Just a few months ago the Philadelphia Eagles — in the aftermath of their free agency binge — were by many accounts the favorites to win this season’s Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the San Diego Chargers were finally rounding into the Super Bowl contender they’d been billed as for years but never quite lived up to. An Eagles-Chargers Bowl appeared likely — that is, before a number of things happened that no one could predict.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was not supposed to be this NFL-ready. The Bengals’ Andy Dalton-A.J. Green connection in Cincinnati was not supposed to be this consistent, as the quarterback and wide receiver duo have somehow been ripping defenses to shreds. With the “dream team” the Eagles had compiled, New Orleans Saints’ running back Darren Sproles was not supposed to be the best free agent signing. Above all, quarterback Alex Smith was definitely not supposed to lead the San Francisco 49ers to an 8-1 record.
Amidst all of this turnover and unpredictability, two teams have been steady and predictable contenders: the Green Bay Packers, currently sitting atop the NFC with a perfect record, and the Pittsburgh Steelers who, at the moment, are the AFC’s best team.
The Packers have a worthy NFC foe in the 49ers, but San Francisco’s biggest strengths — running the football and stopping the run — don’t match up well with Green Bay’s prolific passing offense. The Packers simply score at will without needing to run the football much, opting to let quarterback Aaron Rodgers run the offense instead. San Francisco would be hard pressed to control the flow of the game in an NFC Championship game against Green Bay.
The AFC does not have a dominant team like the Packers. New England could win any game they play, but their inept defense hinders their overall play. Running back Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens could emerge as a dark horse, but they have to stop losing to bad teams first.
The Houston Texans, perhaps the team with the best shot of winning the AFC’s top seed in the playoffs, recently took a hit with news that quarterback Matt Schaub would miss the remainder of the season with a foot injury. Although this is a team that has found its success through running the football with star running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, asking the now-starter Matt Leinart to lead a fourth quarter comeback is more difficult than asking Schaub to do the same thing.
Come playoff time, it will be wide receiver Mike Wallace and the experienced Steelers who will put it all together for perhaps the deepest run. Wallace has claimed the title as the league’s most dangerous deep threat, averaging a full yard per reception more than his most potent rival, the Detroit Lions’ Calvin Johnson (17.4 yards to 16.4), while accumulating 107 more total yards than Johnson. The Steelers (7-3) are on top of a dangerous AFC North that includes the Ravens and Bengals, despite a weaker ground game than the successful Steelers teams of past seasons.
The last time the Super Bowl matchup was the same in consecutive years was 1993 and 1994, when the Dallas Cowboys were repeated victors over the Buffalo Bills. If the Steelers can ever get their running game back to where it was a year ago, we’ll be tuning in to another Steelers versus Packers grudge match come Super Bowl time.
McAndrew is a member of the class of 2015.