By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 12:55 AM
The Super Bowl pits two standout quarterbacks, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, against the defenses that gave up the fewest points in the NFL this season, a rare claim for the importance of defensive play in the highest-scoring season in 45 years.
The Steelers allowed just 232 points during the regular season, an average of 14.5 per game. They were trailed closely by the Packers, who yielded 240 points, or 15 per game.
"Any time you can help contribute to such a great organization by bringing home - hopefully bringing home - world championships, it means a great deal," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. "Obviously we have a great team. . . . We have one more game to accomplish. But we feel good about where we are. We're playing some good ball against some good teams."
It's an intriguing matchup between two tradition-rich franchises with highly loyal followings. The Steelers will be trying for their seventh Super Bowl title when they face the Packers in Dallas 12 days from now. They've won six of their seven previous appearances, and are in the Super Bowl for the third time in the past six seasons. Roethlisberger will be attempting to join New England's Tom Brady as the active leader among quarterbacks with three Super Bowl victories, and Mike Tomlin is seeking his second Super Bowl win in only his fourth season as the Steelers' coach.
"There are 32 teams that start this journey and there's two left, and we're fortunate enough to be one of them. It's awesome," Tomlin said after Sunday's 24-19 victory over the New York Jets at Heinz Field in the AFC title game.
The Steelers are the all-time leader in Super Bowl wins. The Packers are back in the big game for the first time since they lost to the Denver Broncos on Jan. 25, 1998, in the second of two straight Green Bay appearances in the game under then-coach Mike Holmgren and then-quarterback Brett Favre. The Packers have three Super Bowl triumphs of their own, along with nine NFL titles prior to the Super Bowl era.
But this will be the first Super Bowl for Packers Coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers.
"It still maybe hasn't really hit home entirely," Rodgers said after the Packers' 21-14 victory at Chicago in the NFC championship game Sunday. "It's just what I dreamt about as a kid growing up in Northern California watching Joe Montana all those years, and Steve Young when Joe moved on. . . It's amazing to know that I'll be living out my dream in two weeks in Dallas."
Rodgers is in his third season as the Packers starter since the team's brain trust of McCarthy, General Manager Ted Thompson and club president Mark Murphy decided in the summer of 2008 to trade Favre - who had retired but changed his mind and wanted to return - to the New York Jets.
"There is a ladder that you have to climb," McCarthy said Sunday night of Rodgers. "You have to first show that you belong as a starter. He definitely showed that in his first year. . . . He is definitely in the upper echelon as far as the way he plays statistically. The next step is to win playoff games. He has accomplished that now. Now he gets the challenge to be a Super Bowl champion."
McCarthy, a Pittsburgh native, will coach against his hometown team. He has the Packers in the Super Bowl in his fifth season as their coach, the same length of time it took Holmgren to win a Super Bowl title in Green Bay.
"Definitely, this is the highlight of my professional career," McCarthy said.
The Packers reached the Super Bowl as the sixth-seeded team in the NFC playoffs, getting road wins against the conference's three top playoff seeds - in Philadelphia against the third-seeded Eagles, in Atlanta against the top-seeded Falcons and in Chicago against the second-seeded Bears.
The Steelers won the Super Bowl in the 2005 season as the AFC's sixth playoff seed. They took a less arduous path to this Super Bowl, playing two home games during the AFC playoffs as the second seed and prevailing Sunday against the sixth-seeded Jets.
The Steelers have some of the league's top defensive playmakers in linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu. The Pittsburgh defense contributed a key goal-line stand Sunday against the Jets.
Matthews was fourth in the league with 131/2 sacks during the regular season. A Green Bay secondary that includes the 2009 NFL defensive player of the year, cornerback Charles Woodson, got major postseason contributions from young cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. Nose tackle B.J. Raji made the decisive play against the Bears with a touchdown on an interception return.
Matthews will be among the Green Bay pass rushers chasing Roethlisberger. Two of Roethlisberger's wide receivers - Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, who is now with the Jets - have won Super Bowl most valuable player honors, but Roethlisberger never has captured the award himself. He reaches his third Super Bowl, to conclude a season that began with him serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
"We as a team put a lot of stuff behind us early and found a way to get it done," he said after Sunday's win. "We weren't always the prettiest team. But we had guys step up and fill in for guys at critical times in games and the season. Some young guys stepped up and made some plays that you don't normally see. And so I'm just really proud of that group of guys over there."