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Ness Notes: Super Bowl Report
by Larry Ness - 01/25/2009
The Pittsburgh Steelers were the AFC's No. 2 seed with a 12-4 record and were the last of the 12 teams in this year's postseason-field to actually take the playing field. By the time the Steelers were set to host the San Diego Chargers on January 11 at 4:45 ET, here's the highlights of what had already transpired in this year's NFL postseason.
The Chargers (an 8-8 team in the regular season) had knocked off the Colts 23-17 (OT) in the Wild Card Round, a team which had entered the postseason on a nine-game winning streak and featured the NFL's MVP for 2008, Peyton Manning. After handling the Dolphins 27-9 in their first game, the Ravens won 13-10 at Tennessee in the Divisional Round, knocking off the Titans, who at 13-3 were the AFC's No.1 seed.
Over in the NFC, the 9-7 Cardinals beat the Falcons 30-24 at home and then shocked the 12-4 Panthers (the NFL's lone 8-0 home team this regular season), winning 33-13 in Charlotte. The Eagles beat the Vikings in Minnesota in the Wild Card Round and then knocked off the Giants (NFC's No. 1 seed at 12-4), 23-11 at the Meadowlands.
The Steelers had to be 'smiling' that day, as their "path to the Super Bowl" would require them only to win home games vs the 8-8 Chargers and the Ravens, a team they knew well, had beaten twice already this year and one which would be starting a rookie QB (Joe Flacco). The Chargers hardly went 'down' easily, as the Steelers didn't take their first lead until there were just 40 seconds remaining in the first half (14-10) and while they won 35-24, didn't break the game open until the fourth quarter.
The Steelers also may have felt 'lucky' that prior to taking the field against the Ravens in the AFC championship game on January 18, the Cardinals had just beaten the Eagles 32-25 in the NFC championship game. After all, the Cards are a franchise which has had just two winning seasons since coming to Arizona prior to the 1988 season and of course, had never been to a Super Bowl. In comparison, the Eagles were led by a veteran coach (Andy Reid) and QB (Donovan McNabb), who was on quite a roll since getting benched back in Week 12. What's more, in Week 3, the Eagles' swarming defense had nine sacks, forced a safety and got three turnovers in a 15-6 Philadelphia win over the Steelers.
Pittsburgh went on to beat the Ravens 23-14, holding Baltimore to just 198 yards of total offense. Troy Polamalu clinched the win with a 40-yard interception return for a TD, as Joe Flacco played like a rookie, finishing with 141 passing yards, three interceptions and an 18.2 passer rating. The win clinched a seventh Super Bowl appearance for Pittsburgh (only the Cowboys have more with eight) and a win on February 1 would break a three-way with the Cowboys and the 49ers (all have won five Super Bowls) for most Super Bowl titles.
Waiting for the Steelers in Tampa will be the Arizona Cardinals, who arguably just completed "the worst regular season" of any Super Bowl participant in history. So does that mean the Steelers are a 'lock?' I think not. The Arizona team which played the regular season would not be a worthy opponent but the team which owns three straight playoff wins, surely is. Here's a look.
The 9-7 Cards have become just the second team with less than 10 regular season wins to advance to the Super Bowl since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. For history buffs, I'll also point out the Green Bay Packers of 1967 made it to Super Bowl II (and beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14), after a 9-4-1 regular season. However, returning to the post-1978 NFL, only the LA Rams of 1979 (also 9-7), have preceded the Cardinals as a Super Bowl team with less than 10 regular season wins (not counting the '82 season which was limited to nine games because of a strike).
I often mention that the world of sports has a certain symmetry to it and it should be noted that like this year's Cardinals, those 1979 Rams also faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in their Super Bowl appearance, losing 31-19. Think I'm stretching things a little bit here with my symmetry argument? If so, then let me submit for your approval the fact that the Cardinals franchise had won just one previous NFC or NFL title game in its history prior to beating the Eagles on January 18. Who did the Cards (then located in Chicago) beat in that 1947 NFL title game? You guessed it, the Philadelphia Eagles (28-21)!
Now back to the case at hand. Most know that the Cardinals won a very weak NFC West this year by going 6-0 vs their NFC West foes, while going 3-7 (4-6 ATS) against the rest of the NFL. It's also been well-documented that the Cards were 0-5 SU (1-4 ATS) in Eastern time zone games during the regular season, including a 56-35 loss at the Jets, a 48-20 loss at the Eagles and a 47-7 loss at the Patriots. Those are some pretty 'ugly' results for a Super Bowl team. Here's some more "fuel for the fire."
The Cards lost 35-14 at home to the Vikings in Week 15 and in Week 16, lost 47-7 at New England. The Cardinals trailed 28-0 at half to the Vikings and 31-0 at the half to the Pats. With those back-to-back performances, the Cardinals became the first team since the 1961 Oakland Raiders (that's back in the AFL days folks!) to trail 28-0 or worse at the half in consecutive games. What's more, since they had already clinched a playoff spot by the time those games were played, they also became the first team in NFL history to trail by 30-plus points at halftime twice in the same season and still make playoffs in that year (Cards also trailed 34-0 at Jets in that Week 4 loss).
We all know that Kurt Warner had a terrific season and that Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston all had 1,000 yards receiving but unbalanced teams rarely advance in the postseason. Also, there is the Arizona defense. The Cards scored 427 points this year but allowed 426. The team's 26.6 PPG ranked 28th and while the team's overall defensive rank was middle-of-the-pack (19th), the Arizona pass defense allowed an NFL-high 36 TD passes, with just 13 interceptions. This is just more evidence in support of Arizona being the worst regular season team to ever make a Super Bowl.
