Well, this is it - the last NFL pick of the season.
After a 138-114-4 regular season and a 6-4 playoffs thus far, this final pick will be the difference between 53.93% and 54.31%. Obviously, I need to get this pick correct to beat the 54% threshold. Let's look at the line ...
The spread is currently set at Packers By 2.5, with about 54% of the public taking Green Bay. This matchup has all the makings of a pick 'em, but between Rodgers' hot streak and the injury to Steelers' center Maurice Pouncey (their best offensive lineman), it makes sense for Green Bay to be slight favorites. No chance the line gets to 3 though.
On paper, Pittsburgh has the better team. I hate to admit it, but it's true. Green Bay has the better quarterback, but Pittsburgh has 7 of the 10 best players in this game, 6 of which play defense. I am just not quite as sold on Woodson or Raji or Hawk as super-dependable studs. My top 10 for this game looks like this:
1. Troy Polamalu, PIT
2. Aaron Rodgers, GB
3. Clay Matthews, GB
4. James Harrison, PIT
5. Ben Roethlisberger, PIT
6. James Farrior, PIT
7. Lawerence Timmons, PIT
8. Charles Woodson, GB
9. LaMarr Woodley, PIT
10. Brett Keisel, PIT
The scary thing is that Pittsburgh might have 6 of the next 10 best players, and that's with Pouncey injured as well as stud DE Aaron Smith still out.
11. B.J. Raji, GB
12. Casey Hampton, PIT
13. Greg Jennings, GB
14. Mike Wallace, PIT
15. Rashard Mendenhall, PIT
16. Nick Collins, GB
17. Bryant McFadden, PIT
18. Hines Ward, PIT
19. Chad Clifton, GB
20. Ryan Clark, PIT
But in the 20-30 range, it's all Packers.
21. Tramon Williams, GB
22. A.J. Hawk, GB
23. Cullen Jenkins, GB
24. Josh Sitton, GB
25. Ike Taylor, PIT
26. Ryan Pickett, GB
27. Donald Driver, GB
28. Desmond Bishop,GB
29. Sam Shields, GB
30. James Jones, GB
So while Pittsburgh has 13 of the 20 best players in this game, Green Bay actually has 16 of the best 30. And what's very interesting is that not a single Steelers offensive lineman makes the top 30.
That could be the difference in this game. How is Pittsburgh - especially without Pouncey - going to slow down the Packers' pass rush? Or will it just be the same old routine where Roethlisberger fends off defenders like little kids on the playground? Something tells me Clay Matthews won't be so easy to push aside.
On the other side of the ball, there will be plenty of blitzes thrown at Aaron Rodgers as well. The difference is he has a better cast of blockers in front of him. Not often are the Packers front 5 a better unit than the opposing team, but this is one instance. There should be plenty of sacks for both teams in this game.
However, these are probably the two best quarterbacks in the NFL when it comes to throwing from outside the pocket. Expect a lot of improv plays that appear broken but result in 30-40 yard gains. Whichever secondary can hang with their receiver for 5 to 7 seconds on broken plays will be more successful and probably win.
Rodgers' primary job is to spread the Steelers defense out and avoid throwing at Polamalu. Green Bay should go with 4 or 5 receivers early and often, and if they're smart they'll bypass the running game completely. It's risky to play a spread offense against Pittsburgh because it leaves guys like Harrison and Woodley with a free shot at Rodgers, but you've got to trust his decision-making ability and quick release. He's got you this far, and he's your only chance of winning it all.
The biggest mistake Green Bay could make would be trying to play the Steelers style of offense - pound the run to set up the deep pass. If they begin the game with an even mix of run and pass, they'll be punting frequently and pretty quickly get themselves into a blowout. This is not the time to experiment with James Starks. Trust. Your. Quarterback.
Pittsburgh desperately wants Green Bay to try to run the ball (key word being "try"), and if that happens more than 15 or 20 times, go ahead and give the Lombardi to Steel City for the seventh time.
Regardless of who wins this game, Pittsburgh will dominate time of possession. They'll grind the clock, convert third-and-shorts, and give Mendenhall every opportunity to wear down the Packers front 7. They don't want Matthews wreaking havoc in the backfield. Ben should have half as many attempts as Rodgers.
When Green Bay gets the ball, expect passes on 1st and 2nd down. Expect Rodgers to throw the ball upwards of 40 times. And don't expect to see much of Polamalu's giant hair on your television, because Rodgers will be avoiding him like the plague. In fact, you might see more of Troy's hair on commercials than in the actual game.
What makes this game so compelling and potentially a classic-in-the-making is the chess match between two great coaching staffs.
Both defensive coordinators are phenomenal at making adjustments and understand personnel. Their offensive counterparts are both good, but not as good. Mike Tomlin's calming presence gives Pittsburgh the edge as far as overall coaching. Mike McCarthy, a Pittsburgh native, might get caught up in the moment. I don't entirely trust him.
If Pittsburgh wins, it's going to be their style: fall behind, come back, play great defense, win in the last 2 minutes.
If Green Bay wins, it will have to be a near perfect game on both sides of the ball. Pittsburgh doesn't make mistakes, but they capitalize on turnovers like no other. Rodgers will have to be efficient, ruthless, smart, and can't waste any possessions. And most importantly, the defense has to stop Roethlisberger from scoring in the 2 minute drill of both halves.
I've watched enough Steelers games to know that they score about 80% of their points in the final 2 minutes of the halves. If Green Bay keeps them scoreless in the final 2 minutes before halftime, that will be absolutely paramount. I'm dead serious.
