TAMPA -- Denver over Green Bay following the 1997 season, New England over St. Louis following 2001 and the New York Giants over New England following 2007 all ranked as major stunners.
Pittsburgh is a seven-point favorite over Arizona, which is trying to become the first nine-victory team (regular season) to win the Super Bowl in a 16-game schedule.
But this game does not shape up as the slam dunk for the Steelers that so many people think it will be. There is an argument to be made that, despite their play before then, the Cardinals straightened themselves out with a fine performance in their last regular-season game against Seattle, which positioned them for a good playoff run.
It could be not unlike a year ago, when the Giants, despite losing to the Patriots in their final game, credited the performance that night with spurring them through the wild-card round to the championship.
I expect the Cardinals to win a relatively high-scoring game.
This is why: Kurt Warner and his receivers.
The Steelers had the best defense in the league this year, but if there is a weakness, it is in the secondary. I know the stats don't bear that out, but Pittsburgh's pass defense success goes well beyond the Steelers' ability to blitz and get to the quarterback.
Of Pittsburgh's 16 games, half of them were against teams ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in passing. All three Steelers opponents in the NFC North, Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati, ranked among the NFL's bottom five teams in passing yardage.
Conventional wisdom would hold the 3-4 defense is a challenge for the Cards, but Arizona played six games against 3-4 teams this year, and all six ranked in the top half of the league on defense. The Cardinals won four of those six games. So the 3-4 won't be as strange to Warner as it was, say, when he and the Rams were upset by the Patriots seven years ago.
Now, we come to the matter of pass protection. Arizona ranked No. 7 in the NFL in sack avoidance; Pittsburgh ranked second in making sacks on defense. Unlike his days with Mike Martz in St. Louis, Warner is not asked to hold the ball forever on seven-step drops. He gets rid of the ball quickly, which makes it tough for the pass rush to get to him.
Warner has been sacked only three times while throwing 92 passes in the playoffs.
Arizona has done a good job in the playoffs of maintaining offensive balance, The Cardinals have rushed the ball 100 times -- 33 per game, compared with an average of 21 rushes per game during the regular season. The average has not been great, just 3.3 yards a carry, but coaches will tell you forever that the key rushing statistic is how many times you try, because that opens up the passing game.
The Cardinals also have been playing good defense in the playoffs, certainly better than they did during the season. The key figure here is the turnovers; Arizona has forced 12 in three games.
So, how can Pittsburgh which is, after all, favored, win the game?
For the Steelers, the key is to keep it low-scoring and keep the heat on Warner. They need a good game from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger; three years ago, the Steelers won the Super Bowl over Seattle even though Roethlisberger stunk up the joint with one of the worst-ever games by a winning quarterback in the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh must find a way to slow down the Cardinals' offense. The Steelers are not likely to stop it cold. One way, of course, is to keep Arizona off the field, the way they did against San Diego in the divisional playoffs earlier this month.
In that game, the Steelers had an eight-minute touchdown drive in the third quarter, also scored on a punt return and kept San Diego off the field for all but one play in the third quarter thanks to an interception and the recovery of a muffed punt. Pittsburgh finished with a 13-minute advantage in time of possession, but San Diego still managed to score 24 points despite its miscues.
Look for Pittsburgh to try to maintain possession with the running game and to try to disrupt Warner with the zone blitzes. The key for the Steelers, however, will be covering Warner's receivers. They must do that to win.
Super Bowl XLIII: Better Team Will Win
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