Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4) at Arizona Cardinals (12-7)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:00 ET
TV: NBC (Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer)
59th meeting. Steelers lead, 32-23-3. The teams played last year in Arizona, with the Cardinals winning, 21-14. The Cardinals were helped greatly by a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown by Steve Breaston. It was the team's first punt return for a score since 1993.
KEYS TO THE GAME
This is a potentially fascinating matchup between teams that play vastly different brands of football. As much hype as there is about QBs Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner, this game will likely be decided on the ground. Pittsburgh wants to sustain drives, play a war of attrition and keep the ball out of Warner's hands as long as possible. A major force behind Arizona's postseason run has been a defense allowing an average of just 77.3 yards per game on the ground the past three weeks. That number is a bit skewed, however, because the Cardinals have jumped out to leads in each game and faced an average of 19 carries per contest. They're allowing 4.1 yards per carry during the same span.
RB Willie Parker's production will be even more critical depending on the status of WR Hines Ward, whose availability could be in question up until game time due to a knee sprain.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals' offense has been far more potent with RB Edgerrin James regaining the feature role. He has averaged 5.6 rushing yards the past four weeks, which has been enough to keep defenses from selling out against the pass. The key will be whether he's able to continually gain positive yardage or if the Steelers will be able to stuff the run and then bring the house after Warner in third-and-long.
Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward took part in full practice Thursday, and appears set to play Sunday after suffering a an MCL strain in his right knee in the AFC Championship Game. The Cardinals are almost at full strength, with defensive end Travis LaBoy (biceps) and third-strung running back J.J. Arrington (knee) the only players in real danger of being limited.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
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."
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.