A quick check of the record book shows that only two previous Super Bowl winners (I'll name them shortly) have allowed more than 350 points during the regular season and that the average total of points allowed of the 28 Super Bowl winners since the advent of the 16-game schedule comes in at 257.2 (there have been 30 Super Bowls in that span but the '82 and '87 seasons were shortened by player strikes to nine and 15 games, respectively). That's almost 170 points less (168.8 to be exact) than what the Cards allowed in 2008! Of the 56 teams which have played in the previous 28 Super Bowls (with full 16-game schedules), just 17 (or 30.4 percent) have allowed as many as 300 points during the regular season. The Cards' defense is surely in a "class of its own."
Now here's why all of what happened in the regular season may not matter. Let's start with the defense. I just mentioned that only two past Super Bowl winners (16-game schedule only) have allowed more than 350 points during the regular season. Which two? How about the last two! The Colts of 2006 allowed 360 points in the regular season but held the Chiefs and Ravens to a combined 14 points in winning their first two playoff games. They then overcame a slow start to shut down the Pats in the second half of the AFC championship game (Colts rallied from a 21-3 deficit to win 38-34) and in the Super Bowl, held the Bears to just three points after Chicago scored 14 first-quarter points (one TD came on the opening KO), while holding Chicago to 11 FDs and 265 yards for the game.
The NY Giants allowed 351 points in the 2007 regular season but everyone remembers the way the Giants' defense played in last year's postseason. After beating the Bucs 24-14, the Giants held the Cowboys to three second-half points in a 21-17 win at Dallas, Favre and the Packers to 13 FDs and 264 yards in a 23-20 OT win in Green Bay and then beat "the unbeatable" Patriots in the Super Bowl, holding the NFL's most prolific offense (589 points scored in 16 games) to just 14 points, while harassing Brady all game on the way to collecting five sacks.
The point is, the Arizona defense of the regular season is not the one we see now. The Cards rattled rookie QB Matt Ryan early and the rushing D held Turner and Co. to 60 yards on 24 attempts (2.5 YPC) and the entire Atlanta offense to just 250 yards in a wild card win. At Carolina, the Cards forced Jake Delhomme into six turnovers (five INTs and a fumble), while holding the Panthers to just 269 yards. Then in the NFC title game vs Philly, the big plays came in the first half, as Philly's second-half outburst proved not to be enough.
As for Arizona's dismal running game, Edgerrin James has 'fresh' legs (52-203 / 3.9 YPC) these days and against the Panthers and Eagles, the Cards averaged 122.0 YPG on the ground (3.9 YPC). That may not seem like a big deal but compared to the team's season-average of 73.6 YPG (3.5 YPC), it is. Warner and the passing game don't need too much help but they do need some. Poor rushing teams rarely make the postseason and the few that have, lose early. Consider this.
The Cards finished the regular season dead last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (73.6) with the Colts finishing 31st at 79.6 YPG. Surprisingly, both made the playoffs. Why do I say surprisingly? Here's why.
Since the 1970 merger (39 seasons), there have been 78 teams to finish last or next-to-last in rushing and only 12 of those teams made the postseason. Prior to this year, the only team of the previous 10 to win even one playoff game was the 1978 Falcons, who beat the Eagles 14-13 before losing their next game to the Cowboys.
This year's Colts bowed out in their first game (like most of the others) but the Cards have "shown their mettle" by winning not just once but three times and now to find themselves in the Super Bowl. Are the Cards really this year's "team of destiny?"
WR Larry Fitzgerald has put together a historic postseason, with 23 receptions for 419 yards (18.2 YPC) with five TDs. The 419 yards is already the most receiving yards in one postseason (Jerry Rice had 409 yards in 1988) and he's still got one game left. Then of course, there is Kurt Warner. Warner came out of nowhere to lead the Rams to two Super Bowls in a three-year span (1999-2001), winning MVP awards in both Super Bowls seasons ('99 and '01), while leading the Rams to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Warner played just nine games in 2002 and 2003 (4 TDs and 12 INTs) and was off to the Giants in 2004, where in 10 games he had just six TD passes. He was considered 'washed-up' and went to the Cards in 2005. He took over for an injured Matt Leinart last year and finished with 3,417 yards (27 TDs and 17 INTs) in 14 games. This year, he beat out Leinart in the summer and finished with his second-best single-season yardage total (4,583 yards), completed 67.1 percent of his passes, threw 30 TDs with 14 INTs and had a QB rating of 96.9.
He's now in his third Super Bowl and joins Craig Morton as the only QBs to lead two different teams into a Super Bowl. Morton was on the losing side with the Cowboys in Super Bowl V and with the Broncos in Super Bowl XII, against the Cowboys (there's that symmetry thing again!). Warner has a chance to be a winner for the second time (with different teams) and only four QBs in NFL history own more than two Super Bowl wins. Bradshaw and Montana have won four apiece, while Aikman and Brady each own three wins.
I'll release my Super Bowl pick shortly (it may be available by the time you read this) but if I'm on Pittsburgh, it's NOT because of the fact that the Cards of 2008 own "the worst regular season" of any Super Bowl participant in history. The team's postseason play to-date has made that point moot.