(Tampa, FL) – – The 2008 NFL season themed, “Believe In Now”, will finish it’s oh-too-fast season with Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals take center stage in the biggest game in sports. It will be interesting to see if Super Bowl XLIII ends the ’08 season with a bang or a blowout, which seems to have happened way too much in Super Bowl history. No matter how the Super Bowl ends, the 2008 NFL Season should be titled, “One Crazy Season”. I don’t think anyone’s crystal ball registered the Cardinals against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII way back in September — remember I picked the Colts over the Saints. But this is the match-up that the parity-laden National Football League has handed us for February 1st and I for one am excited to see this improbable match-up even if the time-honored tradition of Super Bowl hype is not overly surrounding this game.
Once the Conference Championships games were completed with the Steelers 23-14 win over the Baltimore Ravens and the Cardinals 32-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, everyone through their disappointment of a non-marquee match-up tried to come up with a catchy Don King-esque box office selling theme for Super Bowl XLIII. Some slogans that I have heard bantered about have been “Tradition vs. New Kid on the Block”, “Model NFL Franchise vs. A Glorified Arena Football Team”, “The Haves vs. The Have Nots”, “Stability vs. Nomads”, “History Book vs. Storybook”, “Rich Man-Poor Man”, and the very harsh “Perennial Winners vs. Perennial Losers” — BTW: Whatever happened to great titles like the “Thrilla in Manila” and the “Rumble in the Jungle”. All of the current themes that I have pointed out all touch on the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the NFL’s most revered and respected franchises and the lowly Cardinals are not. The Steelers going back to their inception in 1933 were built by the late Art Rooney, one of the original patriarchs of the NFL, to be franchise as tough as the blue collar City of Steel that they represent and now they are aiming to become the first NFL team in history to win six Super Bowl titles, which the Steelers’ Black-and-Gold nation is already calling “The Six Pack”. The Steelers all-time record is 520-488-20 with a postseason record 30-19 in forty-nine games and they will be making their seventh Super Bowl appearance, second most all-time behind the Cowboys’ eight.
While Steelers’ are draped in tradition, the poor Cardinals have notoriously been a punch-line to many NFL jokes going back to their days in Chicago when they played second-fiddle to George Halas’ Chicago Bears. The Cardinals, established in 1920 as one of the NFL’s first teams, have a forgettable all-time record of 473-674-39 with a 5-5 playoff record and two distant NFL Championships in 1925 and 1947. But the times have changed, just ask big Cardinals fan John McCain who lost to upstart newly sworn-in President Barack Obama. The new young upstart Arizona Cardinals, who are on their third franchise home, have an NFL-high 674 franchise losses — if you can believe it the Cardinals have 105 more losses than the lowly Detroit Lions — and have not won a championship in over 60 years (never been to a Super Bowl or Conference Championship until now) are in the Super Bowl. Ironically the Cardinals will be led in Super Bowl XLIII by former Steelers’ Super Bowl XL offensive coordinator turned Cardinals’ head coach Ken Whisenhunt and bunch of players and coaches with Pittsburgh roots (former University of Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald, stellar Pittsburgh high school star receiver Steve Breaston, O-line coach and former Steelers assistant Russ Grimm, special teams ace Sean Morey and others). The Cardinals will be looking to start a new franchise chapter by putting their tradition-less rancid days– remember players like quarterback Stoney Case and defensive stalwart Eric Swann playing games at half-empty Sun Devil Stadium — behind them by kicking the storied Steelers’ butts. I know a lot of people are already counting the seven-point underdog Cardinals out, but redemption maybe theirs as their Bible-toting quarterback Kurt Warner would say. Speaking of Warner, with his third Super Bowl his chances of going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame have been bolstered.
Warner said of his possible Hall of Fame legacy being cemented with a win in Super Bowl XLIII, “My approach is hoping that every player that I’ve played with, every place that I’ve been, that in some way, shape or form, I leave my stamp on those people and those places, that’s what I want my legacy to be. The football stuff, that’s all gravy.”
