The Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks meeting for the NFL championship Sunday completes the first non-glamour grand slam of the Super Bowl era. As of Sunday night, the most recent championship final of the four major North American team sports will have been contested without a drop of glitter.
Maybe you can find the glitz in the Chicago White Sox vs. the Houston Astros, the San Antonio Spurs vs. the Detroit Pistons or — cast your mind back, people — the Calgary Flames vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning, but it escaped most of the rest of us.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to fit this decided lack of Yankees, Lakers, Red Wings and Patriots, this absence of Red Sox, Rangers, Canadiens and Colts, into a larger societal trend of dull sobriety in the entertainment realm. It would be the same trend that’s made outrageous outfits extinct on Oscar night and turned our rock stars from drug-addled peacocks into well-groomed corporate spokespeople.
But alas, teams don’t win or lose because of societal trends. If Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers hadn’t made a shoestring tackle on a crazy fumble-return play three weeks ago in Indianapolis, the highflying Colts might have been playing Sunday.
If Dwyane Wade hadn’t gotten injured in the Eastern Conference finals, the super-glam Miami Heat might have played the San Antonio Spurs in the last NBA Finals.
But even if it’s nothing more than coincidence, it’s been refreshing to watch this run of the non-mediagenic over the last year and change, if for no other reason than that it’s fun to listen to the commentariat whine about the lack of buzz while television executives explain through clenched teeth that, no, contrary to what you might think, they’re happy with these ratings, that the World Series doesn’t necessarily have to beat syndicated “Full House” reruns in the ratings to be considered a success.
The TV people might not like it, but it’s a nice benefit for sports fans that non-glam teams in the big games keep the riffraff away. Fewer grubby hands in the chip bowl and less likelihood of someone asking if we can see what else is on with the score tied in the third quarter.
So here are the Steelers, champions of the AFC and my pick to win Sunday, in case you’re getting impatient.
The Steelers are the epitome of Rust Belt, blue-collar grit. With a strong defense, an emphasis on the run, a square-jawed coach and a human battering ram as their most famous player, the Steelers are the personification of their town.
The Seahawks have the league MVP, a dazzling offense and at least one budding superstar linebacker, but they’re the personification of their town too. That is, the town that gets no love from the national sports media, unless you’re talking about the national sports media in Japan.
For those of you on the East Coast, Seattle is located in the Pacific Northwest. Go west till you see surfboards, then hang a right.
So what about the game?
The game? Wait, I haven’t even talked about the Rolling Stones yet.
Oh, all right, if we must.
This is the most evenly matched Super Bowl since — last year. But more people seem to agree this time that this game has a good chance of being a close one. The Steelers are favored by about four points, which I think is mostly a reflection of people’s reluctance to put money on a team, Seattle, that they don’t know that well.
The Steelers are playing terrific football in the playoffs. Not coincidentally, they’ve shed their identity as a team that runs first, then runs some more later.
Ben Roethlisberger came out throwing in Indianapolis, and did it again in the AFC title game in Denver. The Steelers, I keep saying, are a better passing team than they are a running team. Their newfound success through the air isn’t simply a matter of the element of surprise working. Roethlisberger’s a good quarterback who makes accurate throws to a strong set of receivers.
Hines Ward is the star, but Antwaan Randle El is dangerous, and Cedrick Wilson has been playing well in this new paradigm. Tight end Heath Miller has been effective over the middle. The Steelers line has handled the rush well and given Roethlisberger time to make his throws.
If the Steelers get a lead, they’ll hand off to poster boy Jerome Bettis and speed back Willie Parker, neither of whom is as effective a weapon as Roethlisberger is through the air. They’d be better off sticking to the strategy that got them that lead in the first place, if you ask me, but Bill Cowher didn’t get to be the longest-tenured coach in the NFL by listening to me.
The Seahawks’ front seven won’t make it easy for the Steelers to run. This is an outstanding group, led by rookie phenom linebacker Lofa Tatupu. They’re not just stout against the run, either. They led the league in sacks.
If Seattle has a weakness on defense, it’s in the secondary. But that secondary shut down the league’s best receiver, Steve Smith of Carolina, in the NFC Championship Game. They’ll have to work harder against the Steelers, who have more weapons, but Roethlisberger will have to be at his best for the Steelers to move the ball.
On defense, the Steelers have held some pretty good offenses in check in the postseason, though after the first series they only had to stop Cincinnati’s Jon Kitna, not Carson Palmer. Pittsburgh’s zone blitzing scheme was invented to combat the very type of offense Seattle runs, a fairly pure version of the “West Coast” offense as run by Bill Walsh, mentor to Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren.
The Steelers will try to disrupt the timing of the Seahawks’ offense by disguising where they attack quarterback Matt Hasselbeck from, making it difficult for him to make his reads and get off the quick throws that are a hallmark of the West Coast offense.
The 3-4 formation the Steelers use makes it difficult to tell who the fourth rusher will be. Everyone’s a candidate. Safety Troy Polamalu spends more time in opposing backfields than some defensive ends do.
Hasselbeck directs one of the league’s best and most balanced offenses for the Seahawks. Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram and Joe Jurevicius are a solid corps of receivers, and tight end Jerramy Stevens, a first-round pick four years ago, has finally started living up to his promise.
Then there’s running back Shaun Alexander, Most Valuable Player in the league and setter of rushing-touchdown records. And there’s an elite offensive line, particularly the left side of tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson. Alexander’s a cutback runner who likes to start right, then go left, where Jones and Hutchinson have sealed everybody off. The Steelers can’t be too aggressive pursuing the run or Alexander will burn them.
Oh, and just for good measure, fullback Mack Strong made the Pro Bowl.
Close games often come down to special teams, and the one clear advantage in that area goes to the Steelers when Seattle is punting. The Seahawks are shaky on coverage — Smith burned them for a touchdown two weeks ago — and Randle El is one of the league’s better punt return men, one of a half dozen who averaged better than 10 yards a runback and the only one who took two back for touchdowns.
I’m betting on this game’s continuing the recent trend of down-to-the-wire Super Bowls. There won’t be as many non-football rubes as usual at your Super Bowl party this year, but you’ve got a good chance of looking pretty smart to them if you start talking about Josh Brown of the Seahawks or Jeff Reed of the Steelers as soon as you show up. They’re the kickers, and game could be decided by the foot of one or the other.
I think the Steelers will get a lead through the passing game and clinch the win with a big defensive play or two down the stretch. If that happens — and if he shaves off that scraggly beard — Ben Roethlisberger will be the NFL’s next glamour boy.
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