This year’s Super Bowl teams are so similar in history, defenses, quarterbacks and even coaches named Mike that the difference in the game may come down to a rookie with his foot in a cast.
The Green Bay Packers are 2 1/2-point favorites over the Pittsburgh Steelers among oddsmakers, the narrowest spread for the Super Bowl in 27 years, two days before the National Football League championship game in Arlington, Texas. Play-by- play simulations that account for hundreds of variables have both teams winning about 50 percent of the time -- and show one advantage involving Steelers Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.
Beyond the heroics of quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh and Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay, the difference ultimately may be that Pouncey, 21, is going to miss the game with a high left ankle sprain, according to the simulations conducted by Los Angeles-based AccuScore.
“He had a great year and is one of the more talented centers in the league,” Jimmy Johnson, 67, a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach and now an NFL analyst for News Corp.’s Fox, said in a telephone interview. “Without question that’s going to be a concern for Pittsburgh. It will have a major effect.”
Pouncey, in his first NFL season, sustained the ankle injury in the American Football Conference championship on Jan. 23 against the New York Jets. He didn’t practice this week, and the Steelers said today that he would miss the Super Bowl.
With Pouncey in the lineup, the Steelers won 50.3 percent of the 10,000 play-by-play simulations run by AccuScore, which estimates probabilities of NFL games while accounting for variables from injuries and weather to the time remaining on the clock and yardage needed on each down. In a second set of 10,000 simulations run without Pouncey at center, the Packers won 50.5 percent of the time.
“It’s on me,” Pouncey told reporters earlier this week. “If I don’t feel the right way going out there, I’m not going to play. If I can’t, I’ll be on the bench waving a ‘Terrible Towel.’”
Pouncey will have plenty of company as a spectator. The crowd at Cowboys Stadium will exceed 100,000 and the Steelers and Packers each have a large following.
Pittsburgh, which is seeking a record seventh Super Bowl title, ranked fourth in a 2010 Harris Interactive poll of most popular NFL franchises, one spot behind Green Bay, whose 12 league championships are the most all-time.
The Packers boast the NFL’s best postseason winning percentage at 28-16, followed by the Steelers at 33-19.
Pittsburgh has won two championships in the past five years behind the 28-year-old Roethlisberger, who can join Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers, Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers, Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots as the only starting quarterbacks with three or more Super Bowl victories. Rodgers is looking to cement his own legacy in Green Bay, where predecessor Brett Favre led the Packers to their last title 14 years ago.
“It would be a fulfillment of this season and nothing more,” Rodgers, 27, told reporters this week. “There’s obviously other correlations that people are going to take depending on how we do, but I’m just focused on this season.”
Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, 38, can become the youngest coach with two Super Bowl titles, having won his first two years ago with the Steelers. Tomlin is just the team’s third coach in 42 years, after Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.
Mike McCarthy, 46, also is following a rich tradition in Green Bay, where he’s trying to join Hall of Fame members Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi as championship coaches. The Super Bowl trophy is named after Lombardi, who won the first two games in the series.
The Steelers ranked No. 1 and the Packers No. 2 in fewest points allowed this season, and both defenses are led by long- haired playmakers. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was voted the NFL’s defensive player of the year by two votes over Packers linebacker Clay Matthews.
Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji may play an equally important role opposite the Steelers’ center, who will be backup Doug Legursky. Raji, 24, helped seal Green Bay’s victory over the Chicago Bears in the National Football Conference championship game with an 18-yard interception return for a touchdown with 6 minutes, 4 seconds remaining. Legursky, who said a center is the “brains” of the offensive line, botched a fourth-quarter snap that led to a safety as Pouncey’s replacement in the AFC title game.
“When you have two teams as similar as us and the Steelers, it comes down to execution,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers told reporters this week. “The team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win the game.”
Only three times in the Super Bowl’s 44-year history has the team that made more turnovers won the game. Winning teams have committed 53 turnovers in the Super Bowl to 138 for losing teams.
The only turnover in last year’s Super Bowl was an interception thrown by Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning with 3:12 left in the fourth quarter. New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter returned it 74 yards for a touchdown that helped the Saints clinch a 31-17 victory.
Legursky said he wants to be the difference-maker for the Steelers, regardless of what the predictions and simulations say.
“It’s my battle if my number is called,” Legursky, 24, said earlier this week. “I’ll be ready. I’m excited about the opportunity to show that I can take the reins of the offensive line and hopefully lead these guys to a win.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Matuszewski in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
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