What makes me nervous is that this game will almost certainly come down to a final possession, and when that happens Pittsburgh wins 95% of the time. They have a quarterback who is always at his best with the clock winding down (or, maybe a better way to say it is that when the clock is winding down he's a 99 overall but when it's early in the 3rd or 1st quarter he's a low 60) and they have a defense that absolutely thrives in the end of games. This game won't be won by a Rodgers TD with 30 seconds left. I'll guarantee that.
If Green Bay gets into a typical Steelers "win at the very end" game, they'll lose. They need to build a two-score lead and then play great defense. Make Pittsburgh try an onside kick with 1:20 left. If you give Roethlisberger 2 timeouts and 2 minutes to go 80 yards and kick a field goal, you've already lost.
As Agent Smith says, "Lieutenant, your men are already dead."
For some reason, my gut has been leaning towards Green Bay since they clobbered Chicago. Rodgers looks like the next in the Brady-Manning-Brees legion and I just hate the notion of Big Ben winning his 3rd Super Bowl ring despite being no better than Tony Romo.
Quick tangent - you know how everyone keeps saying that if the Steelers win, Ben will be in the same class as Tom Brady with 3 rings? That is so absurd that it makes me want to eat rusty scissors. That's like saying Mark Sanchez is the same as Peyton Manning because they've both been to the AFC Championship twice. Football is still a TEAM SPORT. Pittsburgh has like 14 Pro Bowlers on defense. Roethlisberger is merely a game manager. Brady is a game dominator. There is a big, big, big, BIG difference. They will never be in the same league. I don't care how many times Polamalu leads Pittsburgh to a title.
So like I said, I'm leaning towards Green Bay, and despite the 2.5 points, I'm going to go ahead and take them. Let's hope they put me above 54% for the year.
Now, for a fun little break from my usual NFL picks, I'm going to try my luck at NBA picks. There are 7 games on tonight's docket, so let's see if I can get at least 4 of them.
Denver Nuggets @ New Jersey Nets
Line: DEN by 3
This might actually be one of the most interesting NBA games of the season, believe it or not. Why? Because you've got Carmelo playing in New Jersey, only NOT as a Net. Two weeks ago, nobody would have believed this was possible.
Since the trade rumors cooled down, Denver has been on fire, winning 4 of their last 5 with Melo scoring nealry 25 per game during that span. The Nets are moving in the other direction with 9 losses in their last 13 games. This game will show them what they could have been, as Melo goes for 30+ in a blowout. I'll take Denver -3.
Toronto Raptors @ Indiana Pacers
Line: IND by 9
Toronto has lost 11 straight, but they don't deserve to be 9 point dogs to a team that's lost 7 of 8. Indiana just fired Jim O'Brien this weekend and will introduce Frank Vogel as the interim coach tonight. Pacers' GM Larry Bird promises to give more playing time to the young players, including Paul George and Tyler Hansbrough. During the Raps' 11 game skid, only 4 of those have been blowouts. This game should be close. I like Toronto +9.
Cleveland Cavaliers @ Miami Heat
Line: MIA by 17.5
I'm sure LeBron prefers playing his former team in the comfort of South Beach rather than flying north to face the angry mob of Ohioans who detest every cell in his body. Cleveland has lost 20 games straight (no, that's not a typo), while Miami is finally at full-strength. This game will be over by halftime.
The only question is whether Miami's bench will let Cleveland's bench crawl back within 18 points. Both benches stink, but I'll say the home-crowd keeps Cleveland from trying and Miami wins by 25 or 30.
Orlando Magic @ Memphis Grizzlies
Line: ORL by 2
Memphis is a surprisingly good home team, while Orlando is slumped in a 6-5 streak over their last 11 games. Is this a possible trap game? Nah. I'll take the better team when the line is this low.
Washington Wizards @ Dallas Mavericks
Line: DAL by 10
The toughest pick so far, as I'm 100% sure that Dallas will win, but completely unsure about the spread. Amazingly, Washington hasn't won a road game all season, and thanks to Flip Saunders's ineptness they might not all year. But Dallas rarely wins big. I feel like they'll win by 9 if I take them to cover. So I'm going with Washington +10.
Charlotte Bobcats @ Utah Jazz
Line: UTA by 3
Utah's best player, Deron Williams, has missed the last 3 games with a minor wrist injury. He's a gametime decision, but probably won't play again. However, I still like Utah. Charlotte is playing their 5th straight West Coast road game and will probably leave their legs in LA. Give me Utah -3 and a big game for backup point guard Earl Watson.
Milwaukee Bucks @ LA Clippers
Line: LAC by 3.5
As you might have heard, I'm a closet Bucks fan. I love the way John Hammond has re-built them. And they finally got Brandon Jennings back this weekend. However, it's nearly impossible to pick against the Clippers at home right now. Can't believe I just said that ... but the Clips have actually won 8 straight at home, something that hasn't been done since the 80s.
Super rookie Blake Griffin is averaging 25.5 points with 13.6 rebounds in January. He faces a tough matchup with the NBA's best shot blocker in Andrew Bogut, but Griffin has a huge advantage in athleticism. As Milwaukee begins a West Coast trip, I think they'll fall a little flat in this game. Give me the Clippers -3.5.
If I get at least 4 of those picks correct, I'll be pretty happy. But if I miss all 7 and nail the Super Bowl pick, I'll be even happier.