So enough already with the continually beaten same-old-tired story that many are selling that one team belongs here and the other is just lucky. I believe like many Steelers players, who vividly remember last season’s Week 4 loss to the Cardinals by the score 21-14, that Whisenhunt’s team is a hungry bunch and that should be respected. Cardinals cornerback Ralph Brown said, “We’re trying to start our tradition with one Lombardi Trophy, the Steelers are trying to add to their legacy, it’s exciting, two different organizational histories – what they have accomplished and what we haven’t – and where we’re at now.” Remember that anything that could happen has happened in this crazy 2008 season where “Any Given Sunday” has rung true week in and week out. Forget franchise histories, Super Bowl XLIII should have the moniker, “The Battle of Pittsburgh vs. Pittsburgh West”. Plain and simple it is a match-up of one team that has studied the success model of one of the NFL’s all-time best and borrowed some of it’s pieces in an attempt to beat them. Cardinals Pro Bowl special teamer Sean Morey, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers in 2005, said of the teams similar identities, “The identity of the Pittsburgh Steelers over the past few decades has been blue-collar, smashmouth, hit-you-in-the-mouth and a really tough, physical, disciplined and smart-situational football team. They’re well-coached, and I think the identity of the Arizona Cardinals is following suit”. The special teamer who beat the Cowboys with a blocked punt in overtime added, “The mentality and approach that Coach Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm have contributed to that”. There is also a huge revenge factor in this game as Steelers 36-year old upstart head coach Mike Tomlin was hired by Steelers owner Dan Rooney over Whisenhunt and Grimm (perceived to be the first two choices) to replace Bill Cowher back in 2007. Make no bones about it, the upstart Arizona Cardinals should be fighting mad by virtue of people questioning their place on the NFL’s biggest stage. If I were the Steelers, I would do as Chuck D used to rap “Don’t Believe the Hype”, because the former 9-7 Cardinals have been one of the NFL’s hottest teams since the playoffs started — since their 47-7 massacre by the Patriots in Week 16, the Cardinals have won four straight games include three in the playoffs by a score of 129 to 83. The key for both remaining teams is focusing on their precious opportunity to win a Super Bowl and forgetting everything else that has transpired in the past 20 weeks leading up to the big game.
Lloyd’s Leftovers for Super Bowl XLIII
Being #1 Seed is not what it used to be – Remember when attaining the No. 1 seed in your conference and home field advantage used to mean something back in the day. But in today’s parity-laden NFL there are no guarantees to Super Bowl entry and this year is no different as the Giants and Titans were out in the divisional round. Since 1990 only 17 of 36 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl with only 8 of those teams winning it all. The last time two No. 1 seeds faced off was in Super Bowl XXVIII (1993) with Buffalo vs. Dallas.
Not much Trash Talking at this Super Bowl – With the mutual respect between the Steelers and Cardinals there has not been the obligatory player trash talking. Remember in Super Bowl XL how then Seattle Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens made some comments about Steelers that got the dander up of then Steelers linebacker Joey Porter. This time both teams were complimentary at media and guarded during media day interviews. Too bad Porter is no longer on the Steelers, because he is always a good for a rousing soundbite. Steelers’ linebacker James Farrior said of Porter’s absence, “We always loved him for that. He’s still doing it today for the Miami Dolphins, and he hasn’t changed one bit. I kind of wish we had him here to stir things up a little bit today, but we’ll do without him.”
Still watch for everyone’s favorite Super Bowl Ads – Every year one of the bigger events of the Super Bowl is watching the ads. It was feared with the economy going south that not many companies would be buying time. But NBC had the novel idea of selling a lot of their ads early last year. NBC sold 85% of their 30-second commercials for a record $3 million. NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol recently said about the sold ads being sold before the economy slowed, “That’s our saving grace right now”. It was reported that twelve commercial spots sold for $3 million and NBC held all buyers except Budweiser, which purchases in bulk, to a price of at least $2.6 million.
