Super Bowl XL - Verdict
Certainly two plays will be on highlight reels for years to come: Willie Parker's simple run over tackle that, thanks to Alan Faneca's block, became a record 75-yard dash to the endzone and the run-reverse-option-pass that saw Antwaan Randle El toss the winning touchdown to Hines Ward.
Besides those moments for the ages, though, Pittsburgh won ugly. Ben Roethlisberger looked nervous all day, struggling under the pressure generated as the running game in the first half managed to generate just 15 yards from star backs Parker and the retiring – in only one sense of the word - Jerome Bettis. On just one play, the converted third-and-28 just before the half when he rolled away from pressure, decided against scrambling then found Ward on the three-yard line, did Big Ben look like the player who has bailed out Pittsburgh's stuttering rushers throughout the playoffs.
Seattle had the game for the taking, with Shaun Alexander averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Unfortunately, their receivers just could not come up with key plays at key times. Despite his third-quarter touchdown, tight end Jerramy Stevens was the biggest culprit with two key drops. Darrell Jackson was an effective rapier early on, with five first-quarter catches, but Pittsburgh adjusted and he became anonymous.
If there was one key play, though, it came with 11'34 left in the game, with Seattle down by just four points and marching against a tiring Pittsburgh defense. In 13 plays they had moved 75 yards and faced just one third down play, but a Casey Hampton sack put the pressure on Seattle passer Matt Hasselbeck to come up big on third and 18 from the 27-yard line. Ike Taylor stood up for the interception to set up the Randle El score that iced the game.
Do not expect Seattle to get another shot next year, even though their defense has several more good years in it. Alexander has smiled more as the side has been successful, but he was last summer forced to sign a one-year deal under the "franchise tag" regulations and will take plenty of persuading to come back for more especially as, at 28, this is his last chance to sign a big deal to see him into retirement. The patch-work passing game came together in support but more pressure will relegate them once again to the merely average.
Pittsburgh have never won a single Super Bowl before as their first four came in pairs - IX and X then XIII and XIV – but there is a first time for everything, especially as the running game has been living on borrowed time since the midpoint of this season. If Parker is to be the back of the future he has to improve his acceleration as he is too often stopped in his first three steps. Only once in this heralded season has he run for more than 100 yards against quality opposition. Randle El is up for free agency and Steelers owner Dan Rooney has in the past appeared to follow a the old-school policy of throwing nickels around like man hole covers. If their star utility player is re-signed and Roethlisberger shows some more of that early post-season form, the Steelers could be back in contention, just contention.
Super Bowl XL - What to look for
Shaun Alexander #37, RB, Seahawks
The NFL's Most Valuable Player, Alexander rushed for a league-leading 1,880 yards during the regular season. Critics say he can't run over defenders but he boasts speed and sharp moves too, and it is significant that Seattle did not lose a regular season game when he ran for 100 yards or more. Teams are unable to adjust their defensive schemes to combat him because of an above-average passing attack, led by quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
Ben Roethlisberger, # 7, QB, Steelers
During the regular season, Pittsburgh ran the ball more often than any other team in the last 20 yards - around 57% of the time - but without "Big Ben" they are useless. Roethlisberger, at 23 the second youngest quarterback to play in a Super Bowl after Dan Marino, struggled with knee trouble in mid-season and the Steelers lost three successive games. A rookie sensation in 2004, he went 15 games before tasting defeat but struggled with the pressure in the post-season. This year he has been outstanding in negotiating play-off victories over Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver. While not the most mobile of quarterbacks, he has the stature to shrug off tacklers and can make the right move at the right time to get his passes away.
Keys to the game
Attacking on the ground with Alexander may be a successful tactic but it is too easy to defend when used predictably so the Seahawks are likely to establish the pass first. Hasselbeck is likely to use "play action", faking the run to get defenders to bite before looking for a receiver like Darrell Jackson or Joe Jurevicius. Once on top, Seattle will then unleash Alexander, behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. Pittsburgh must find success by confusing the linemen and Hasselbeck, using exotic blitzes and coverage, and strong safety Troy Polamalu will play a part in both.
