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Super Bowl XLIII: An Early Look
by Al McMordie - 01/26/2009
The theme of this Super Bowl is already evident: Defense or offense? The Cardinals have the No. 4 offense in the NFL, No. 2 in passing, behind QB Kurt Warner and a talented trio of three-1,000+ yard receivers. The physical Steelers have the No. 1 defense. History says defense wins championships, which is why Pittsburgh is favored. But there's a reason they play the games, as we saw last season when the double-digit Giants stunned the 18-0 Patriots, 17-14.
It's been a while since we've seen the Cardinals in a championship football game -- 1947! It really is astounding to see this Arizona team as NFC Champs. Its flaws are numerous: 19th rated defense in the NFL, a 9-7 record out of the weak NFC West, a poor road team, no running game, as well as some truly wretched performances. A 56-35 loss at the NY Jets; a 48-20 loss at Philadelphia; a 35-14 home loss to Minnesota; an embarrassing 47-7 loss at New England where the players didn't even show up. That loss to New England was their last defeat, on a 4-0 SU/ATS run when it matters most.
As bad as some of their performances were, there are some things to admire. The passing offense is truly impressive with veteran QB Kurt Warner (30 TDs, 14 INTs, 4,583 yards), WR Larry Fitzgerald (1,431 yards, 12 TDs), All-Pro wideout Anquan Boldin (1,038 yards, 11 TDs) and young WR Steve Breaston (1,006 yards).
As sizzling as those numbers are, what's been most amazing is the play of this young defense in the postseason. The Cardinals faced two of the top three running teams in the NFL in the playoffs and shut both of them down. Atlanta, second in the league with an average of 152.7 yards a game, had 60 yards rushing against Arizona, a 30-24 defeat. Carolina, third in the NFL with a 152.3 average, gained just 75 yards in a 33-13 rout. Arizona is on a 12-4 run over the total.
It's worth repeating: The Cardinals opened as an underdog in every playoff game (though became a favorite at close in the game vs. Atlanta). They are the ultimate "no one respects us" club. Now, before I praise the Arizona defense too much, let's look at the last game. It allowed a 19-0 second half run by the Eagles, blew a 24-6 lead and gave up 454 total yards. On the one hand, the Arizona defense has been better than expected in the postseason, and certainly is surprising everyone with multiple looks and aggressive, controlled zone blitzes. On the other hand, does all that mask what is still a below-average defense? Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator with the Steelers under Bill Cowher when they won the Super Bowl four years ago.
Standing in the way of the miracle Cardinals are the physical Steelers. Pittsburgh earned a bye week as the No. 2 seed, watched all other top seeds fall, and now this veteran team is poised for its second Super Bowl title in four years. They are also hot, on an 8-1 SU, 7-2 ATS run. Four years ago when they won the title, the Steelers were also playing their best football at the right time of the year, riding a 7-0 SU, 6-1 ATS run into the big game.
Pittsburgh's offensive numbers aren't very good, ranked 22nd in total offense, but that's a bit deceptive. Normally it is a power running team, but ranks just 23rd in rushing with 105 yards per game. The offensive line has been up and down and the Steelers battled injuries to their running backs. But the line has played well in the postseason and Parker is healthy. He ran for 146 yards in the 35-24 playoff win over San Diego.
QB Ben Roethlisberger (17 TDs, 15 picks) was often running for his life when the running game was stagnant. He has excellent targets in WR Santonio Holmes (821 yards), veteran Hines Ward (1,043 yards) and TE Heath Miller (514). Many of the players from the 2005 title team are still around, though the head coach is different (Mike Tomlin).
Looking back on the regular season, the Steelers have the more impressive credentials. Pittsburgh lost three close games to the Eagles, Colts and defending champion Giants. Its only one-sided loss was to Tennessee, 31-14. All were playoff teams. It won easily at Washington (23-6) and New England (33-10) and swept the Ravens three times.
In contrast, Arizona had all those ugly losses on the road and gave up 37 points in a home loss to the Giants. It will be the No. 1 defense against the deadly passing offense. Super Bowl 43 should be a fascinating one to dissect over the next week, and a fun one to watch. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.