The main storyline heading into Sunday's game is the Steelers' experience vs. the young, charging 6th seed that rolled through three road games to get here. It means a lot that this is Pittsburgh's third visit to the biggest game on the planet in the past six years, while only two Packers have ever played on this stage.
It means a lot between now and kickoff. Once the game begins, it's a game. A big game, yes, but experience goes out the window when you start hitting people. Everyone was ready to crown the unbeaten Patriots a few years ago, until young Eli Manning and an "inexperienced" Giants team shocked Belichick, Brady and the world. Give me momentum every time and the Packers have it.
What will really matter are the results of five key matchups. Whichever team wins the majority of these duels will be world champs:
1. Chad Clifton vs. James Harrison Clifton has faced elite pas rushers throughout the playoff and has more than held his own against the likes of Trent Cole, John Abraham and Julius Peppers (except for whiffing that one time on Peppers, allowing the helmet to helmet hit that dazed and bloodied Rodgers). He'd better be ready for Harrison, who finished third in the defensive player of the year derby, but had the credentials to win it. He makes his biggest plays in the biggest games and he'll come at you every play. If the Packers try to spread out and go four and five wide, it will give Harrison an easier path to Rodgers. Clifton has to win this matchup, or else Rodgers will be running for his life all night.
2. Bryan Bulaga vs. Lamarr Woodley While we're at it, things are just as intriguing on the right side, where the Packer rookie has grown by leaps and bounds but at 21, needs to harness all of his excitement and nervousness and keep the veteran Woodley away from Rodgers. If the Packers are stacking the WRs, Bulaga won't have a lot of help and needs to contain the Steelers' "other" pass rushing linebacker.
3. B.J. Raji vs. Doug Legursky This one is tilted the Packers' way. Though rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey has not been officially ruled out as I write this, all reports point to the former undrafted lineman out of Marshall replacing him. Yes, I know, he's a capable guy. He's started a bit at guard and filled in capably in the AFC Title game. But now he has to handle an emerging star in Raji who is big enough to eat up the space of two and agile enough to get to Roethlisberger. The Steelers will no doubt give Legursky help in this matchup, which could pave the way for a guy like Cullen Jenkins to make plays.
4. Clay Matthews III vs. Flozell Adams Sorry, Steelers fans, this is not 2001. This is not the Cowboys version of Flozell Adams. He's filled in adequately on the right side, but Matthews has way too much speed and intensity for Adams to handle. The question will be whether Matthews can wrap up and bring down Big Ben, because he will get to him.
5. Jones & Nelson vs. Gay & Madison If Rodgers has time on Sunday, the passing game should feast on this secondary. Greg Jennings should have his way with Bryant McFadden. But I get the feeling either James Jones or Jordy Nelson is going to make a name for himself Sunday. In William Gay and Anthony Madison, a couple of short-ish corners, the Steelers find themselves vulnerable. We know it will be a fast track; Rodgers gets to wear his comfy leather shoes and he'll come out slinging it. As Kurt Warner learned too late in Super Bowl XLIII, by putting a bunch of WRs on the field, the Steelers are forced to change the way they line-up and there will be mismatches. Nelson has been great, particularly on third downs in the playoffs and Jones is due for one of his good games in his roller coaster season. The plays will be there for both of them.
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