Sunday, January 25, 2009
On paper, the Pittsburgh Steelers have the edge over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. But as Kenny Mayne says, "We know that these games aren't played on paper, but by the little men inside our TV sets."
First off, how did these teams get here? The Pittsburgh Steelers took a slightly more conventional path. They won the difficult AFC North with a 12-4 record, receiving a first-round bye into the playoffs. Once there, they beat the upstart San Diego Chargers in the Divisional Round before taking out their bitter rival the Baltimore Ravens in the Conference Championship by a score of 23-14. They come into the Super Bowl tough and battle tested.
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The Arizona Cardinals, on the other hand, are not a team that we expected to be playing into October. They limped into the playoffs at 9-7, getting in only because they won the worst division in football. During the regular season, they went 6-0 against teams in the NFC West, and 3-7 against everyone else. They ended the regular season playing really bad football, struggling after they clinched the division, and looked like the prime example of a team that would be making an early exit. But then, something clicked. They had a home playoff game against wildcard Atlanta, and played inspired football, mixing things up offensively and getting to QB Matt Ryan repeatedly en route to a 30-24 victory. That brought them a date with the Carolina Panthers, a team many thought might be the best in the NFC. Instead of being intimidated, they went into Carolina and shocked them, dominating the game for a 33-13 win. In the Conference Championship, they got another home game, this time against the Philadelphia Eagles, and Kurt Warner led them to a late TD drive for a 32-25 win in one of the best games of the playoffs. That got them a date with the Steelers here in the Super Bowl.
For Pittsburgh, everything starts with the defense, a unit which might be the best in the NFL. Coach Mike Tomlin sets the tone for a tough, aggressive unit, and they go after the QB all day long. The defense is led by James Harrison, the best LB in the NFL this year, finishing with 16 sacks and 7 FF. The LBs are athletic and can get to the QB on a consistent basis, which stops the opposing offense from ever really getting into a rhythm. Even if the QB does have time, he has to look out for Troy Polamalu in the secondary, who finished with 7 INT. The offense of the Steelers is a pretty balanced unit, with gritty QB Ben Roethlisberger leading the charges, throwing the ball to explosive Santonio Holmes, or Hines Ward, who is perhaps the best short-yardage WR in the NFL. They have multiple options running the football, from Willie Parker to Mewelde Moore to Gary Russell. This allows them to simply go with the hot hand there.
In Arizona, offense is the name of the game. They have an explosive unit, and can score from anywhere on the field with their passing game. Kurt Warner has resurrected his career, throwing for nearly 4600 yards and 30 TDs this year. He showed that when he has time, he can still be the most accurate passer in the NFL, fitting the ball in places where you wouldn't expect it to fit, and throwing the deep ball with accuracy. On the outside, they have perhaps the best 1-2 combo at WR in the NFL. The leader is Larry Fitzgerald, who has seemed to break out here in the playoffs to stake his claim as the best WR in football. He has incredible hands, uses his body well, and has deceptive speed. He finished with 1431 yards and 12 TD in the regular season, and has over 400 yards receiving in 3 playoff games. He is flanked by Anquan Boldin, a tough WR who is not afraid to catch the ball in traffic. At certain points this year he has looked even better than Fitzgerald, and he makes sure that teams can't just key on stopping 1 WR. They need to work on balancing the passing game with a rushing game so that defenses can't just tee off on Warner, but make no mistake, they will be able to put some points on the board.
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Arizona has more momentum coming into the game, riding their improbable run into the Super Bowl. And in a 1 game Super Bowl, anything can happen. However, I like the team with more talent here, the Pittsburgh Steelers. They have shown their toughness all season long, and should be able to put pressure on Kurt Warner to at least slow down the Arizona passing attack. The Cardinals will be able to make a game of it, but I like the Steelers to win it, 27-17.
What's your prediction?