As with every Super Bowl, the matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers in Arlington, Tex., on Feb. 6 brings mystery and intrigue.
Can the Steelers run against Green Bay's front seven? Will Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers continue his stellar post-season? With the game feature a high-scoring affair like the one both teams were involved in back in 2009?
Here's a breakdown of the big game:
When the Steelers have the ball
Pittsburgh wants to do exactly what it achieved in the first half of the AFC championship game: ram the ball down an opponent's throat. Actually, RB Rashard Mendenhall showed plenty of speed and some moves, too, against the Jets, and that's what the Steelers need to see against Green Bay's 18th-ranked rushing defence.
Of course, the Packers' defence isn't likely to consistently miss tackles and be out of position the way the Jets were for 30 decisive minutes. LBs Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop are major reasons Green Bay (13-6) has been stingy against the run in the playoffs, and defensive backs Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Nick Collins are solid in support. They also excel in pass coverage, along with nickel back Sam Shields, a rookie who had two interceptions in the NFC title game.
If Mendenhall can find room to roam behind a depleted offensive line that still has been steady — it desperately needs standout rookie C Maurkice Pouncey to recover from a left ankle sprain and be in the lineup — the Steelers will keep pounding. But there's vulnerability in their blocking unit, particularly declining RT Flozell Adams, and the Packers have been getting production from NT B.J. Raji and DE Cullen Jenkins in all areas.
Raji even had a pick for a touchdown against the Bears.
If Pittsburgh (14-4) isn't effective with the run early on, it will keep trying. But there are excellent options in the passing game, which will need to deal with a fair share of blitzing.
QB Ben Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls in his seven pro seasons. Despite a four-game suspension at the outset of this season for violating the league's personal conduct policy, he guided the Steelers to the NFC North title, a first-round bye, then to a comeback victory over divisional rival Baltimore in the playoffs. Roethlisberger hurt the Jets more with his feet than his arm, yet the Packers are very aware how dangerous he can be as a passer.
His targets, from longtime team leader Hines Ward to speedy Mike Wallace to solid tight end Heath Miller to rising wideouts Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, are formidable. Wallace is the game-breaker and will see lots of Williams or Woodson in coverage. Ward might operate a lot in the slot, which could make him Shields' responsibility.
Roethlisberger has rising confidence in the youngsters, and Ward and Miller provide comfort zones for him.
Two things the Packers must do if they get pressure on Roethlisberger: keep him from escaping for damaging scrambles, and bring him down when they get their hands on him. Both proved too difficult for the Jets.
When the Packers have the ball
Until RB James Starks emerged in the playoffs, the Packers had virtually no running game. Starks, Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn aren't likely to get far against the league's top-rated run defence, but the Packers certainly should try to find a ground game.
Green Bay's offensive line doesn't get deserved credit. Anchored by RG Josh Sitton and C Scott Wells, it's far more suited for pass protection, but has opened enough holes for Starks to break out, and for the other running backs to contribute. They haven't faced a defence like this in the playoffs, though, and Pittsburgh will try to set an early, physical — some same over-the-top dirty — tone with LBs James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior, All-Pro S Troy Polamalu, and DE Brett Keisel.
The Steelers will send defenders from everywhere at QB Aaron Rodgers; CB Ike Taylor made a huge hit on Mark Sanchez that caused a fumble leading to the winning points last Sunday. Rodgers has been spectacular for more than a month now after a strong regular season, and he uses his legs nearly as well as Roethlisberger — not as powerful, but quicker.
Without question, though, Green Bay will need to pass successfully to win its first Super Bowl since the 1996 season. The Packers like to empty their backfield, a dangerous ploy against Pittsburgh's front seven and blitzers. But they can get some good matchups in those situations, whether it's WRs Greg Jennings on Taylor or Donald Driver on Bryant McFadden. Driver excels over the middle, but that's where Polamalu and Ryan Clark lurk, and there aren't two more punishing safeties around.
Rodgers has gotten a lot of mileage out of James Jones and Jordy Nelson and both will have key roles at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. If Rodgers can spread the ball around and keep the Steelers' pass rush off-balance, Green Bay has an excellent chance.
Steelers PK Shaun Suisham, who replaced veteran Jeff Reed in mid-season, has been superb, making 16 of 18 field goals; Pittsburgh is a difficult place to kick.
So is Lambeau Field, though, and Mason Crosby has made 24 of 31, including a 56-yarder. Neither has kicked under the glaring spotlight of a Super Bowl.
The rest of the Steelers' special teams are adequate. Brown had one kickoff runback for a score during the season. P Jeremy Kapinos doesn't always get great coverage accompanying his kicks.
First-year punter Tim Masthay for Green Bay has been efficient if not spectacular. He had an excellent NFC title game, keeping the ball away from All-Pro returner Devin Hester.
Green Bay gave up more yards than it gained per punt and kickoff this season.
A Pittsburgh victory would give Mike Tomlin two titles in his first four seasons as head coach, tying Joe Gibbs' achievement with Washington. Tomlin, only the third Steelers coach since 1969, is a master motivator who also gives his coordinators — Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau on defence, Bruce Arians on offence — lots of say.
Tomlin needed to guide the Steelers through some early difficulties and did so masterfully. Roethlisberger's four-game suspension could have put the team in a deep hole. Instead, with a trio of replacements at quarterback, Pittsburgh started 3-1.
The Steelers lost key defensive end Aaron Smith for a big chunk of the season. In 2009, that sent them into a spiral. Not this time.
Tomlin also got the team back on track in the divisional playoff game against Baltimore after it fell behind 21-7 at halftime.
Mike McCarthy might have had an even tougher chore because the Packers placed 15 players on injured reserve this season, an absurd number. That included starting RB Ryan Grant, playmaking TE Jermichael Finley and LB Nick Barnett.
Thanks to the depth the Pack built at so many positions, though, they not only survived, but prospered. Still, McCarthy and his staff, particularly defensive coordinator Dom Capers, deserve tremendous credit for rapidly developing backups and having faith in them.
McCarthy also has a strong relationship with Rodgers that has been critical in the QB's development since the Brett Favre purge in 2008.