warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Top 10 Storylines Leading Up to Super Bowl XLV

Victor Marticorena |
February 3, 2011 | 5:02 a.m. PST

Staff Writer

Aaron Rodgers has had an impressive postseason for the Packers.
Aaron Rodgers has had an impressive postseason for the Packers.
On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers will battle for the chance to reign supreme and once more hold the Lombardi Trophy.

The road was not easy for either team. Each overcame adversity and is now one game away from claiming the ultimate prize at Cowboys Stadium.

In reflecting on the road that led to this Steelers-Packers matchup, I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 most compelling storylines of the 2011 NFL Playoffs.

Here's my list, admittedly not in perfect order:

Honorable Mention: Mike Tomlin

The Steelers started the season with arguably the biggest disadvantage of any team: not having starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games. To make matters worse, they lost their back-up QB to injury the week before the season started. 

So what did head coach Mike Tomlin do? He inserted his third string QB Dennis Dixon and went 2-0, then, when Dixon got hurt, Charlie Batch stepped up and won a third game before Big Ben was able to return.

The Steelers’ ability to thrive even without the key to their offense shows the preparation that Tomlin puts in. He had a distinct four-game disadvantage and still finished with the second best record in the conference.

Coach of the Year honors should go to him, regardless of whether or not the Steelers win the Super Bowl.

[Editor’s note: Bill Belichick was named Coach of the Year Wednesday.]

10. The NFC West

The NFC West was quite possibly the most disappointing division ever in the history of the game. It limped into the playoffs with a dreadful matchup of two teams with records under .500 battling for the fourth spot in the playoffs.

The Seattle Seahawks ended up “winning” the NFC West crown and landed a home game against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints – they also landed a spot in the record books as the only team to ever make the playoffs with a sub .500 record (7-9).

Critics have called for the NFL to change its rules to prevent a sub-.500 team from making the playoffs. However, if those rules had been in effect we would not have the pleasure of watching No. 9 on my list.

9. Marshawn Lynch

Marshawn Lynch may have had one of the greatest runs from scrimmage in the playoffs, ever. Period. With the Seahawks up by four points with 3:30 left in their matchup with the Saints, Lynch activated “Beast Mode” on 2nd-and-10.

Lynch broke anywhere from five to eight tackles on his way to a 67-yard touchdown run. His last move was the most memorable: a stiff arm that sent both himself and the defender flying in opposite directions.

This run ignited the crowd so much that, according to seismic activity reports in the area, there was a small earthquake recorded at the exact same time as the run.

Can you name any other play that has done that? Didn’t think so.


8. Ravens “dropping the ball” in rivalry game against Steelers

The Steelers and the Ravens hate each other. This is arguably the most intense rivalry in the NFL right now, characterized by two stout, hard-hitting defenses trying to destroy each other’s QB.

This year’s revamped Ravens squad featured the addition of two former Pro Bowl wide receivers in Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. However, in the biggest game of the season, those receivers dropped the ball -- both figuratively and literally.

Boldin and Houshmandzadeh dropped key passes that could have led to game-tying or game-winning scores.

The 31-24 loss continued a disturbing trend for Ravens fans. In the past three years, the rivalry has been a one-sided war, with the Steelers going 6-2 (2-0 in the playoffs) against Baltimore.

7. Aaron Rodgers

I know what some of you are thinking: Why is Rodgers so low on the list? To be perfectly honest, I have no idea myself. He could go anywhere between seventh and fourth.

But that’s beside the point. Rodgers was clearly the most dominant QB in the first two weeks of the playoffs (case in point: his 129.4 passer rating).

Against the No. 1-seeded Atlanta Falcons, Rodgers led one successful drive after another, many of them resulting in either a field goal or a touchdown. As a result, the Packers romped 48-21.

The only thing that hurts Rodgers in terms of building a case for “best quarterback of the playoffs” is his last game against the Chicago Bears. He did catch fire in spurts, but for the most part, Rodgers was off his game, going 17-for-30 for 244 yards and 2 interceptions.

Did the Bears defense expose Rodgers?

We’ll have to wait and see.

6. Rex Ryan’s motivational influence on the Jets

The Jets only went as far as Rex Ryan could take them.

Ryan’s mouth was the Jets’ fuel, so to speak. He provided the motivation to will them to a win over the Indianapolis Colts in the first round. He then went on to talk more trash before a game against their rivals, the New England Patriots.

It was this trash talk that coerced normally mild-mannered Wes Welker to engage in a bit of word play during a press conference, a rant in which he alluded to Ryan’s alleged foot fetish.

The Jets rallied around their loud-mouthed leader and beat the Patriots 28-21 in the divisional round.

After two weeks of trash talking, Ryan ran out of things to say when facing the Steelers, though. The Jets had nothing to rally around and ended up losing 24-19, coming up a game short of the Super Bowl for the second straight year.

Hopefully, Ryan figures out soon that his “Hardknock”-ers need him to stir up some trouble to find the motivation they need to win.

5. Mark Sanchez

You may think this is a USC bias, but my praise of Sanchez has absolutely nothing to do with him coming from the school I attend.

