Wild Weekends: Super Bowl XLIII Preview

The time has finally arrived.

This is the day that football revels in every year: the day when there is nothing on anyone’s mind, but this one game. Whatever’s wrong with the world or even pro football in general is all put aside for a day when everyone is in the mood to just sit down on the couch with friends and/or family and watch a football game.

Looking at the components of this football game, some people are still shaking their heads in wonder. How did the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers get to this game? Wasn’t it supposed to be Tennessee/New York? Wasn’t Brett Favre supposed to be involved? No, and no.

How these teams got to this point is a study in opposites, and that will likely tell the tale on Sunday. Pittsburgh builds itself around defense, Arizona around offense.

The Cardinals offense being its biggest weapon is no surprise as any team with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald on the field at the same time would be a passing team. The fact that Edgerrin James has been playing with a chip on his shoulder—a good thing here—all season and Tim Hightower has come out of nowhere into a prominent role only strengthens the point. The fact that Kurt Warner has gone from just a great past story to a possible hall-of-famer in the course of one season shows how he has re-found his form. The playoffs have proved no different with Warner, Fitzgerald, and Hightower providing most of the big plays and scores, but the rest of the offense really came together in the postseason with big play after big play in the wins over Atlanta and Carolina, and then doing a complete 180 with a near eight minute drive to win the NFC championship.

Arizona’s defense has also been suspect this season putting on good performances against teams lacking any kind of an effective offense and then getting blown out against teams either with a great quarterback or a great offenses. Brett Favre throwing six touchdowns for the first time in his career, Matt Cassell and the Pats riddling the Cards by 40, Jake Delhomme having a big game in a big win, Eli Manning doing the same, and Donovan McNabb running wild on Arizona Thanksgiving Night are all examples of how combustible the Cards’ defense can be. The fact that they got back at Delhomme & McNabb and then some does make people think that the defensive woes are over for Arizona. Just remember this: the Cards made the first big play and first big score in each of their playoff wins, but got off to terrible starts offensively in their final three regular season losses. In other words, the Cards’ defense has played just fine with a lead, but keeping a trailing team still in it has been a problem.

The Steelers’ defense on the other hand has been the class of the NFL since day one. Unlike Arizona, the New Steel Curtain have been the epitome of perseverance as they continued to win through a season marred by injuries to their offense and play by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that hasn’t always been pretty. The main thing that this team does better than anybody—something that was on full display in the AFC title game—is hit; no team in football, college or pro, can hit the ferocity or hit as quickly as the Steelers. It’s been their bread and butter during the bad times and has been the icing on the cake during the good times.

The added benefit to a defense this deep and reliable is that the production of the offense can almost be irrelevant or unnecessary. Take the Steelers’ come-from-behind win over Dallas in December: Dallas leads the game the whole way with Pittsburgh’s offense doing jack squat, but two late interceptions including one that was returned for a touchdown wins the game for Pittsburgh. That is their season in a nutshell: defense first, questions later. Yes Willie Parker was out a good amount of the year, yes several members of Pittsburgh’s offense missed considerable time during the year, the point is that Pittsburgh continued to win. I am not insinuating that Pittsburgh can win this game on defense alone because if Kurt Warner does find a way to penetrate that defense throughout the game for the big plays, then a few scores from Pittsburgh on the offense end would become more than necessary.

I do believe that Warner will have a great game and that Big Ben will redeem himself performance-wise. But I honestly think that Pittsburgh’s defense will decide how this game goes. Pittsburgh has played against some of the best that this league has to offer this year—Donovan McNabb, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Kerry Collins, Tony Romo, Matt Cassell—and have come away smelling like roses with a division title and conference title under their belt. I did write that both QB’s would perform well and in my opinion they both will; however, that’s only one component of the game. The fact that Pittsburgh’s offense has more experience and better efficiency with ball control combined with Arizona’s tendency to rely on the big play over all else when it comes to offense has to favor Pittsburgh.

I see this one staying close through the first half with both defenses rising to the occasion mainly out of their own free flowing adrenaline. But at some point that adrenaline runs out, and then it’s all about talent, toughness, and will. When that happens, I see the terrible towels still being swung. The Steelers have already been here before and know the atmosphere and know how awe-inspiring this game can be, especially for first timers. Kurt Warner’s experience in this situation will keep this game close through the first half and will have people thinking upset. But if the Steelers’ defense isn’t noticeably fatigued at halftime and if the Cards don’t have at least a touchdown lead at the midway point, then it’s going to go the Steelers’ way. I see the Steelers breaking a second half tie and then sealing the deal with a couple of fourth quarter field-goals that will put Arizona into panic mode, something that won’t work against the black & gold.

MY PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 21

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