Despite the reputation of rushers Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis - playing his last professional game in his home city - the Steelers tend not to be successful on the ground early on. Parker in particular has struggled when trying to run out of the backfield, so Roethlisberger will try to get him involved using short "screen" passes behind a shield of linemen. Tight end Heath Mills could also play a large part in the first couple of drives as Pittsburgh look to start in high gear. They are unable to blow a game open conventionally because of the balance of their offence but may try to use an unorthodox "gadget play", probably involving elusive receiver Antwaan Randle El. The longer Pittsburgh keep the score line close, the better their chance of victory, so Seattle will aim to stifle the run and hope for an interception in the first half to open the gap. Either way, linebacker Lofa Tatupu could play a part, whether stuffing the run or ball-hawking in coverage.
Both have strong running games, solid quarterbacks and speedy defences, but Seattle's offensive balance just tips the game in their favour and they should come out on top, 28-14.
(Season so far 15-6; playoffs 8-2)
Super Bowl XL - Trivia
The teams compete for the Lombardi Trophy, named after Vince Lombardi, coach of the Green Bay Packers, who won the first two AFL-NFL titles, and progenitor of the maxim "Winning isn't everything: It's the only thing".
Two run-dominated teams will have their eyes on the Super Bowl records for rushing yards – 204, set by Timmy Smith of the Redskins in 1988 - and for rushing touchdowns – three, by Bronco Terrell Davis 10 years later.
With the demands of TV, Super Bowl kick-offs have been moved gradually later in search of a prime time audience on the east coast. The current 6.30pm EST start time has been standard for the last 20 years. The game to end before local sunset was Super Bowl XI in January 1977.
This will also be the colourful John Madden's 10th overall Super Bowl broadcast as colour commentator, and also his last for ABC, whose association with the sport ends this year after 36 seasons. Monday Night Football moves to its sister channel ESPN next year, and former Raiders coach Madden moves to NBC to broadcast the Sunday night game.
This looks set to be just the fifth time in Super Bowl history that a lower-seeded team has been favourite to win as the Steelers are currently favours by four points. The previous occurrences were SBs XXXIX (Patriots), XXXV (Ravens), XXIII (49ers), and XVII (Dolphins). The Dolphins lost to the Redskins, but all the others were successful.
On a rotating system, it is the AFC's turn to be deemed home team but the Steelers have chosen to break with tradition and wear white after their resounding playoff success on the road, where they have been forced into the traditional colour for visiting teams. The Cowboys (SB XXVII) and Redskins (XVII) both won having chosen to wear white, but Dallas lost to Pittsburgh as the home side in 1979.
As the home of the motor industry, Detroit has recorded several car-related firsts. It sawthe first mile of paved concrete road laid, just north of Henry Ford's Model T plant in 1909, the USA's first traffic light installed in 1915 and was the site for the building of the nation’s first urban freeway in 1942.
Detroit has been home to the Lions since xx but they have yet to reach the Super Bowl, having won the last of four NFL titles back in 1957. As the Portsmouth (Mi) Spartans, they played the NFL's first playoff game in 1932, a loss to Chicago Bears that gave impetus to a move to create a Championship Game the following season.
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Super Bowl XL - Team talking points
Pittsburgh is in the heart of blue-collar Pennsylvania and its team personifies that perfectly. After a big day at the racetrack, Art Rooney bought a franchise from the NFL for $2,500 (£1,400) in 1933, the year the Pennsylvania Blue Laws banning Sunday play were repealed. His team were known as the Pirates, after the baseball side, for their first six years until the Steelers were born. Even though it is now valued at $717 million, the club is still in the Rooney family with Art's 74-year-old son Dan as chairman and his offspring scattered through the organisation. They have had just two head coaches since 1969 in Chuck Noll, who led them to four Super Bowl rings in the 1970s and Bill Cowher, who took the helm in 1992 and is leading the quest for "one for the thumb" 10 years after their last appearance in the big game, a loss to Dallas in Arizona.
