COMMENTARY: For Super Bowl XLIII, result is in the Cards
This year’s National Football League (NFL) playoffs have played out as if they were designed by a year-old blueprint. Once again we see a storied powerhouse emerge from the American Football Conference (AFC), Goliath to the NFC’s unlikely David of a representative team. The Pittsburgh Steelers have surprised no one by emerging from the three-week AFC round robin on top, although like the New England Patriots last year, it hasn’t come without its doubtful moments. On the other side, the Arizona Cardinals have emerged as this year’s New York Giants, putting together a stellar four consecutive weeks, beginning with the last game of the regular season, in which they have scored 30 points in every game.
Last year, it was in vogue at the end of January to suggest the Giants would be able to trip the seemingly unstoppable Patriots on their way to a perfect season. This year, however, the Cardinals are not being given a lick of a chance to prevent the Steelers from attaining what would be an NFL record sixth Super Bowl in franchise history.
With a potent passing attack featuring Larry Fitzgerald, probably the most valuable player of these playoffs, lining up opposite a now healthy and always dangerous Anquan Boldin, the Arizona Cardinals can shift the momentum of any game within the blink of an eye. The Cardinals are always one acrobatic Fitzgerald catch away from scoring a touchdown, and thus can never be counted out in any game regardless of the score. Against the league’s number three defense a week ago, the Cardinals blew the game open with 24 points in the first half to Philadelphia’s three, with Fitzgerald catching all three touchdowns. Although this lead all but disappeared in the second half, it is a testament to how quickly Arizona’s offense can take control of a game.
Nonetheless, such a performance will be difficult to repeat against a Steelers defense that has once again lived up to its Steel Curtain name by finishing the season ranked statistically at the top of nearly every category. Safety Troy Polamalu not only sports the same hairdo as Fitzgerald, but is every bit as much the game changer, whether leaping over the line of scrimmage to single-handedly prevent a pivotal fourth down conversion against Baltimore last week or making a game-ending interception. The matchup of Fitzgerald versus Polamalu will be one of the decisive ones this Super Bowl and certainly will be entertaining to watch.
But as fun as it will be to watch the top-tiered Cardinals offense and Steelers defense face off, more crucial to the outcome of this game will be what happens when the Steelers have the ball. With number one target and Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward hampered by a sprained medial collateral ligament, Pittsburgh, with an already average offense at best, will have a tough time putting points on the board. Against a Cardinals defense that has forced 11 turnovers in the past three weeks, not having Pittsburgh’s most reliable offensive weapon at 100 percent will be a huge disadvantage. If the Cardinals defense is able to continue to take the ball away from Pittsburgh at the same rate they have all playoffs, the Steelers may see their sixth trophy begin to fade away.
It is no coincidence that both teams are led by quarterbacks that have won the Super Bowl in the past. Experience on the game’s biggest stage is a huge asset to have during the playoffs, especially in the quarterback position. But while Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger both own Super Bowl rings, only Warner has a Super Bowl loss on his résumé. Warner was on a Goliath team of his own back in 2002, when then no-name quarterback Tom Brady and his still unproven Patriots prevented Warner’s 14-point favorite St. Louis from winning back-to-back Super Bowls. Warner knows how hard it is to win the Super Bowl, and he also knows how little bearing the line set in Vegas or the predictions made on ESPN have on the actual outcome of the championship game.
It is unlikely the former league MVP will fail to rise to the occasion, or anyone on this Cardinals team for that matter. The Cardinals have disproven media analysts every week of the playoffs by advancing further and further toward their first Super Bowl appearance ever. Arizona is playing with a chip on its shoulder, and thus counting the team out Feb. 1 would be a huge mistake. Everyone should expect a nail-biter Super Bowl Sunday — and don’t be surprised if the Cardinals attain their first Lombardi trophy as well.