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Green Bay clearly ahead of the pack

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  February 4, 2011 08:52 AM

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Objectively, from purely a football perspective, the Green Bay Packers should win on Sunday. The Packers can score. The Packers can play defense. And for those of us who believe that both remain equally important, even in the increasingly offensive world of the NFL, the Packers represent the closest thing the NFL has to a perfect balance.

None of that guarantees anything, of course, because as the Patriots will be first to tell you, what should happen and what does happen are two very different things. Speaking yesterday in Dallas, former Chicago Bears coach and NFL legend Mike Ditka said he was stunned by the outcome in Foxborough earlier this month; by contrast, NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said the Patriots’ 14-2 regular season was "fool’s gold" and that the Patriots were not as good as their record suggested. Whatever the case, the beauty of the NFL – and the playoffs in particular – is that the most talented team does not always win, something the Patriots again know well in the wake of Super Bowls XXXVI and XLII.

In one of those games, the Patriots were the more talented team. In the other, they were not.

In both cases, the team with less talent played better and won.

And yet, if the Patriots' 14-2 record this year was indeed "fool’s gold," there is every reason to believe that the 10-6 campaign compiled by the Packers was exactly the opposite. Green Bay’s six losses came by 3, 3, 3, 3, 4 and 4 points. In two of the defeats, backup quarterback Matt Flynn was thrust into the starting role. (One of those games was against the Patriots.) The Packers played with anyone and everyone, no matter who was healthy or hurt, and they may be the only team in the NFL this year to legitimately claim that they could have won every game in which they played.

And the Packers did so despite the extended absence of linebacker Nick Barnett, running back Ryan Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley, all starters who were placed on injured reserve.

Let’s be clearer: the Packers are the most talented team in the NFL. Whether that translates into victory is certainly open to debate, but the point is that if the Packers play to their full capabilities, they should win Super Bowl XLV – and they might even win it in relatively easy fashion.

Some of us even believe they will.

The flaws in this Green Bay team? They are obvious, particularly to those who like to punch holes through the Packers' roster as if they were riddling the Wisconsin cheese. The Packers can’t run. (During the postseason, they have run every bit as effectively, if not more so, than the Steelers.) The Packers can’t protect. (During the regular season and postseason both, the Steelers have allowed more sacks.) The Packers are stupid. (During the regular season, the Steelers had twice as many penalty yards.)

And so, are we really seeing this game clearly here?

Or is everyone placing far too much emphasis on a Pittsburgh mystique that might have less to do with these specific Steelers than it does with those of, say, the 1970s?

It’s just a question.

In terms of pure matchups in this game, they favor the Packers. Most everyone in football agrees that the mighty Pittsburgh defense is weakest at the corners, an area the Patriots exploited while shredding the Pittsburgh defense during a nationally televised meeting in November. The Patriots spread out the Steelers defense and forced fearsome outside linebackers James Harrison and Lamar Woodley into coverage, and Tom Brady carved up the Pittsburgh pass defense without enduring so much as a single sack.

The Packers have the personnel to do the same, even in the absence of Finley, who would have been an invaluable weapon in this game. They have the quarterback (Rodgers). They have the receivers (Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James, Jones, Jordy Nelson). And they have a third-down back who can come out of the backfield and serve as a viable pass-catching option (Brandon Jackson) to further complicate things for the Steelers.

As for the running game, almost nobody runs on the Steelers. Ever. All the Packers have to do is sufficiently call enough runs to keep the Pittsburgh defense honest. Actual gains are of secondary importance.

Were this game played outdoors, in the cold, we would all have reason to expect a close, hard-fought affair. (We might, anyway.) This postseason, the Packers have won an opening-round game outdoors in which they needed to play well on both sides of the ball (27-20 at Philadelphia); a shootout indoors (48-21 at Atlanta); and a physical game in the cold (21-14 at Chicago). That type of pliability is what a team like the Patriots lacked. Now the Packers are back indoors for the Super Bowl for the biggest game of every football season, armed with as much mystique as the Steelers and more comprehensive talent.

Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 20.

Of course, many of us thought the Patriots would win going away, too.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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