Collinsworth next in line for SNF gig?? — With rumors circulating that Sunday’s broadcast could be one of John Madden’s last, NBC has already has decided if the Hall of Famer leaves that former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth would be his replacement. Collinsworth replaced Madden for one week this season and NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol was impressed saying, “I wish I could clone Cris, I told Cris if John ever decided to retire he would be the first guy.” Ebersol is even think of asking Madden, age 72, to take one week off each season so he can recharge. However Ebersol indicated that there are not plans to push Madden out by saying, “I’d be devastated if (Madden) decided to stop doing (NBC Sunday Night Football”.
Steelers (14-4) Vs. Cardinals (12-7), Sunday 6:30 PM, NBC
Broadcasting Team: John Madden, Al Michaels, and Andrea Kremer (Field Reporter)
The AFC #2 seeded Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFC #4 seeded Arizona Cardinals will square off in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida and though this may have not been the match-up that everyone had hoped for, I fully expect a good game. The big story going into Super Bowl XLIII has been two former Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks squaring off with the Cardinals led by former Rams Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner and the Steelers going with Super Bowl XL winner Ben Roethlisberger. But the story of the game to me is a classic match-up of the Steelers NFL top-ranked defense (allowed 237.2 yards per game in the regular season) versus the Cardinals high-powered offense (scored 427 points in the regular season ranking 2nd in the NFL). Though the usual line is “Defense Wins Championships”, you definitely have to go deeper in this match-up than to immediately dismiss the Cardinals and had the Lombardi Trophy to the Steelers. Like any playoff game, the Super Bowl will be won or lost with keys — Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, and Limiting Penalties. So far in the playoffs the Steelers and Cardinals have lived by the keys mentioned especially running the football with the Cardinals rediscovering Edgerrin James (NFL’s 11th All-time rusher) to go along with rookie sensation Tim Hightower (Ran the ball 29 times to only 18 for the Eagles in the NFC Championship) and the Steelers finally getting some quality running from a healthy Willie Parker (career high 146 rushing yards against the Chargers). The two teams have also lived off turnovers, which we know are instant game turners — turnover margin has been good to the Steelers (+5) and the Cardinals (+9) in the playoffs.
The last time the Cardinals suited it up for the NFL’s championship was December 19, 1948 in the NFL Championship Game (Eagles won 7-0 in the snow), but they are a “hot” team that has been very dangerous in the playoffs. The Cardinals story has been unfathomable — only the second 9-win regular season team to make the Super Bowl (other team was the 1979 Rams) — as they have overcome a 3-5 road record including five blowout losses on the East Coast to win their first division title since 1975. Led by veteran former 2-time MVP quarterback Kurt Warner, the playoffs have been a different story. As a home underdog the Cardinals beat the Falcons 30-24 and then in probably the biggest shocker of the 2008 NFL playoffs, the Cards demoralized the No. #2 seeded Panthers 33-13 in their own stadium and they punched their Super Bowl ticket with a tough 32-25 win over the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. In their NFC Championship game over the Eagles, the Cardinals cemented their place in Tampa with a chain-moving 72-yard, 14 play drive that took 7:52 minutes off the clock and culminated with a perfectly executed Warner 8-yard screen pass to rookie RB Tim Hightower. The Cardinals are always looking for the big down-the-field play, so the Steelers must stay with their coverage assignments and get pressure on Warner. Conversely the Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley will need to continue to mix the run and pass to keep the Steelers attacking defense off-balance.