Twenty-two former Steelers are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, from Johnny (Blood) McNally, the tearaway halfback of the 1930s, to quarterback Terry Bradshaw, architect of those four Super Bowl triumphs and now a genial TV host.
Pittsburgh's route to the big game has been a rollercoaster, their wildcard playoff place only secured thanks to four straight wins to end the regular season, followed by emotional victories on the road in Cincinnati, Indianapolis – in one of the most exciting games ever played – and Denver.
By contrast, Seattle's road to Detroit has been serene, characterised by grinding displays on home turf in front of a deafening crowd to beat Washington and Carolina in the playoffs. But look at the bigger picture and their journey to the big game has been a long one.
You could be watching the Los Angeles Seahawks this weekend had former owner Ken Behring had his way in 1996 and moved the team south. The team were only formed in 1976 when the NFL expanded to 28 teams, and enjoyed early success that took them to the 1984 AFC Championship Game, lost to Oakland. In the midst of dotcom country 13 years later, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen rescued them from a fate worse than California and began to rebuild a side of championship-calibre.
Just three hall-of-famers have played for the Seahawks and one, Franco Harris, spent just one season in Seattle after a career in Pittsburgh. Their lone legend is wide receiver Steve Largent, who retired in 1990 with every major career record for receivers and went on to run for Governor in Oklahoma in 2002.
One Super Bowl contender has tradition, the other has become suddenly fashionable but their teams are very similar. Both rely heavily on the running game backed up by quarterbacks who have come of age this post-season. Both have muscular receivers who will fight for the ball like defensive backs and both have aggressive defenses that combine blitzing with speed in coverage. Old versus new or man versus man, this is shaping up as a classic contest.
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Super Bowl XL - Why it matters
Super Bowl XL
Pittsburgh Steelers v Seattle Seahawks
Ford Field, Detriot
Sunday, 5 February
1830 EST on ABC / 2330 GMT on Sky Sports 1 and ITV 1
No game of football matters more but the Super Bowl is not only the high-profile finale of the NFL season. It is an unofficial American holiday, with the whole country grinding to a halt for Super Sunday. No other major sport has a one-off final - basketball, baseball and ice hockey all play best-of-seven series - so this is the one chance the sporting public gets to watch the two best teams in their given field go head-to-head in a winner-takes-all playoff.
Not only are the top 10 most-watched TV programmes ever in the US all Super Bowls, but the last two feature in the top five, with the 144,400,000 who watched New England's victory over Carolina in 2004 the best ever. An estimated billion people will watch world-wide. It's not surprising that a 30-second slot on ABC this Sunday will cost $2.4 million (£1.36m), with many advertisers coming out with commercials specially shot for the event.
On top of it all, this is the 40th enactment of a game that was conceived as an end-of-season spin-off, pitting the champions of the long-established, prestigious NFL against those of the upstart American Football League. The Los Angeles Coliseum was just two-third full for the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game to see the old guard Green Bay Packers knock off the new boy Kansas City Chiefs. The Packers' real test had come two weekends earlier, when they beat the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL title. Appropriately, the term "Super Bowl" was first applied for the third contest, when the AFL's New York Jets ushered in the era of parity by knocking off the Baltimore Colts. An echo of the college bowl games that have littered New Year since the turn of the century, the title apocryphally came from the"Super Ball" toy owned by one of AFL bigwig Lamar Hunt's children.
In 2006, tickets with a face value of $600 (£340) are changing hands for four times that amount, according to Pittsburgh radio, and there will not be a spare seat in the whole of 64,500-capacity Ford Field, which opened as a new home for the Detroit Lions in 2002. The game's second visit to the city (San Francisco beat Cincinnati in the Silverdome in 1982) is expected to generate something like $370 million for the depressed area in the "rust belt" formerly dominated by manufacturing industry and also provides Detroit with a stage rarely accorded a northern city as this is just the third time the big game has been played away from the sunshine states of the south and west.
