Wild Weekends: Two Champions, One Game Left

Tradition meets change in the Super Bowl this year.

The Arizona Cardinals clinched their first Super Bowl berth in team history just hours before the Pittsburgh Steelers clinched their seventh trip to the big game, second only to the Cowboys’ eight trips. The Cardinals earned their conference championship with a mix of doing what they’ve been doing (Larry Fitzgerald and Tim Hightower leading things offensively) and something they usually don’t do (play conservative offense in the fourth quarter). Pittsburgh on the other hand, saw their road to Tampa end with a war of attrition to get to that final destination all teams strive to get to. The Steelers defeated the Ravens in a game that blended the old school and new school thoughts as more points were scored in this one than most thought would be, but the game was bound by a sense that whoever hit the hardest was going to win despite what the offenses were doing. It was compelling T.V. the whole six hours and should make up for the fact that the two teams that will play in Tampa in two weeks for the title aren’t the ones that most thought would be here even a week ago.

Steelers win hardest hitting game of the year for Super Bowl berth

If ever there was a harder hitting game in the NFL this year, I haven’t seen it.

The Steelers succeeded where so many had failed in recent years and completed a three-game season sweep over the Baltimore Ravens with a 23-14 win Sunday for the AFC title. To give you an insight into what this game was like, here goes: everyone was feeling the pain. Ben Roethlisberger’s back gave him problems early, Hines Ward didn’t play the final three quarters of the game, and Willis McGahee was stretchered off the field late in the game.

McGahee and Steeler safety Ryan Clark went helmet-to-helmet after McGahee caught a Joe Flacco pass sending both men to the ground. Clark would eventually get up, but was shaky while McGahee spent the night in the hospital.

Until then, McGahee was willing the Ravens’ offense ending the day with 73 total yards (60 rushing, 13 receiving) and both of Baltimore’s touchdowns. The first came on a three-yard run near the end of the first half that made the game 13-7 Pittsburgh at the intermission. McGahee’s second score was another short run—this time from only a yard—that made the game 16-14 Pittsburgh with Baltimore still clinging to hope that they could win.

Troy Polamalu killed any hope for the Ravens when he clinched the game for Pittsburgh with a 40-yard interception return that saw Polamalu run from sideline to sideline to gain a better route to the end zone.

The Steelers’ defense came up big again against Baltimore

Joe Flacco played the same kind of game that rookie quarterbacks usually play in this situation: not up to par. Flacco had been able to get away with being statistically unfriendly, but this was a day where a bigger than usual performance was needed and didn’t materialize. Flacco went 13/30 for only 141 yards and threw three interceptions with two coming in the final five minutes of the game. Flacco also failed to convert a fourth-and-one quarterback sneak late in the opening quarter.

Roethlisberger didn’t fare much better with a sub par 16/33, 255 yard, one touchdown performance that saw Baltimore sack Roethlisberger four times.

Pittsburgh sacked Flacco three times in the game.

With the win, Mike Tomlin will become the youngest coach to coach in a Super Bowl.

Roethlisberger now finds himself in an interesting position as he is not the only quarterback to go to two Super Bowls (or league title games) in his first five seasons, but he will be another to attempt to be the first to win two world titles in his first five seasons.

Cardinals avoid collapse to earn their first Super Bowl trip

Kurt Warner finished writing his Cinderella story this past Sunday as the Arizona Cardinals beat Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 to clinch the franchise’s first Super Bowl berth. McNabb now falls to 1-4 in NFC title games in his career.

Warner threw nearly perfect in the first half and would continue to keep his poise in route to a 21/28, 279 yard, 4-touchdown day. This is Warner’s third conference championship (all NFC titles) and will be the second man (Craig Morton being the first) to ever quarterback two different teams to Super Bowl berths.

Larry Fitzgerald was Warner’s favorite target with Anquan Boldin being forced to play a smaller role due to a recent injury. Fitzgerald caught all three of Warner’s first half touchdowns with the scores coming on a nine-yard strike on the Cards’ opening drive, a 62-yard fleeflicker that Warner under threw forcing Fitzgerald to break stride and come back to make the grab, and a one-yard score where Fitzgerald had to spin past two Eagle defenders on his way into the end-zone. Fitzgerald ended the day with 152 yards on nine catches and his three scores. With this performance, Fitzgerald has already broken Jerry Rice’s 1988 record for receiving yards in a postseason, and there’s still one game left.

The scores helped Arizona build a 24-6 halftime lead.

Despite the loss, Donovan McNabb was able to salvage what was another bad outing in the NFC title game with a 20-minute stretch that saw Philly score 19 points and take a 25-24 lead with just under eleven minutes to play.

Soon after McNabb converted a 3rd & 19 from inside his own 40, McNabb found Brent Celek from six yards for a touchdown, and on his next possession, found Celek from 31 yards to make the game competitive. The Eagles took the lead on a juggling 62-yard touchdown down by DeSean Jackson.

Celek caught ten passes for 82 yards with his two touchdowns.

Jackson made his first career playoff game count with 92 yards on six catches and his touchdown.

Kevin Curtis came out of the woodwork and played a starring role in Philly’s comeback contributing with 122 receiving yards on only four catches.

The Cardinals final scoring drive epitomized the determination and heart of this Cardinals team as they held the ball for just over five minutes going the final fifty or so yards on their fourteen play, 72 yard, eight minute game winning drive. The drive ended with Hightower plowing into the end zone from eight yards off of a short pass with less than three minutes to play.

The Cardinals are only the second team to go 9-7 and reach the Super Bowl. The other was the 1979 Los Angeles Rams that met a 31-19 demise to (ironically) the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Everything is now in place and all the eyes in the football world will be viewing Tampa Bay in two weeks time. The Steelers were not as much a surprise as Arizona as the New Steel Curtain had the same combination the old one did: a tough as nails defense able to takeaway and score combined with an offense that can produce just as well. Despite the nagging (to use the word lightly) injuries early on, the Steeler defense persevered with the late win against Dallas being the prominent example. The Cardinals at the beginning of this season had one thing going for them: Kurt Warner. Last season was a lost season since most people considered last year’s Cardinal team to be playoff worthy and it failed to meet the goal; for that reason this year’s team was dismissed from playoff talks. Warner may have been reason for this as his age and lack of winning in recent years did call his value as a quarterback into question. Quickly those questions were answered, but only after the NFC West was won did people really zero-in on Warner and see that there was more to this package than a hotshot coach and an old quarterback: there was Edgerin James playing well with a chip on his shoulder all season, Larry Fitzgerald & Anquan Boldin forming an almost Swann/Stallworth-like tandem, and a defense that was apparently as underrated as Warner himself. I’m going to leave all my analysis for next week as right now is the time to savor the two completely different yet completely enjoyable games yesterday and to let this fact sink in: the Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl, and this is not a joke.

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