Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mr. Rodgers or Big Ben?

A 27-year-old Californian in his third season as a starter or a 28-year-old owner of two Lombardi trophies. Which is the best quarterback option for Super Bowl XLV?

Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers leads his Packers into the Feb. 6 game for his first shot at an NFL championship while Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger seeks title No. 3. The Steelers QB is the more accomplished, but Rodgers is arguably the better quarterback this season.

So, again, which one would you like leading your squad into the grandest game in professional sports? The newbie or the two-time champ?

Let’s take a deeper look.

The most prominent quarterback in Green Bay history finished his 2010 season with a 5-11 record for the Packers’ arch rival, the Minnesota Vikings. Meanwhile, Brett Favre’s replacement - Rodgers - has rapidly become an elite quarterback in his own right.

Rodgers swapped his headset for a Cheesehead helmet in 2008, after his predecessor became property of the New York Jets. After three seasons on the sideline, Green Bay’s 2005 1st round draft pick made his starting debut on Sept. 8 against Minnesota.

In that game, Rodgers promptly responded to the challenge completing 18 of 22 passes in leading the Packers to a 24-19 defeat of the Vikings in front of his Lambeau Field faithful. A sign of good things to come for the young quarterback and his cheesy Packers fan base.

Following the win, the new Green Bay signal caller would take his learning bumps in finishing his first season with a 6-10 record.

Rodgers excelled steadily and in 2009 achieved a 103.2 rating (nearly 10 points higher than 2008) and passed for 4,434 yards and 30 touchdowns in leading Green Bay to a 11-5 record and a wildcard playoff berth.

Despite the success, comparisons with Favre were as prevalent as ever. Not only did the 40-year-old, gray-bearded bravado have a better season than Rodgers last year, Favre led Minnesota to the NFC championship game.

Can Rodgers ever be as good as Favre? Will he ever step out of the Green Bay legend’s shadow?

Such questions often echoed in Cheesehead minds throughout Rodgers’ first two seasons. Today, Rodgers is providing answers, most of them encouraging.

Case in point, Jan. 15, when the sixth-seeded Packers faced top seed Atlanta in the Georgia Dome. Rodgers completed 31-36 passes for 366 yards and 3 TDs - and also rushed a TD - in leading the Pack to a dominating 48-21 victory.

Rodgers backed up that performance by defeating Green Bay’s longstanding rival Bears 21-14 for the NFC title last week at Soldier Field, cementing his first trip to the Super Bowl.

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy commented on his quarterback’s progression from Rodgers‘ first start in 2088 to his first championship game.

“I think any young quarterback who gets this opportunity - there is a ladder you have to climb,” McCarthy said, following Green Bay’s win in Chicago. “Now he gets the challenge to be a Super Bowl champion. To me, it’s the process and the progress of a young, talented, special individual who has taken full advantage of his opportunities.”

Rodgers has rapidly improved each season - passing for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns in his rookie season, throwing for 30 scores in 2009 and now leading Green Bay to its first Super Bowl appearance since 1997.

On the AFC side of this year’s championship equation is Roethlisberger.

Big Ben enters Super Bowl XLV with hopes of leading Pittsburgh to its third championship title in six seasons and seventh overall.

Roethlisberger led the Steelers to its previous two Bowl wins (2005 and 2008), while Pittsburgh legend Terry Bradshaw claimed the other four - all in the 1970s.

While Roethlisberger wore a irremovable, beaming smile after the Steelers defeated the New York Jets last week to win the AFC title, the burly QB’s seventh professional season arrived after a tumultuous off-season.

On March 5, 2010 an alleged incident took place at a nightclub in Millidgeville, GA where a 20-year-old woman accused Roethlisberger of sexual assault.

The public, in particular Pittsburgh, grew weary of the accomplished quarterback as investigations ensued. However, on April 12, a district attorney announced there was insufficient evidence and no charges would be filed against Roethlisberger.

While he was able to elude any legal penalties, Roethlisberger was punished by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He was suspended for six games and mandated to undergo behavior evaluation and counseling.

Months later the NFL announced Roethlisberger met certain behavioral conditions and that his suspension was reduced to four games. Off-field issues aside, most Pittsburgh fans didn’t know what to expect from their team regardless of the quarterback’s absence.

Last year - following its 2008 championship season - the Steelers finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs with a healthy, suspension-free Roethlisberger. Now the team had to start its 2010 season with inexperienced back-up Dennis Dixon and 13-year veteran Charlie Batch at the helm.

Pittsburgh weathered the storm, winning three of its four games without its star QB. When Roethlisberger returned to the field in week five it was like he never missed a beat. He threw for 257 yards and 3 TDs in the team’s Oct. 17 win over the Browns and went on to lead Pittsburgh in winning nine of its final 12 regular season games.

Roethlisberger’s efforts landed a two seed for the Steelers, allowing his team to enter the playoffs with a bye.

On Jan. 15, the 6-foot-5 native of Ohio passed for 226 yards and 2 TDs in leading Pittburgh past its most hated rival, the Baltimore Ravens, 31-24. The win sealed the Steelers a date with the Jets for the AFC title game last weekend.

In that game Roethlisberger had his team off to a great start as Pittsburgh built a commanding 24-0 lead. New York fought back to narrow that lead to five with 3:06 left on the game clock. The Jets defense kept its team’s hopes alive as Pittsburgh faced a 3rd-and-6 situation with two minutes remaining.

That’s when Big Ben made one of his signature clutch plays.

Head coach Rex Ryan’s stingy Jets defense chased Roethlisberger toward his right and had him pinned near the sideline heading out of bounds. It appeared Roethlisberger conceded the play over with and the Steelers would have to punt, when he made a sensational, savvy play to seal his team’s victory.

On the play, just as Roethlisberger’s body language indicated he had given up, he fired a quick strike to Antonio Brown for 14 yards and a first down, thereby clinching his team’s win and inducing Ryan to hurl his headset to the ground in disgust.

Roethlisberger’s clutch connection with Brown sets up a Super Bowl showdown between the Steelers and Packers. The last time these two matched up was Dec. 20 2009 when the Steelers defeated Green Bay 37-36 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field.

Roethlisberger passed for a team-record 503 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in that game. Rodgers wasn't too shabby himself, passing for 383 yards with 3 TDs and no picks.

Thus bringing us back to today. Green Bay’s Rodgers or Pittsburgh’s Roethlisberger - which quarterback would you choose to win Super Bowl XLV?

The answer is to be determined one week from today when the Packers and Steelers battle for football’s ultimate prize 6:29 p.m. (ET) at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas.