There was a time when the Super Bowl was a Hall of Kings. In they would march, proudly displaying their badges of honor-the mighty, the triumphant, adorned with the achievements of greatness. It was a glorious parade. The Lombardi Packers. The Steel Curtain Steelers. Bill Walsh and Joe Montana and the breathtaking precision of the 49ers offense. The Rams' Greatest Show on Turf. And, yes, most recently, the Belichick Patriots and the man who never lost, Tom Brady. Those teams were good, and they knew it. ¬∂ No disrespect to the combatants of Super Bowl XL, but it seems the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks have read from the same whiny script that begins, "Nobody gave us a chance" or "Nobody gave us respect." Through every level of this year's playoffs you heard it, endlessly repeated-the Carolina Panthers, the New York Giants, the Denver Broncos, the Jacksonville Jaguars, all battling the world's sneers. You'd have thought that only the Indianapolis Colts were championship material. The rest were merely dogs to be kicked.
"They said a sixth seed couldn't do it," said Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, the defensive hero of Sunday's 31-17 AFC Championship Game victory over the Broncos in Denver. "We don't want anybody to jump on our wagon now, because nobody's done it all year."
Even the Seahawks, the NFC's No. 1 seed, who swept past Carolina 34-14 at Qwest Field on Sunday night, said they felt the barbs. "People were saying we were soft," All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson said. "They mentioned that we were the lowest-ranked defense [tied for 16th] of all four championship game teams."
Media types even play up the no-respect angle as a way to curry favor with players. "Nobody gave you a chance against Carolina...," a Seattle radio man began his interview with defensive end Bryce Fisher on Sunday, overlooking the fact that the Seahawks were favored by three and a half.
"A motivator? Oh, I guess you might say so," Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said of the no-respect talk. "It's like a girl who says she'd never date you. It makes you try harder."
So what do you say we put a lid on the motivation angle for now? You'll be hearing it all next week anyway. Here's a more personal story line: tough team against finesse team. In this case roughneck Steelers against sleek, high-powered Seahawks. "That's just a bunch of bull," says Seattle center Robbie Tobeck. "What do you have to do to prove yourself as a physical team?"
"Just take a look at our offensive line," Hasselbeck says. "And on the other side, we shut down Carolina, we shut down the Redskins. What do you have to do?"
O.K., Seattle has shown proficiency in one particular aspect of tough-guy football: defense against the run. Over their last seven games the Seahawks held opponents to 59 rushing yards a game and 2.5 yards per carry. No team ran for more than 81 yards against them in that period.
The Steelers are considered one of the NFL's purest running teams, but they've gone away from that this postseason. Using the pass to set up the run, they knocked off, in order, the AFC's third (Cincinnati), first (Indy) and second (Denver) seeds. Ben Roethlisberger has proved himself a sure hand at running all phases of the passing game, whether it's beating the blitz with hot reads, as he did against the Broncos, or shredding a zone with neatly timed routes to his wideouts. Then when the enemy defense tires from rushing the quarterback, the Steelers come back with the run: Fast Willie Parker, Jerome Bettis and his boom boom- using up the clock against weary legs.
Seattle's offense is less predictable. The return of wide receiver Darrell Jackson from October knee surgery has made the Seahawks a dangerous midrange passing team, but league MVP Shaun Alexander, a back who's in perfect harmony with one of the NFL's finest drive-blocking lines, is always a threat to break one. He can run misdirection; he can cut back against a defense that overpursues.
Each team revealed a secret weapon on Sunday. For the Steelers, it was third receiver Cedrick Wilson, who worked from a three-wideout set with Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El and was the receiving star of the game (five catches for 92 yards and a touchdown). Wilson had a decent season (26 catches, 451 yards) but was never the go-to guy that he was against the Broncos.
For the Seahawks, the secret weapon was backup quarterback Seneca Wallace, a fourth-round draft choice out of Iowa State in 2003. In the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game he came in as a wide receiver, ran a corner route and caught a 28-yard pass to set up Seattle's first TD. It was his first NFL reception, and it wasn't so much what he did as the way he did it: Wallace caught the ball over the tight coverage of the Panthers' best cornerback, Ken Lucas. "He makes catches like that in practice," one Seahawks assistant coach said. "He's the best receiver we have, [but as the backup quarterback] we can't afford to lose him. What an athlete this kid is. I wouldn't be surprised if you see him in the Super Bowl."
It's a tough game to handicap. I think Seattle's offensive line might be the best in the business. But they don't face a 3-4 team very often, or a defensive coach as innovative as Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau. He killed the Colts' Peyton Manning with the zone blitz in the divisional playoff. He lay back and gave the Broncos' Jake Plummer a hard time with coverages, then came after him late with outside pressure. Hasselbeck, in his seventh year, is at the highest level of NFL quarterback play. But Roethlisberger is getting there-and very quickly.
I have no logical reason for picking the Steelers, just instinct. But let's call it Pittsburgh 27, Seattle 21.
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Photographs by Robert Beck (left) and John Iacono
LEADING MEN While Alexander (above) will shoulder the Seahawks' rushing load, Ward (opposite) and his fellow wideouts will key the Steelers' strike-first pass attack.
ALL THE WAY Roethlisberger and his veteran coach, Bill Cowher, won't come up short.