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In sharp-looking matchup, edge to Packers

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / February 6, 2011

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DALLAS — You’d be hard-pressed to find a more historic matchup than today’s Super Bowl, which pits the Packers against the Steelers.

They’ve combined to win nine Super Bowls (six by Pittsburgh) and 18 league championships (12 by Green Bay).

They’ve made 52 combined playoff appearances (26 each).

And they have a combined 38 players and coaches in the Hall of Fame (21 for Green Bay).

That’s 168 years of combined history, and it will collide today at Cowboys Stadium.

But will the matchup turn out to be legendary?

If you strip everything away, the teams are very similar.

The quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers, go about their jobs in differing fashions, but both are mobile, strong-armed, and accurate. They have excellent weapons to throw to, and they almost always have to rely on them because their rushing attacks (24th for the Packers, 11th for the Steelers) do not stand out.

Defensively, both are 3-4 zone blitz teams coordinated by legendary minds (Dick LeBeau for Pittsburgh and Dom Capers for Green Bay).

The Packers play most of their snaps out of their nickel and dime packages, and for all the talk about zone pressures, Capers doesn’t send more than five rushers very often.

LeBeau plays more base and is not afraid to send six or more in any situation. Both teams have average special teams, though the Packers should have an advantage. For the Steelers, both punter Jeremy Kapinos, who went unsigned by Green Bay after a terrible 2009 season, and kicker Shaun Suisham have shown nerves.

Experience is obviously a strength of the Steelers. Their core players won two Super Bowls. The Steelers have 54 combined championship rings. The Packers have one (fullback John Kuhn from being a member of the 2005 Steelers’ practice squad), and only cornerback Charles Woodson and end Ryan Pickett have played in a Super Bowl.

But experience factors in most in the early going — and in the closing minutes. The decided advantage the Steelers had against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII translated into only 3 points in the first quarter.

If the Steelers don’t take better advantage of some likely jitters on the part of the Packers, Pittsburgh could be in trouble.

For all the historic imagery of the Packers — Lombardi, the Ice Bowl, etc. — they have been a dome team under coach Mike McCarthy. That’s what they’re built for. It’s what they practice for, since McCarthy hardly ever takes the team outside once the weather grows cold.

And Rodgers, a California native, is at home in ideal conditions. In the Packers’ last two playoff games indoors — the loss to the Cardinals last season and the victory over the Falcons in the divisional round this year — Green Bay scored a combined 93 points with Rodgers throwing for 789 yards, seven touchdowns, and a completion rate over 75 percent.

McCarthy called 12 runs in last season’s 37-36 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field. He might not call that many tonight, considering the fast track and Pittsburgh’s second-ranked run defense.

When you’re facing a 3-4 zone blitz team, the team that can best protect the five-step drop by the quarterback usually wins because fundamentally, that scheme lacks integrity in the deep part of the field. It’s a defensive approach predicated on getting the quarterback to throw before he’s ready. If he has time, the quarterback will be able to find openings.

So this game will come down to the offensive lines.

The Packers need veteran left tackle Chad Clifton and rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga to slow down outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Clifton did it last year against Harrison. The Steelers have to get a big game from Woodley.

The Steelers have been beat up all over the offensive line this season, as only left guard Chris Kemoeatu remains from the five-man group that was supposed to start this season.

Pittsburgh has survived to this point, but the loss of center Maurkice Pouncey looms large. It sets the stage for Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji, end Cullen Jenkins, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, and inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (on cross blitzes) to apply pressure all game, to go along with a decidedly better and ballhawking secondary.

So the advantage is with the Packers. It’s their game to lose.

But there is one X factor. If Green Bay fails to build a big lead and it’s close in the final stages, Pittsburgh and all its experience will shine through.

The Packers are 5-17 in games decided by 4 points or fewer under McCarthy. That’s no fluke. As the play-caller, McCarthy tends to get tight in close games, and that filters down to the players. He also loses focus on the big picture and is prone to game-management errors.

But he won’t have one this time because McCarthy’s team is simply better than the Steelers. And it they will show it today with a 24-17 victory.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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