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Super Bowl XL Preview: Seattle (15-3) vs. Pittsburgh (14-5)

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There's something about these milestone games -- the ones without a trail of Roman numerals -- that somehow makes them memorable. Super Bowl X matched 70s dynasty Pittsburgh against "America's Team" Dallas. The Steelers won 21-17. Ten years later, Chicago's 46 defense tap danced all over the New England Patriots, 46-10. And then 10 years between then and now, Pittsburgh and 90s dynasty Dallas had a rematch with Dallas earning some measure of revenge, 27-17, in what signaled the beginning of the rapid decline of NFC Super Bowl domination.

Pittsburgh (14-5) returns again, somehow looking for some measure of the Third Millennium's buzzword "respect." Yet, the Steelers, the first No. 6 conference seed to make to the Super Bowl, are a 4-point favorite over the team tied with the best record in the league who has received virtually no "respect" the entire season, the Seattle Seahawks (15-3).

The Seahawks boast the league's MVP in running back Shaun Alexander. The Steelers have "The Bus" Jerome Bettis, who while no where near the running back he was a few years ago, is being blown into one of the greatest in the game. Seattle has quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, the fourth highest rated QB in the league (98.2), who just recently has come into his own. Pittsburgh has Ben Roethlisberger, one of the young superstars who was third in QB rating (98.6) and has lost only twice in his career to teams not named New England. Both teams have a hard-hitting defensive Samoan: safety Troy Polamalu for Pittsburgh and middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu for Seattle.


Did you know that Bettis is from Detroit? Have you heard the Jeremy Stevens / Joey Porter "feud"? The media has beaten to death dozens of angles that are irrelevant to the game. Here's what's important:

It's going to come down to coaching. Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher is the "here is our game plan; try to stop us, we're going to stop you." Seattle has Mike Holmgren, another "cerebral" tactician, who shuts himself off from the chaos around him, absorbs all the relevant information and fine tunes the plan like a correctional computer. Cowher is known as a special teams expert, a hard-nosed full-steam-ahead coach, who likes to throw in a few trick plays, especially in big games. Holmgren coaches from afar, like a general with a big tactical map in front of him, marshalling his forces, directing his generals, not micromanaging anything.

Holmgren will win this game. He'll win it with a few key halftime adjustments, solid time management down the stretch, and a couple brilliant calls at crucial moments. Cowher's inherent stubbornness will deliver the same result it's delivered the last 14 years.

Pittsburgh hasn't faced a team like Seattle, and they're going to underestimate them, much like most everyone has all season. The Seahawks' offensive line is one of the best in the game and has probably the most versatile backfield outside of Atlanta. These guys block and they've shown the propensity to handle just about everything thrown at them. They've been able to run the ball no matter who lines up behind Hasselbeck, and Alexander (5 fumbles, 5.1 yards per carry) makes them all the more dangerous.

Hasselbeck is mobile, perhaps more mobile than Denver's Jake Plummer, and he's far more careful and efficient: 24 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions, 65.5 percent completions. He has a Patriots-like receiving corps of Darrell Jackson, Mike Engram and Joe Jurevicius, and the aforementioned tight end Stevens is no slouch.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh has a devastating defense, ranked third against the run, with a blitz package that has shutdown every passing game it's seen in the playoffs. Polamalu has been ubiquitous while appearing omniscient, reading offensive sets and being everywhere the ball is, making huge hits and big plays, forcing a lot of the offensive decisions. But Polamalu is playing on a tweaked ankle. Time will tell if that becomes a factor.

The Steelers linebacking corps is as good as any in the league -- a distant second to New England's, but very good. They will need to track down Hasselbeck when he slips the passrush out of the pocket. Need to, or else. The D line plays a role much like New England's: Win the battle up front, but basically clear the way for the rest of the defense to do its job.

Pittsburgh will be frustrated by Seattle's ability to pick its way down the field, grinding the clock, piling up first downs, taking advantage of matchups and attempting big plays only when the time is right. Seattle will be able to run "enough" to make Hasselbeck effective in his game. It will be up to the receivers to catch the ball and hold onto it.

The Pittsburgh offense relies on wearing down the opposing defense, hammering with a relentless running game and then putting the ball in Roethlisberger's hands only when opportune or absolutely necessary. Roethlisberger is less efficient (17 TDs, 9 INTs, 62 percent completions) and unless he can hook up with one or two of those miracle deep lofts to Hines Ward isn't the kind of QB you ride for four quarters.

Willie Parker is a solid, sure-handed back with just 4 fumbles and a 4.7 yard per carry average. It's of the absolute necessity that Parker has a good game. He can't allow the Steelers to be caught in many second- and third-and-longs.

Ward (975 yards) is Roethlisberger's prime target. Antwaan Randel El (558) is a very secondary choice, and Cedrick Wilson (451 yards) is a capable, but seldom used, third choice. Roethlisberger rarely throws to anyone out of the backfield.

That will be something Holmgren will notice and plan for. Most people (we'll have to see how Pittsburgh plays it) completely underestimate Seattle's defense. The defensive secondary shouldn't have too much problem with Pittsburgh's receivers. If they double Ward, and pressure Roethlisberger, the Steelers will have a hard time moving the ball. Note that cornerback Andre Dawson has a soft quadriceps, so the Steelers may try to matchup with him early to test that.

Seattle's defensive line is small, but they play big. They're ranked fifth against the run. They also try to win the line and let the linebackers reap the stats. Outside of Tatupu, you probably can't name many -- if any -- of Seattle's defensive players. No one knew the Patriots defensive players when they beat the Rams, or the Panthers, and still even against the Eagles. They play terrific as a unit, and that's what has made a difference in their season.

Special teams almost always seem to have an impact, from Scott Norwood's last-second missed field goal to Desmond Howard's knockout kickoff returns. Seattle has given up a couple big returns, and Randel El is a big-time returner. Seattle's punt return man, Peter Warrick, is no slouch either.

Seattle placekicker Josh Brown has been called upon seldom and hasn't been sterling (18 of 25 FGA), but punter Tom Rouen is one of the best in the business. Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed has been far more reliable (24 of 29) and punter Chris Gardocki, often recognized as Cleveland's team MVP before jumping ship a couple years ago, just might be the best in the business.

Like every big game, it comes down to turnovers, field possession, time of possession and penalties. If any of those stats is lopsided, it will tell the tale of the game. They're unpredictable intangibles. It's all in who shows up to play.

One more note about Holmgren and Hasselbeck: When Holmgren obtained Hasselbeck, a deep, deep backup to Green Bay's Brett Favre, for a first-round draft pick, a lot of people questioned (a) Hasselbeck's ability and (b) Holmgren's sanity. Just a couple years ago, Seahawks fans and the local media were ready to run them both out of town. The national media called it an unmitigated disaster of unfulfilled expectation. Today, well, we'll see.

Eleven-year veteran Bill Leavy gets his first start as a Super Bowl head referee. Five of the other "all-star" officials are also calling their first Super Bowl.

Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Ford Field in Detroit. Al Michaels and John Madden have the call on ABC (Ch. 5 locally).

Prediction: Seahawks, 31-24.