Super Bowl 2011 forecast: 60 minutes of chaos

Super Bowl 2011 features two defenses unrivaled at creating havoc and two quarterbacks uniquely equipped to handle it.

Mike Fabus/AP/File
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Patrick Bailey (No. 55) tackles Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (No. 87) during a 2009 NFL football game. The teams meet again for Super Bowl XLV on Sunday.

In Super Bowl XLV, there will almost certainly come a moment when Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks out over the Pittsburgh Steelers defense and is utterly bewildered.

Equally certain, there will come a play when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger drops back to pass only to find that everything he had planned to do has gone completely and spectacularly wrong.

And that is when things will get fun.

Yes, Rodgers and Roethlisberger will have the customary numbers on their jerseys on Feb. 6 in Dallas. But in truth, what will really be on their backs are giant red X's, because they will be the targets of perhaps the two fiercest and most confusing defenses in pro football.

The Super Bowl forecast: 60 minutes of chaos.

Lining up against each other are two teams that are each the image of the other. The Packers and Steelers are franchises as storied as any in the National Football League, boasting defenses almost diabolical in their design – complex equations of hurtling men that quarterbacks must decipher in the space of a "Jeopardy!" click or risk a helmetful of snarling man flesh. For even the best quarterbacks, it can be duck-and-cover football.

Yet in Rodgers and Roethlisberger, the Packers and Steelers have the ideal antidotes to the very havoc that their defenses are so adept at creating. They are Houdinis in shoulder pads, masters of improvisation who are at their best when everything is at its worst.

It is a recipe for engrossing football, with most snaps of the ball poised between glory and catastrophe, and the small matter of a Super Bowl title at stake.

"Both teams are high risk, high reward," says Vinnie Iyer of the Sporting News. "Sometimes we'll see a big loss; sometimes we'll see a great escape."

The parallels between the teams border on the eerie. The Packers have won the most NFL championships. The Steelers have won the most Super Bowls. The Packers were the team of the 1960s. The Steelers were the team of the 1970s. Both embody the character of the towns they represent in the Rust Belt – the cradle of pro football.

Indeed, both inspire almost unrivaled devotion among their fans, meaning that, for the first time in recent memory, the Super Bowl could have the feel of an actual football game – not just an excuse for expensive beer commercials and a half-time show.

"No two fan bases travel better than these two," says Eli Kaberon of Pro Football Weekly.

But it is on the field where these mirror images could intertwine so intriguingly. Pittsburgh and Green Bay come in as Nos. 1 and 2 in quarterback sacks, as well as for fewest points allowed.

The Steelers have linebacker James Harrison, a player who would probably play in a studded collar if the league would allow it. When the NFL announced midseason that it would start clamping down on violent hits, he briefly considered retirement. He is a wrecking ball in black and gold, an earthquake on two feet.

He is countered by Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who was recently voted the Sporting News defensive player of the year because no one has yet devised how to stop him. He is a ball-seeking missile, attacking not so much with raw power but with the speed and elusiveness of a tailback, golden hair flying like a comet's tail.

Among other Packers-Steelers similarities: Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu, whose freakish natural instincts have led him to leap an entire offensive line to sack the quarterback, finds a reflection in Packers defensive back Charles Woodson, who is perhaps the closest thing to a football bird of prey, blitzing the quarterback and picking off incautious passes.

"Both defenses come from the same family tree," says Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders, a website. They are fast and they are versatile, and that means they can be deployed in any number of mind-bogglingly bizarre ways.

For instance, in the decisive play of the NFC Championship game Jan. 23, the Packers had 337-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji drop back to cover receivers half his size and twice his speed. The sheer oddity of the decision confused the Chicago Bears quarterback, who never saw Raji and mistakenly threw the ball right to him.

Raji ran the interception back for a touchdown. The Packers won by those seven points.

In many ways, the Packers will meet their match in Roethlisberger. A behemoth of a quarterback at 6-foot 5-inches and 241 pounds, he often appears to be a Gulliver of the backfield, toting hapless defenders on his back as he shuffles around the pocket before at last heaving the ball downfield.

For his part, Rodgers is less monster-truck rally and more artful dodger, eluding trouble long enough for passing lanes to open downfield.

A year ago, this quarterback Oscar-and-Felix act resulted in one of the most remarkable games of the 2009 regular season: a 37-36 Steelers win, with Roethlisberger throwing a 19-yard touchdown pass on the game's final play.

It was, perhaps, a hint of things to come. "Both of these guys are really great after the play breaks down at making something out of nothing," Mr. Kaberon says. "Their improvisational skills will play a big factor."

Adds Mr. Tanier: "These two guys are going to do something truly different."

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