The Steelers and Seahawks have been part of a massive pageant this week, from the circus of media day on Monday - "Is it your mother who’s blind, and your father who’s deaf," Raiders QB Jim Plunkett was asked in 1981, "or the other way around?" - to the music marathon on Sunday, which features Patti LaBelle before kick-off and the Rolling Stones at half-time. The result seems like an afterthought, but it will go down in history as one of the most memorable games ever whatever happens on the field.
Championship games - verdict
NFL Most Valuable Player Shaun Alexander gained the plaudits for a 132-yard game with two touchdowns, but it was quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and the Seattle defense who deserved them after ensuring the Seahawks make their first ever trip to the last game of the season, while Carolina are denied their second visit in three years.
Hasselbeck was perfect in the first two drives of the game, completing all nine of his passes, culminating in a score over the middle to tight end Jerramy Stevens, set up by a cheeky hook to back-up QB Seneca Wallace, who was lined up wide. Hasselback kept his head in the face of a fearsome effort from the Panthers' front seven, and muscular receivers Stevens and Darrell Jackson helped by hauling in 12 passes between them.
Meanwhile the Hawks' defense held Carolina to 68 yards total offense in the first half, by which time they were 20-7 up. Rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu was outstanding in coverage, although the headlines are likely to centre on the tackle that knocked third-choice back Nick Goings out of the game and took Carolina's chances of running the ball with it. Honestly, though, Goings had managed two yards on five attempts until that jarring collision, and it was more the Carolina offensive line that was to blame for not making any forward progress against the Seattle front four.
Carolina's hopes rested on Steve Smith but they finally came up against a side that knew how to deal with him, loading different coverage schemes in his direction all the time and also putting pressure on QB Jake Delhomme. Naturally, the Panthers' only score with the game still in the balance came from Smith, brought in as a punt returner in a desperate attempt to spark something on the visitors' behalf. With Stephen Davis' career apparently on the decline and DeShaun Foster looking like a career back-up, Carolina may have to have a serious shake-up before they reach this stage again. Smith was outstanding all season but he can't be over-used as he has been without suffering physically. Right now, he is not the only Panther suffering.
Steelers 34-17 Broncos
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was brilliant and Pittsburgh's defense wonderfully unpredictable, their rushing game was woeful but they're going all the way to Detroit while Denver look for the missing piece of the puzzle.
The billed battle between the running games saw Denver come out on top, emphatically. Pittsburgh ran 33 times for 90 yards at a miserable average of 2.7, compared to the Broncos' 21 for 97 at 4.6. The home side came out running and could have really established their dominance had quarterback Jake Plummer just done what he had all season, fill in the gaps and not make mistakes. Instead, two first-half Plummer turnovers left the Broncos in a hole that no running game in the world could get them out of.
The proverbial short field after those turnovers helped Pittsburgh no end. They took over on the Denver 39 after Plummer's fumble and the 38 after Ike Taylor's interception - 79 yards for 14 points is a massive bargain. Roethlisberger was made to work by an aggressive Denver defense. There were no big plays on offer but he found the right people at the right times, often taking advantage of receivers' athletic ability to make runs after the catch. He dealt with six of seven third-down situations in the first half. Of that crucial 80-yard seven-and-a-half-minute drive towards the end of the first half, just 11 yards came on the ground, including a dash for six by Roethlisberger and Jerome Bettis' three-yard TD plunge to put them 24-3 up at the intermission. Game over.
Pittsburgh will have to work out how to get "Fast" Willie Parker into the game in a fortnight, and know they will have a tougher opposing QB to deal with, but they will rest easy after Big Ben's show in particular, as well the display by Cedrick Wilson, the third receiver who stepped up for five catches when his more illustrious team-mates were covered.
On the sideline as the clock ran out, coach Mike Shanahan was running his hands through his hair, desperate for a solution to his side's failure to reach the big game since those back-to-back championships in 1997 and '98. The answer still lies with the quarterback. Several teams, including Carolina with Jake Delhomme, go for a high-percentage QB who thrives on not making mistakes, but players like Delhomme have the ability to step up with the pressure on. It's an ability Plummer lacks. The rest of the pieces are in place for the Broncos – there is just a massive hole in the middle.