|The Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey has been ruled out of the Super Bowl with a sprained left ankle [GALLO/GETTY]
Preparations for Super Bowl XLV have been blighted by icy conditions in Texas but it is the ice away from the playing field that could have the greatest repercussions for the NFL.
Severe weather caused injuries to seven workers when ice fell from the roof of Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Friday, two days before the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Green Bay Packers for the Vince Lombardi trophy.
But it is the chill that exists between the NFL's team owners and the players union, and which has threatened to freeze out the entire 2011 season, that will be the main concern once the winners have finished their champagne on Sunday.
"Every player has heard me say to prepare for the worst"
DeMaurice Smith, NFL Players Association
The stark possibility is that there will be no NFL next year. Meaning the next Super Bowl would be in 2013 – at the earliest.
With just four weeks to go before the deadline for a new labour deal expires, the NFL players union says it is bracing for its first work stoppage in almost a quarter of a century.
"Every player has heard me say to prepare for the worst," DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said this week.
"I believe the owners have been taking steps for a lockout for a long time."
Smith is meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in Dallas on Saturday to try to hammer out a deal - covering everything from salaries to the rules of the college draft system – before the current collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight on March 3.
Smith said he had sat down for 40 sessions and about 200 hours of bargaining with the league but they remain miles apart on issues like financial transparency, expanded regular season schedule and revenue sharing.
"It wouldn't be an understatement to say there is disagreement," said Smith at the Sheraton Hotel in Dallas.
|Workers clear snow at Cowboys Stadium [GALLO/GETTY]
"Who would have thought that every NFL team would be worth one billion dollars today?
"The league had nine million dollars in revenues last year and that was generated through the worst recession of our lives."
One of the key stumbling blocks is the players demand that the owners reveal their accounts.
Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice president, insisted on Wednesday in Dallas that the league has already given the union all their financial information – a point that Smith denied.
Another major factor in the talks was expanding the NFL regular season from 16 to 18 games for each club, trimming two pre-season games in August from schedules in favour of more games that matter in the standings.
Smith says the wear and tear of an 18-game season on the players would be too much, with a player needing to complete three years in the NFL to qualify for five years of post-career healthcare. The average playing span is three-and-a-half years.
"Anything that increases the risk of injury and has the potential to shorten careers is something not in the best interest of the players," Smith said.
The annual Pro-Bowl game, which took place last week, demonstrates the players' unwillingness to cause injury. The all-star contest between the best players from the AFC and NFC conferences is played at snail's pace, with the gentlest of tackles being launched on the opposition.
The last time labour troubles came to a head was in 1987 when a players' strike lasted three weeks and clubs used replacement players to field teams.
Back on the field, Sunday's game sees the record six-times champions Steelers face the team that won the first two Super Bowls.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is seeking his third Super Bowl ring while Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hopes to finally put the Brett Favre era behind him by winning his first league championship.
|Smith said that NFL franchises should show their accounts to the players [GALLO/GETTY]
The game at Cowboys Stadium marks the first Super Bowl meeting between the Steelers and Packers, who have 13 appearances in the showpiece between them.
Organisers are expecting a record crowd, breaking the current attendance mark of 103,667 when Washington beat Miami in 1983 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, despite the weather making life difficult for the expected 150,000 football fans travelling to Dallas over the weekend.
Roethlisberger guided the Steelers to victories in Super Bowl XL in Detroit and Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida.
"In Detroit I was overwhelmed," Roethlisberger said.
"Tampa was a little bit better. You hope that you just get a little bit more comfortable with it so you won't have the same jitters that you had the first couple of times and you can go out there with the confidence that this is just another game."
Rodgers is in his first Super Bowl, but after talking to former players he says he has some idea of what to expect.
"Everybody I talked to this week that's played in this game has talked about just taking deep breaths and getting over the first few plays," Rodgers said.
Pittsburgh could be vulnerable at centre after star rookie Maurkice Pouncey was ruled out with a sprained left ankle on Friday, after being taken off injured in the first quarter of the AFC Championship game against the New York Jets.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies