Tuesday, February 1, 2011

3 keys to Super Bowl XLV that nobody is talking about

For the next several days you’re going to hear a lot about Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. The two quarterbacks are preparing to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, but don’t be mistaken, this game is much bigger than these two players.

If you breakdown the stats from the regular season and the playoffs, we should be in store for an epic Super Bowl. The Steelers and Packers are very similar teams and the margin for error is going to be very slim on Super Bowl Sunday.

There are three stats that I believe will play a large role in determining who wins the game. They aren’t the most talked about stats, but I believe they are the most important stats when it comes to winning football games.
Third Down Offense vs. Defense
Teams that can turn third downs into first downs will find success in the NFL and Pittsburgh and Green Bay are two of the best in the league. During these playoffs, the Steelers offense has converted 52% of their third down attempts (13 of 25), while the Packers offense has converted 50% (18-36). They are the only teams in the 2011 playoffs with a third down conversion rate 50% or higher (2011 playoff avg. 39%). It’s pretty simple to understand, offenses that convert third downs stay on the field longer, get more opportunities to score and they wear down defenses.

As good as both offenses have been on third down, the defenses have been equally as impressive. During their three playoff games, the Packers defense has allowed just nine third down conversions
(9 of 36 – 25%). Meanwhile, in their two playoff wins, the Steelers defense has allowed 10 of 26 third down conversions – that’s 38.5% (2011 playoff avg. 45%).

I like looking at third down stats as an indicator for success because third down is a high pressure situation within the game. You can tell a lot about how clutch a player is by how he performs on third down. The team that wins on third down may very well win the game.

Red Zone Offense vs. Defense
When it comes to scoring points, these two teams are at the top of the playoff rankings. The Packers are first in points scored per game during the playoffs, averaging 30 points per game. While the Steelers have been just as good, averaging 27.5 points per game. What the Packers and Steelers have done well this postseason is score touchdowns when they get in the red zone. The Packers have been obscenely good inside the 20 yard line, as has the Steelers. The Packers have scored touchdowns on 9 of 12 red zone visits (3-3 @ Philly / 4-6 @ Atlanta / 2-3 @ Chicago), while the Steelers have converted on 6 of 9 red zone opportunities (4-6 vs. Baltimore / 2-3 vs. NY Jets).        

While both offenses have been exceptional inside the red zone, the defenses for the Packers and Steelers have been remarkably stout as well. In their three playoff games, the Packers have allowed teams just seven red zone opportunities (they’ve allowed 4 red zone touchdowns). In the Steelers two playoff games, they’ve allowed just five red zone chances (they've allowed three red zone touchdowns).

In a game that is so evenly matched, the team that is more successful in the red zone – both on offense and defense – will have an obvious advantage on the scoreboard, but also when comes to confidence. The defense that bends the most without breaking will give their team the best chance at winning the game.

Turnovers and Points Off Turnovers
There are several things that make these teams great, but perhaps the most important is their ability to make big plays on defense. Whether it’s a timely sack, an interception or fumble recovery, the Packers and Steelers are two of the best in the league.

In their three playoff games, the Packers defense has eight takeaways. Green Bay has knack of making big plays at the right time. In their games against Philadelphia and Chicago, the Packers sealed victory with game-ending interceptions. They’ve also returned two interceptions for touchdowns during these playoffs.

The Packers are also great at turning those turnovers into points. During their blowout victory over Atlanta, Green Bay scored 20 points off turnovers – including an interception for a touchdown late in the first half by Tramon Williams. If the Steelers are careless with the football, which they have had a tendency to do, expect the Packers to capitalize on Pittsburgh’s misfortunes.

Like the Packers, the Steelers also have an opportunistic defense. In their two playoff games, Pittsburgh has forced four turnovers. In their game with Baltimore, the Steelers turned three Ravens turnovers into 17 points. And during the AFC Championship Game against the Jets, the Steelers returned a fumble for a touchdown.

Opportunities for turnovers will be there for both of these defenses and the team that takes the most advantage of those takeaways will likely be the winner.

In Closing
The Steelers and the Packers were the two stingiest defenses during the regular season in terms of points allowed. Pittsburgh ranked number one in the league allowing 14.5 points/game, while the Packers finished ranked second allowing 15 points/game. The team that plays the best on defense will end up winning Super Bowl XLV.

When the game concludes on Sunday night, take a look at the three stats I’ve outlined above. If the winning team doesn’t have the edge in all three categories I will be surprised.

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