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Seattle Won't Have a Chance

The Pittsburgh Steelers are so much better than the Seattle Seahawks this year that the only reason to play Sunday's game is to avoid a day of disappointment for the throngs of party-goers and picnic revelers who have turned the Super Bowl into an unofficial national holiday.

At the moment, the one-sided nature of this game isn't commonly realized because Pittsburgh finished sixth in the AFC this season whereas Seattle was clearly No. 1 in the NFC.

Seattle, in the final reckoning, was 13-3, Pittsburgh 11-5.

Yet those are as misleading as other sports statistics often are.

Here's another way to look at Super Bowl XL:

Why AFC Throws

AFC champion Pittsburgh is carrying the banner of the obviously superior conference, which is better because it has more good passing teams, seven or eight, to the NFC's one or two. To succeed in the AFC, you have to throw effectively, and that's the right way to prepare for the playoffs --- where would-be winners must pass.

Conventional wisdom makes a wholly different point. Many coaches and commentators argue that playoff wins depend on running and stopping the run. But the more accurate and more recently verified definition is to pass and stop the pass.

Twelve of the last 13 Super Bowl champions have been superb passing teams. The one exception, Baltimore, won in 2001, when the NFL's best quarterbacks were incapacitated before rules against late hits were strengthened. Otherwise, passers have dominated the Super Bowl from the days of Troy Aikman and Steve Young to Brett Favre and John Elway and on to Tom Brady.

This year, the Steelers out-passed good passing teams in their first three playoff games, beating three AFC division champions, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver.

Of nearly equal importance, the Steelers won all three passing duels on the road, where they are this week, facing the NFC's best passing team.

2. That 12th Man

The Seahawks in their playoff games this year beat a pair of middling NFC rivals, Washington and Carolina, two survivors in the middling NFC.

And they won those games on their home field, where Seattle fans give them so much vocal support that they're called the Seahawks' 12th man.

The Seahawks were 10-0 at home this season but only 5-3 on the road, where they are this week.

In other words, after winning two easy games with the help of their 12th man, the Seahawks will be on their own when they engage the champion of the tougher conference in a tougher setting.

Big Ben's Edge

The decisive point may be that one of the great NFL passers, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, will be attacking a Seattle team that has the NFL's 25th best pass defense --- a depressing statistic for the Seahawks, who spent the year playing unimpressive NFC teams and passers.

Big Ben, now completing just his second season of pro football, is already a dominating passer. In his last start, Roethlisberger threw nine times on third down in Denver and converted a defense-demoralizing eight.

Significantly, the gifted Roethlisberger gets a lot of help from his gifted blocking line; from his ballcarriers, swift Willie Parker and tough Jerome Bettis; from his two intermediate-route receiving specialists, Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller, whose skills compensate for Pittsburgh's lack of deep receiver speed, and from his coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, who oversees an offensive system with a particularly fluid play design and the league's best trick plays.

Roethlisberger, for all that, is himself the Steelers' edge. He opens up their running game just running onto the field. In addition:

  • As a pocket passer, he is an accomplished reader of defenses who can usually find and throw to the open receiver. That puts him among a minority of NFL quarterbacks.
  • He is even more dangerous when he bails out of the pocket. Out there, he wins two ways, passing and running.
  • During the playoffs so far, the Steelers, as Big Ben improves from week to week, have scored touchdowns on 10 of 13 trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line.

And that onslaught has come entirely against AFC teams.

Race for the Lead

The Seahawks have also passed successfully in recent games with underrated Matt Hasselbeck, who emerged in 2005 as the NFC's leading quarterback. And in this game for a while, Hasselbeck may be all they have.

Early on, neither team should expect to run with success --- even though Seattle will be there with Shaun Alexander, who led the NFL in rushing this season. The problem: In a 32-team league, the Steelers were third in rushing defense and the Seahawks fifth.

Both coaches, moreover, are determined not to fall behind. The Pittsburgh leader, Bill Cowher, made that precise point ahead of his last two games. The Seattle coach, Mike Holmgren, is plainly aware that he can't fall behind Cowher.

When Cowher has had a 10-point lead in NFL games, he has won more than 70 times and lost only twice.

All this is likely to bring a spirited first-half race for the lead with assertive passing by both sides. What's in doubt is whether Holmgren's team can keep up. The disturbing reality for Seattle is that the Steelers thrive on aggressive passing.

In their last two games --- against the Colts with Peyton Manning and then the Broncos ---- the Steelers led at halftime by a combined score of 38-6.

Their high-tech offense figures to overwhelm Seattle's constrictive West Coast offense, which, based on short passes and runs, limits Hasselbeck's downfield passes..

Indeed, Seattle's only chance is that Cowher will get complacent viewing Seahawk tapes and come out confident that he can run. That would be a miscalculation. Even AFC champions --- whose advantage over NFC teams is based on throwing better passes --- can be upset if they suddenly start running the ball.

Memo to those watching: Don't bank on an upset.

Bob Oates is at oatesinla@aol.com Previous columns: latimes.com/oates

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