Super Bowl XL is classic match-up

Jan 24, 2006 3:46 AM

Super Bowl XL is set: it’s Pittsburgh vs. Seattle. The blue-collar workingman’s city versus the chic, coffee drinking techno babies of the 21st century.

While the cultural contrast of both cities’ populations are stark and quite clear, their football teams have advanced to Detroit in nearly identical fashion. Each posted exactly 34 points in winning their Conference Championship games. And both were quite convincing in triumph to set up a most intriguing Super Bowl XL in Detroit on February 5.

Pittsburgh became only the second team to advance to the Super Bowl by winning three straight road games in the playoffs. The 1985 New England Patriots followed a similar route to Super Bowl XX before being blown away by the Chicago Bears 46-10. Ironically, Carolina was in position to do the same thing had they been able to win at Seattle.

The Steelers are the first No. 6 seed to advance to the Super Bowl and had to defeat the teams seeded one, two and three to do so. Especially impressive about Pittsburgh’s win in Denver was that it followed hugely emotional wins against first Division rival Cincinnati and then in seeking to avenge the worst loss of the regular season in Indianapolis.

Seattle was the team to beat in the NFC for most of the season once Philadelphia was ravaged by injuries and Owenitis. Despite playing in the weak NFC West the Seahawks were second only to Indianapolis in points differential, considerably ahead of the rest of the league. They took early control of the NFC Championship game against Carolina, building a 17-0 on the first play of the second quarter lead and never letting the Panthers back into the game.

The AFC continues to be the superior of the two conferences. But just how much better is the AFC? Consider that in 2004 the regular season saw AFC teams win 44 of 64 regular season games against the NFC. That’s an incredible 69 percent winners that was increased further when New England defeated Philadelphia in the Super Bowl.

But the gap between the conferences narrowed considerably this season with the AFC winning 34 of 64 regular season games between the conferences, or just 53 percent.

Nevertheless, the AFC’s sixth seeded team, Pittsburgh, opened a four-point favorite over the NFC’s top seed, Seattle. Clearly much more respect is being accorded to the Steelers and the path they have traveled to Detroit than to the season long dominance the Seahawks displayed in winning 13 of 16 regular season games and then earning a pair of double digit home playoff wins.

The Over/Under for the game opened at 48 and was played down to 47 at most books within the first dozen hours of action.

As has been the case throughout playoff history, the Super Bowl has tended to be one sided with the average margin of victory being 13.7 points. Although they have been more competitive Super Bowls in recent years, the game still tends to produce double digit wins.

New England won each of the past two Super Bowls by exactly three points and their first win, over the St Louis Rams, was also by 3 points. But in the other 12 Super Bowls played since the NFL expanded the playoffs in 1990 to include a dozen teams, nine have been decided by 10 or more points.

Historically the pointspread has not mattered in the Super Bowl — just pick the winner of the game and you’ll cash your bet. But that has changed recently and New England failed to cover in both of their last two wins. Against both Carolina and Philadelphia the Patriots were favored by 7 points and won each by a FG.

There are some interesting story lines that will receive much media attention in the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XL. Pittsburgh RB Jerome Bettis — whose last fumble nearly proved fatal against the Colts — returns to his hometown of Detroit seeking his first Super Bowl win in what is thought to be the final game of his Hall of Fame career.

Steeler coach Bill Cowher is coaching in his second Super Bowl, looking to win for the first time. Seattle coach Mike Holm-gren is the fifth coach to take a second franchise to the Super Bowl. His Green Bay Packers were victorious in Super Bowl XXXI.

Although Pittsburgh is making its sixth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history (winning the first four before losing to Dallas in XXX) they really have little experience edge over Seattle, making its first Super Bowl trip. The most significant experience on either team is held by the aforementioned head coaches.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be the second youngest QB to start a Super Bowl (Dan Marino was the youngest) while Seattle signal caller Matt Hasselbeck has quietly become a two time Pro Bowl QB. Both have been overshadowed by bigger names in the sport but Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb will all be spectators this year.

Much will be made about Roethlisberger’s outstanding record as a starting QB in his brief two season career and about how Pittsburgh has been a dominant road team over the past two season (16-3 away from home, including Playoffs). Seattle will be "criticized" for playing a soft schedule and we can expect much of the early opinions to favor the Steelers to win the game, as is reflected in the pointspread.

But it never is that easy. The two weeks of preparation time is a great equalizer. Underdog Seattle will have two weeks to stew over their supposed "lack of respect" and to prepare to combat Pittsburgh’s strengths. Similarly, the Steelers have two week’s to devise a game plan to exploit Seattle’s weaknesses.

Next week a more thorough analysis and a prediction will be offered for Super Bowl XL and some thoughts on the voluminous number of proposition bets offered by most sports books in Las Vegas and around the world.