap like this won't make headlines...because the game will be front and center and the only important topic.
2. It's really nice that Jerome Bettis is from Detroit. What a great story. Oh, and in case you didn't know it, his parents have never missed a game. That's great stuff. But in a strange twist, people who ridicule the Bettis story have become more annoying than the people who are reporting the Bettis story. Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when we have nothing else to talk about during Super Bowl Week.
3. Troy Polamalu tweaked his ankle. Expect three cameras to be isolated on his every move, and if he ever shows a limp on the field during the game, someone will need to take the coaches' clicker away from Madden.
I'll be back Monday with a Super Bowl diary, though it probably won't be as detailed as in years past. I'm actually going to watch the Super Bowl at someone else's house, something I haven't done in a long time.
And on to the show...
Conference championships: 2-0
Yes, I'm 8-2 in the playoffs. And both games I missed were Sunday games that kicked off at noon CT. Please note that the Super Bowl does not kick off until 5:30pm CT.
We have two quarterbacks who experienced the absolute depths of playoff despair a year ago for different reasons. Matt Hasselbeck threw perfect passes that his receivers routinely dropped, and his season fittingly ended when Bobby Engram dropped a potential game-winning TD pass in the end zone on fourth down. Ben Roethlisberger gained a lot of media attention by riding the coattails of a solid defense and strong running game to the AFC Championship Game in his rookie season. It was there that New England exposed Roethlisberger as being exactly what he was - a rookie QB who wasn't ready for the big game.
Now, Hasselbeck's receivers actually catch his passes, and Roethlisberger actually throws passes to the guys in the same colors and helmets. As a result, they face off head-to-head in the Super Bowl, and it should be a good matchup. Neither QB has been known this year as mistake-prone or inaccurate, and both have raised their level of play dramatically in the playoffs. Hasselbeck took the team on his back in the Divisional Playoffs when Shaun Alexander went down with a concussion. Roethlisberger has been exceptional, especially in the first half of games. When his team fell behind in Cincinnati (the only time this playoff year that Pittsburgh has been behind), he calmly led his team down the field for two crucial second-quarter scores to keep it close. The defense went crazy on Jon Kitna in the second half, and the rest is history.
For Seattle, Hasselbeck is the key. Pittsburgh won't let Alexander beat them, and he will have to work to get his yards. Hasselbeck will face blitzes like he's never seen before, and the Seahawks will have to be prepared for the unexpected from the Steelers' defense. If Troy Polamalu isn't coming, you better look out for Clark Haggans and Joey Porter. Oh, and James Farrior hardly ever blitzes, but he had 2.5 sacks in the win at Indianapolis. Watch for him, too. Did I mention that Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen can rush the passer, too? Hasselbeck will need to have his head on a swivel. The last time a Holmgren-coached team made the Super Bowl, it was Brett Favre who couldn't handle the aggressive blitzes by Greg Robinson's Denver defense. You remember that one, right?
Additionally, look out for Stevens. And not because of the deal with Porter. Look out for Stevens because the Steelers will do such a good job on Darrell Jackson and friends that Hasselbeck will need to look for his tight ends to loosen up the coverage a little bit. Stevens is a talented player who may end up using the spat with Porter to juice himself up a little bit. Either way, he's a dangerous weapon on this offense.
Seattle also has an offensive line that doesn't get nearly enough accolades. Led by the mammoth veteran left tackle Walter Jones, the Seahawks create good lanes for Alexander, who is great at letting the blocking develop before he hits the hole, and they have been superb this year at protecting Hasselbeck. They'll be tested in this game, and Hasselbeck will take some hits, but the Seattle line should prove less leaky than, say, Denver's.
On the Steelers' side, they have to be careful, too. Safety Michael Boulware and linebacker Lofa Tatupu have rare gifts at their positions. Boulware has the tackling ability of a linebacker and the speed of a safety. He might not be on Polamalu's level, but he's a lot closer to it than The Pretty Hype Machine in Detroit would want you to think he is. Tatupu is very fast for a linebacker, but he doesn't sacrifice strength, and he's very good at reading plays and attacking the ball. Much like Polamalu, it is rare that Tatupu is caught out of position, and he has the speed to make up ground if he is. Maybe Pete Carroll's staff at USC knows what they're doing after all.
Up front, the Seahawks aren't big, but their discipline and athleticism create matchup problems. Grant Wistrom, picked up as a free agent from St. Louis a few years ago, is a relentless player with one of those proverbial "nonstop motors". Rocky Bernard is the best interior pass-rusher playing in this game, even if Pittsburgh DT Casey Hampton gets all the love from The Pretty Hype Machine. Hampton is a run-stuffer, and Bernard is more athletic.
Roethlisberger has to make sure he's efficient early, as the Steelers' ability to mix up their playcalling has been a key for them so far. Running the ball has to be a priority, but the Steelers have another weapon at their disposal to keep the Seahawks' defense honest, in the event that the running game is slowed down.
The trick play.
Who knows what Kent Whisenhunt and Bill Cowher have cooked up this week?
The Steelers are great at running trick plays, but their tendency to call them is even more important than the team's ability to execute them all the time. Even a failed trick play has a purpose. The design is to attack a dishonesty or a cheat in the defense. If the play works, you get big yards and big wows from The Pretty Hype Machine. If the play doesn't work, you still can accomplish something, despite the inevitable second-guessing from The Pretty Hype Machine. The defense still has to respect the fact that you're willing to run gadget plays, and it makes their reactions a split-second slower, because instead of attacking, they're more prone to letting the play develop in front of them first. Pittsburgh is usually good for one or two of these per game, and they might make a difference.
I think the big difference is the play of the defenses. I like Seattle's defense, but I like Pittsburgh's more. I think they have more talent across the board, and they're playing at a higher level. Fatigue could be a problem for Pittsburgh if it weren't for the week off, as they had to win three straight on the road to get to Detroit. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Pittsburgh is likely to have much more fan support at the game than Seattle will. While the Steelers are wearing the road jerseys (thus subjecting us to Seattle's hideous Blue Man Group-wannabe outfits), they will be the home team in terms of fan support. Even though they're actually favored in the game, I like Pittsburgh to win and get "one for the thumb".
The pick: Pittsburgh