The Steelers, a perennial NFL power, sport a 14-4 record as the No. 2 seed in the AFC. How is that they have been established as the underdog against the NFC's No. 6 seed? The conventional wisdom is that Pittsburgh can't keep up with the Packers' explosive four-wide sets in a domed Cowboys Stadium.
Let's twist that around. The last time these two teams met in December of 2009, they combined for 973 total yards in an aerial circus. Ben Roethlisberger became just the 10th quarterback since 1950 to top 500 yards in a game, emerging victorious in the back-and-forth shootout.
Officially replacing Tom Brady as the playoff winner of this quarterback generation, Roethlisberger isn't running the "halfcourt" offense of your father's Steel Curtain. Not only has Big Ben never been held under 20 points in a playoff game, his team has averaged 28 points in his two postseason losses. In fact, his weapons are arguably superior to the gamebreakers at Aaron Rodgers' disposal.
Despite their reputation as a smashmouth, run-first team, the Steelers were No. 2 in the NFL in generating splash plays down the field this season while Roethlisberger led the league in deep-pass percentage. No active quarterback has a higher career yards-per-attempt average than Roethlisberger's 8.04, and that figure has jumped to 8.5 over the past two years.
In other words, the Steelers' identity has shifted from a hard hat, ground `n' pound attack to one relying on an elite passer, aggressive play-calling, and dangerous playmakers. Mike Tomlin has eschewed tradition in pairing a physically dominant defense with a high-risk, high-octane offense.
The best receiver in the Super Bowl and the key to Pittsburgh's downfield derring-do is Mike Wallace, dubbed the fastest player ever caught on tape by one NFL insider. After a rookie year in which he led the NFL with an average of 19.4 yards per catch, Wallace graduated to 21.0 yards per catch in 2010 while leading the league in receiving yards in the season's second half. The big-play threat won't sneak up on Green Bay, however. The first and last plays of the Steelers' victory over the Packers in December of 2009 were 60- and 19-yard scores from Wallace.
Ward and Roethlisberger may have a sixth sense when plays break down, but it won't be a surprise if a pair of rookies, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, come through with the pivotal play at Dallas. Sanders and Brown quietly pushed past declining veteran Antwaan Randle El in three- and four-wide sets late in the season. Sanders recorded 24 of his 28 catches and 300 of his 376 yards in the final two months. His explosive movements and dangerous after-the-catch ability lend the offense a quick-strike element that was missing in September and October.
Packers tailback James Starks, the 193rd pick in the 2010 draft, has rightfully been credited with helping to balance his team's offense, but the 195th pick in the same draft may be an even more unlikely hero. After entering the month of December with just two receptions, Brown finished the regular season with 14 catches over the final five games. Taking advantage of that momentum, he set up the game-winning score against the Ravens with a 58-yard reception on third-and-19 and finished off the Jets with a decisive third-and-six grab. Roethlisberger's fourth option in four-receiver sets is emerging as the picture of reliability.
The Packers may have the most balanced set of receivers in the NFL, as parroted among beat writers as well as bar flies, but the Steelers' crew is deeper and more dangerous.
Coordinator Bruce Arians' unit boasts the league's money quarterback, its fastest receiver, one of just 10 players in NFL history with over 1,000 playoff receiving yards, two explosive rookies, and a fine all-around tight-end. To boot, fifth receiver Antwaan Randle El owns a career 156.1 passer rating as a gimmick specialist. Cheesehead faithful pulling for an indoor track meet may be in for a surprise when reality pushes back against perception.