Sanchez, as average as he may seem in terms of QBs in the league, has been close to spectacular in the playoffs. In his first two years in the NFL, Sanchez has amassed a 4-2 record in the postseason. And if you consider the quarterbacks he has outdueled in these games, the record becomes just a little bit more re“mark”able: Carson Palmer (win), Philip Rivers (win), Peyton Manning (loss), Peyton Manning (win), Tom Brady (win) and Ben Roethlisberger (loss).

Here is a summary of Sanchez’s stats in the postseason: 1,165 yards, 9 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, a 60.5 percent completion percentage and an average QB rating of 97.5.

Of the QBs mentioned above, only Sanchez and Roethlisberger have led their respective teams to the postseason in their first two years in the NFL, and of the two Sanchez has a better completion percentage (60.5 to 59.9) and QB rating (97.5 to 88.2). Sanchez also has far fewer interceptions than Roethlisberger (three to eight), and just one fewer touchdown.

Just in case you aren’t impressed by these numbers, factor in the fact that Sanchez has yet to play a home game in the playoffs.

4. Da Bears’ QBs

Where do I start?

Toward the end of the season, Jay Cutler was at the top of his game. One analyst even went as far as saying that in the month of December Cutler was playing like an MVP candidate. That success carried over into the divisional round of the postseason. In his first-ever playoff game, Cutler did amazingly well, even if it was against a sub-.500 football team (see No. 10 above).

But against Chicago’s bitter rival, the Packers, in the next game, Cutler and his boys produced a stinker of a performance. Cutler was injured in the first half and came out for just one drive in the second half before resting on the sidelines for the rest of the game.

At some point, Cutler sustained a sprained MCL in his left knee, but it didn’t seem to affect him very much. Instead it seemed as though he was throwing in the towel.

Lovie Smith inserted Todd Collins into the game, but Collins looked like a Junior Varsity QB against the stout Packers’ defense. He completed zero passes in two drives, causing Smith to resort to his third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie, who wasn’t even on the Bears’ 45-man roster.

It was with Hanie that the Bears finally started to put up a fight on offense. They could have pulled off (arguably) one of the biggest upsets in playoff history had it not been for No. 2 on this list (the unheralded defenders of Green Bay).

If you’re keeping score, the Bears’ quarterbacks went from hero to zero to zero eeto almost hero, but not quite.

3. Big Ben, underrated?

As previously mentioned, Big Ben is one of a select few quarterbacks to lead his team to the playoffs in his first two seasons in the NFL. He has also won two rings in his first four years.

In fact, Roethlisberger has an astounding 10-2 postseason record, second only to Bart Starr (who had an amazing 9-1 playoff record).

With this kind of playoff winning percentage, you’d assume Big Ben’s name would come up when discussing the top quarterbacks in the league, right?

Surprisingly, many top QB lists at the beginning of the season failed to include Roethlisberger in the conversation, including Troy Aikman’s list. I guess people just don’t like him, because his numbers and his rings should speak for themselves.

Whether or not he’s listed as a top 10 quarterback, if Big Ben wins on Sunday, he will solidify his spot among the greatest QBs of all time.

2. Strong play from Packers defenders not named Charles Woodson

Charles Woodson was last year’s Defensive Player of the Year. He led the league with nine interceptions (three of which were run back for touchdowns).

This year was considered a down year for him, even though he made the Pro Bowl. If anyone else put up numbers like he did (92 tackles, 2 interceptions and 5 forced fumbles), it would be considered a great year. However, unlike last season, Woodson was not the glue that held the Packers' defense together this year.

Surprisingly, the young defense, in just its second year under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, held its own and stepped up when it counted most.

Fourth-year cornerback Tramon Williams had two interceptions (one of which was returned for a touchdown) in the Packers’ Wild Card win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Rookie CB Sam Shields had a sack that led to a fumble to go along with two picks in the NFC Championship game against the Bears. And second-year defensive tackle B.J. Raji put the nail in the coffin for the Bears with a pick-6 that led to one of the most talked-about touchdown celebrations all year.

In other words, the Packers have many terrific defenders not named Charles Woodson.

Speaking of which, we can’t forget the up-and-coming star of the Packers’ D…

1. The Super Bowl brought to you by Head & Shoulders

Clay Matthews, with his luxurious locks of golden hair, has been instrumental in leading the Packers’ defense to the Super Bowl.

But Matthews is not the only long-haired stallion to lead his defense to the championship game. We have none other than the Head & Shoulders spokesman himself, Troy Polamalu, involved as well.

These two fast, hard-hitting, former USC stars have been the best defenders in the NFL this season. In fact, just this past Monday, the Associated Press voted Polamalu the Defensive Player of the Year with 17 votes -- Matthews finished a close second with 15 votes.

As leaders of their respective defenses, Polamalu and Matthews helped their teams into the top 5 in multiple defensive categories, including total yards (second and fifth, respectively), sacks (first and second), interceptions (fifth and second), and opponent scoring (first and second).

Many people will talk about Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers and how they will be the biggest factors on Sunday. But the real story is going to be defense in this game -- who will be able to contain these QBs more effectively?

Personally, I’m excited for this game and even more excited for the possibility of a great Head & Shoulders commercial that includes both Pro Bowlers.

To reach Victor Marticorena, click here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.