For more than three decades, one of my annual chores has been analyzing the Super Bowl and predicting an outcome. Sometimes my guesses have turned out to look idiotic. Other times, they've been dead-on, as in saying Denver would handle Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII and calling the score as 34-20 — the result was 34-19, only because Atlanta went for two instead of kicking the extra point after a meaningless late touchdown.
Every year, going back to January 1978 when Denver lost to Dallas in Super Bowl XII at New Orleans, the ritual of forecasting a winner was not time-consuming. Games either have looked like mismatches (even if they didn't turn out that way), or one team simply has stood out to me quickly as the likely winner.
That is, until now. After more than a week of dissecting matchups, intangibles and trends for Super Bowl XLV, my feeling is nowhere near certain. In the past, when this has happened, my tactic has been to take each side, separately, make the strongest-possible argument for each team winning, then see that one of the arguments clearly makes more sense.
Not even that has worked this time. One day I focused entirely on Green Bay. The next, I locked in on Pittsburgh.
Still no definitive conclusion about the end result — except for this: Something tells me this Super Bowl, barring some kind of crazy collapse or game-turning injury (such as one of the quarterbacks going down), will turn into an instant classic. It very well could be the best Super Bowl ever.
Why? Because these really are the NFL's two best teams, both were at their best in January, and they truly are evenly matched.
Green Bay endured the tougher road, having to win at Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago. Pittsburgh earned a first-round bye, stayed home and punched out Baltimore followed by the New York Jets.
It's true that the Packers come in as the National Conference's first No. 6 seed ever to make — much less win — the Super Bowl. But that's really not a factor, because Green Bay looked fully capable early in the season of going all the way, until an avalanche of injuries came along.
Having the game in Texas, where weather won't be a factor, might mean a slight edge for Green Bay, because quarterback Aaron Rodgers was amazingly sharp down the stretch and might be capable of taking control Sunday, with perfect conditions and playing surface. Then again, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger already has won two NFL titles, and he arguably has more weapons.
Both defenses have shown their mettle in this postseason, though the Steelers have more big-name players led by all-world safety Troy Polamalu. But the Packers got here by handling the likes of Philly's Michael Vick, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Chicago's Jay Cutler, all of whom had been unstoppable until facing Green Bay.
Coaching also can become a tiebreaker in situations such as this, and many might favor Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin because of how well he has replaced the larger-than-life Bill Cowher. Yet, anyone who has followed Green Bay's Mike McCarthy can appreciate his similar poise and shrewdness under pressure.
Starting to see why this should be a remarkable game? Granted, most Super Bowls don't live up to expectations, but it's difficult to imagine how this one would disappoint. It very well might produce the first overtime in Super Bowl history.
My guess on the final score is 27-24. But as for the winner, it means finding one player who might provide that difference. Rodgers? Roethlisberger? Polamalu? Maybe a receiver, like Pittsburgh's Hines Ward or Green Bay's Greg Jennings?
That process finally did turn up an answer: Pittsburgh's fourth-year running back Rashard Mendenhall. He's a bull, 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds, fast and powerful, smooth yet mean. He can deliver on fourth-and-1 or taking a pass in the flat. And though the offenses obviously aren't on the field at the same time, the Packers don't have anyone like him (James Starks has been OK, but not for this ultimate stage).
So, with that as the difference-maker, my prediction has to be the Steelers, 27-24. But for those of us without a loyalty, if the game turns out to be as good as it looks on paper, who really cares?