Talk About A Close Call

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, February 5, 2006

DETROIT It seems like a silly notion that a team as hot as the Pittsburgh Steelers could lose momentum without playing a game, without having suffered any serious injury or endured some bizarre calamity. The Steelers came to Motown on a big fat roll, having beaten the top three seeds -- the Colts, Broncos and Bengals -- on the road. Their young quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, might be on the verge of finding Tom Brady-like stardom.

The betting money in Las Vegas has been so stacked toward the Steelers, thanks to their rabid fans looking for action, that Pittsburgh could be a five-point favorite by game time.

Early in the week, even as far back as immediately following the conference championship games two weeks ago, a great number of folks in and around football circles began picking the Steelers. And the logic was pretty simple: The Steelers, while only the sixth seed, were on fire. They'd proven able to run the ball with Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis. Coach Bill Cowher had grown so comfortable with the passing game that the Steelers had started throwing first to get ahead, then running to control the game. Hardly invincible, the Steelers still seemed powerful.

But on the eve of the Super Bowl, for no discernible reason, things seemed to have changed. Well, there is one reason. Folks have too much time on their hands. Two weeks to think will allow you to overanalyze anything.

Almost everywhere you turn, a former player or coach who picked the Steelers is backpedaling.

And that goes for sportswriters, too. I'm picking the Steelers to win Super Bowl XL, but don't expect me to be confident about it. I've got Pittsburgh, 21-20, and I'm scared to death just like everybody else walking around Detroit trying to answer the only important question: "Who ya got?"

What's happened since the teams arrived Sunday and Monday is either a better-late-than-never recognition that Seattle, the NFC's top-seeded playoff team, is a whole lot better than most folks thought or a classic case of overanalysis.

After paying little attention to the Seahawks all season because they play in a wretched division, in the junior conference and out in a corner of the nation that only the most industrious insiders check out in person, people finally got a chance to check out the Seahawks in person this past week.

And what they found was a thinking, breathing, confident team that doesn't give a darn about the tens of thousands of people who'll be wearing black and gold, the Terrible Towels, or the sight of all those old Steelers, from Swannie to Franco to Terry to Mean Joe. Excuse the Seahawks, but they're not trembling at the mere site of Cowher's granite jaw.

What probably matters a whole lot is that Seattle's left tackle, Walter Jones, might just be the best lineman in football today. And Pittsburgh's Joey Porter, the extraordinary pass rusher with the extraordinarily big mouth, isn't going to see tight end Jerramy Stevens as much as he's going to see Jones. And the bet here is Porter is going to be on his backside most of the afternoon. Seattle was No. 3 in the league rushing the football and No. 2 in total offense. From the early moments of the game, Porter might want to shut up long enough to tackle somebody, though the Steelers' 3-4 defense does tend to shut down the running lanes Seattle's Shaun Alexander likes to exploit with his cutback runs. Alexander needs to forget the 10-yard runs and keep his team moving with three yards here, four yards there. The Seahawks are quite capable, if Alexander is contained, at getting enough offense from Matt Hasselbeck, who has thrown 12 touchdown passes to one interception in his last six games.

However, the difference, strangely enough, will be the Steelers' offense. Pittsburgh's official passing rating -- 24th in the NFL -- is outdated because it doesn't reflect the relatively new confidence Cowher and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have in letting Roethlisberger come out flinging it to Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and Cedrick Wilson.

Super Bowl XL should be unpredictable, well-played, razor-close, and ultimately more satisfying for the Steelers, in a nail-biting classic.

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