- Aaron Rodgers vs. Troy Polamalu – this is the best known and most talked about chess match that took place within Sunday’s game, and Rodgers won it decisively. Rodgers was able to consistently spread the offense to get Polamalu out of the box. And once he did, he was able to draw the league’s (I think undeserved) defensive MVP out of position – as he did in the second touchdown pass to Jennings in the corner of the end zone – or fit the ball in past him – as he did in the first touchdown pass to Jennings that was threaded between Polamalu and diving safety Ryan Clark. Rodgers and Jennings also hooked up for the play that may have sealed the game – a huge 33-yard, 3rd-down conversion with 5:55 left in the 4th quarter, right in front of Polamalu. Rodgers completely neutralized Polamalu all day.
- Jordy Nelson vs. William Gay – the Steelers’ corners were a known weakness and the Packers wasted no time exploiting them, particularly nickel back William Gay who got burned by Nelson for the first TD of the game. You could practically see Rodgers licking his chops when he got that match-up on the outside. Gay just couldn’t keep up with Nelson throughout the day as he amassed 140 yards, and would have had more but for a few drops. Nelson exploited other corners as well, including starting LCB Bryant McFadden for a big gain. He and Jones were just faster and bigger than any of the Steelers defensive backs.
- Bryan Bulaga vs. LaMarr Woodley – I mentioned Bulaga’s match-up against Pro Bowl left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley in my pre-game analysis as a key match-up, and Bulaga was up to the test. Woodley got one sack (more of a coverage sack than getting beat one-on-one), but other than that Bulaga held up remarkably well – not only in pass protection, but in several nice running plays to the right side. The Packers’ offensive line had an outstanding day as a unit – Chad Clifton did a great job handling James Harrison and Colledge, Wells and Sitton just shut down the middle of the Steelers line. But Bulaga felt like he could be the weak link and he wasn’t. His development this year has been awesome, and he could really become a star next year on an already stalwart unit.
- Howard Green vs. Chris Kemoeatu – The middle of the Steelers’ offensive line, with Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey out with an ankle injury, felt like a mis-match for the Packers. And it was on only the third offensive series that Howard exploited it. With a straight-up bull rush one-on-one against left guard Chris Kemoeatu, Green caught Roethlisberger’s arm and caused the errant pass that Nick Collins easily intercepted and returned for a touchdown. This play may have gone for a big completion if Green doesn’t get draped on Big Ben’s throwing arm. And it, probably more than anything, pushed the Steelers’ out of their rush-first comfort zone for the rest of the game.
- Charlie Peprah vs. Hines Ward – Charlie Peprah was one of the un-sung heroes of Sunday’s game. As a safety, it's hard to isolate his match-up against one guy. He led the Packers with 10 tackles – three of which were against Hines Ward and two against speedster Mike Wallace. Heath Miller was also totally ineffective (but I think the Packers mixed up coverage on him more). On Ward’s touchdown catch, Jarrett Bush actually had one-on-one coverage, and after the grab Peprah gave him a shrug as if he expected Bush to stay up top while Peprah appeared to be in a zone coverage underneath. For Wallace’s touchdown, it was Shields who was beat (who was a little gimpy all day) and Nick Collins who took a bad angle. Peprah was another guy that the Steelers might have thought they could exploit with Ward, Wallace and Miller, but he was up to the task all day.
There were many other one-on-one performances that deserve recognition. Obviously Clay Matthews' match-up against right tackle Flozell Adams was pivotal – including a deflected (and nearly intercepted) pass, and the critical forced fumble. Jarrett Bush also had an outstanding day with a key interception. Tramon Williams barely got thrown against, and had the game-winning pass break-up in the end. And James Starks went under-appreciated as well – though he only had 52 yards, he averaged 4.7 yards per carry with a long run of 14, which forced the Steelers to respect the run and bite on play-action. But the individual performances above stood out to me as key to strapping the championship belt on for real.
What a great game. What a great season. I’m still basking in the glory, and I will for months to come. As a little bonus, here’s a cool video on the NFL.com site recapping the game. Go Pack!!!