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.
The Cardinals have been encouraged by the performance of injured players in practice this week and anticipate being close to full strength on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII.
The status of backup running back J.J. Arrington was the biggest question. Arrington, also the team?s kick returner, suffered a knee injury in the NFC title game and missed practice all last week. He returned this week and has looked good in practice, according to coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Defensive end Antonio Smith has been limited in practice this week after suffering a knee injury against the Eagles in the NFC title game. But an MRI revealed no structural damage and Smith should be nearly 100 percent for the game.
An injury at outside linebacker would be problematic for the Cardinals. Clark Haggans is on injured reserve and Travis LaBoy is going to try to play with a biceps tendon injury.
LaBoy probably will be limited to certain situations, but he should be able to give starter Bertrand Berry a breather occasionally. The special teams should be in good shape. Punter Ben Graham?s groin strain has improved and he has punted in practice this week. Kicker Neil Rackers is the backup punter, but he has little experience doing it in a game.
--QB Kurt Warner has played well against the blitz this year. He is tough in the pocket and will stand in the face of pressure and take a hit, if needed. It might pay the Steelers to back off and play coverage.
--WR Larry Fitzgerald has set a playoff record with 419 receiving yards and he?s catching the ball no matter the coverage. It might pay off for the Steelers to be physical with him at the line of scrimmage and try to re-direct his pass routes. That might throw off quarterback Kurt Warner?s timing.
--RB Tim Hightower has scored three touchdowns in the playoffs, one rushing and two receiving. Hightower?s versatility makes him an effective goal-line back. He has the power to run inside and is fast enough to get around the end, too. He has excellent hands.
--CB Rod Hood could be a big factor in the Super Bowl. The Vikings and Eagles picked on him late in the year and made big plays when Hood was singled up in coverage. If the Cardinals commit a safety to stopping the run, look for the Steelers to challenge Hood.
--WR Anquan Boldin is fully recovered from a hamstring strain that limited him in the NFC title game. Boldin hasn?t played well in some of the team?s biggest games this year. He struggled against the Jets, Panthers and Eagles in the regular season, dropping passes and fumbling. He is excellent in running after the catch, but teams have had success punching the ball away from him.
--ILB Karlos Dansby thinks he has proven he?s worthy of a lucrative long-term contract. Dansby has 23 tackles in the playoffs, including four for losses. His performance was a key in the Cardinals shutting down the running attacks of Atlanta and Carolina.
Byron Leftwich might like to return to the Steelers as Ben Roethlisberger's backup, but the pull of a chance to start elsewhere could be too much for him. Leftwich played two full halves of football when Roethlisberger was injured this year, both victories, and in some mop-up roles. He compiled a 104.3 passer rating with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown.
The Steelers signed the former Jacksonville starter to a one-year contract in August after Charlie Batch broke his clavicle in a preseason game. He would become an unrestricted free agent Feb. 27.
"I always say, never count the Pittsburgh Steelers out of my equation because this year meant so much to me. Everybody always is saying 'Well you'll go here or you'll go there.' What if I'm in black and gold next year in the same situation? It's a situation that, ultimately, as much fun as I had, I know I could be happy in it. I know I can deal with it, but can I ultimately be happy not playing on a week-in and week-out basis?"
Leftwich completed 21 of 36 passes and did not play in 10 regular-season games and was only briefly in one playoff game.
"This year, during practice and during games, when I'm not out there it's killing me," Leftwich said. "I'll be telling Ben some time, let's blow these people out, somehow I've got to get in this game. I'll be like, Ben, I want to play today."
This is Leftwich's first time in a Super Bowl. Roethlisberger has practiced all week after missing one practice the previous week in Pittsburgh with what Mike Tomlin labeled a "back."
-- WR Hines Ward went through his first full practice on Thursday since his right knee was sprained in the AFC Championship Game.
-- WR Santonio Holmes caught a 40-yard pass from QB Ben Roethlisberger in practice Thursday. Holmes has taken a backseat to Nate Washington in the big-play department most of this season.
-- WR Nate Washington would take Ward's place at flanker if the veteran bows out of the game. That caused confusion between Roethlisberger and Washington on a third-down incompletion in the AFC title game.
-- WR Limas Sweed, who dropped what would have been a 50-yard touchdown reception two weeks ago, would line up at flanker with Washington in the slot when the Steelers go to three wide receivers without Ward.
-- RB Willie Parker did not have 20 carries for five consecutive games and then finished the season with 23-27-24, including two postseason games.