The Steelers have done a great job on defense so far in the playoffs forcing six turnovers while allowing only 449 passing yards and only 38 points in two playoff games. But Warner (401-598, 4583 yards, and 30 TDs) when given time has weapons in receivers Larry Fitzgerald (An NFL record of 419 yards receiving in the playoffs and 4 touchdowns), Anquan Boldin (Pro Bowl – hamstring), and Steve Breaston (1,000 receiving yards in ’08). Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of covering former PITT All-American receiver Fitzgerald down the field, “Larry Fitzgerald is quite simply the best in the world down the field in one-on-one situations, if we’re going to be successful in Tampa, we need to limit the number of times we’re downfield with him one-on-one because invariably he’s going to come up with the football.” The Steelers front seven led by Defensive MVP James Harrison (2nd in the AFC in Sacks with 16), stout nose tackle Casey Hampton, and probably the NFL’s most athletic linebacking crew (James Farrior, Larry Foote, Lamarr Woodley, and Harrison) will need to get pressure so that big play safety Troy Polamulu — against the Ravens, he had four tackles and put the Steelers in their 7th Super Bowl with his 40-yard interception touchdown return — can make another game changing play. Pressure is everything to the Steelers and recently Woodley said about Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s attacking system, “You don’t know at the snap whether they’re rushing or not rushing. And that adds a whole other dimension to playing against a 3-4 defense. You don’t know at the snap whether that guy is rushing”. Way back in Week 4 of the 2007 season, the Steelers held the Cardinals to 225 passing yards and 1 touchdown, but Fitzgerald had a huge day catching 11 passes for 123 yards so the Steelers will need 22 eyes on him at all times. Watch for veteran cornerbacks Ike Taylor and DeShea Townsend plus unsung free safety Ryan Clark to help Polamulu in coverage. The one thing LeBeau (king of the zone blitz) will need to guard against is getting too blitz happy against Warner. The 37-year old former Super Bowl MVP triggerman is very dangerous from his years with the Rams at recognizing defensive schemes and audibling when needed.
Watch for an improving Cardinals’ “D”, who were 19th in total defense during the regular season (331.5), but have picked it up in the playoffs limiting their opponents to an average of 259.5 yards before the Eagles exploded for 454 total yards. The Cardinal defense led by perennial unknown Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson has thrived on forcing pressure and creating turnovers. The Cardinals defense has forced 12 turnovers in postseason wins against Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia, so it will imperative that they continue that trend. The Cardinals will need to get to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been sacked an NFL high 51 times including five times in the playoffs, so that the he can’t get the ball to Hines Ward and game-changer Santonio Holmes (Punt return for a touchdown against the Chargers and a 65-yard touchdown catch against the Ravens). Wilson said of the tough task of taking on Roethlisberger, “It’s hard for us, or any defender, to bring him down, he does a great job of looking off the safety. … He’s been in that offense for quite a long time now, so we’re going to have our hands full”. The Cardinals will also need to keep an eye on my X-factor, Steelers tight end Heath Miller, as Eagles TE Brent Celek had a career-high 10 catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC Championship against the Cardinals.
Both teams have solid special teams with the Cardinals being led by former Pro Bowl kicker Neil Rackers and their ace on all ST units Sean Morey, who is known for blocking and recovering an overtime punt against the Cowboys back in Week 6. The Steelers will look for explosive returner Santonio Holmes to break one and for continued strong kicking by kicker Jeff Reed.
LV’s Pick: Now that all of the hype and talk around Super Bowl XLIII is almost finished our attentions can turn to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The Steelers have been installed as a 7-point favorite, but I truly believe that the “disrespected” Cardinals will make this a game. I expect the Steelers to dictate the pace of the game early with efficient passing by Big Ben, hard running by Willie Parker, and their attacking defense. But Warner and Fitzgerald will hook-up for a Super Bowl moment and they may even temporarily throw a scare into the Steelers. But in the end, the Steelers Black-and-Gold nation will leave Tampa happy as the Steelers veterans from Super Bowl XL will step up. The Steelers add one for their second hand and watch for Hines Ward, Heath Miller, and Troy Polamulu as the difference makers for P-Burgh. — Steelers 23, Cardinals 17
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)
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