The teams have been set in the race for the ultimate prize: the Pittsburgh Steelers will face off against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, and the winner of the game gets to claim the title of "World Champion."
Hollywood couldn't have scripted this one any better: grizzled old veteran, former Super Bowl champion and MVP, thought to be washed up but apparently revived super star meets tough young superstar-in-the-making, also a former Super Bowl champion.
Down-and-out NFL franchise, in the third city of their history that last saw an NFL championship 61 years ago, meets NFL franchise that as been in place forever, and who is entering their seventh Super Bowl in franchise history.
High-flying aerial attack and seemingly revived defense meets grind-it-out offense, and defense that has long been considered a "Steel Curtain", or at least the "Steel Curtain Redux."
In other words, David vs. Goliath.
Matchups at a Glance
Will David have what it takes this time to vanquish the giant? Historical references aside, both teams come into this game with current performances that will be key in determining victory.
The Cardinals are currently displaying the second iteration of "The Greatest Show on Turf" with the Warner-Fitzgerald combination, while the Pittsburgh Steelers standouts James Harrison, Lamar Woodley, and Troy Polamalu head up a defense that rivals that of the Steelers of '70s fame.
Roethlisberger and Warner have both won Super Bowls, and their experience will be critical in determining game-time effectiveness. These guys know what it takes to win it all, and their teams will lean on them heavily to get to victory.
Here are the critical matchups that each team must consider when they get to Tampa.
Larry Fitzgerald vs. Steelers Secondary
Make no mistake about it: Larry Fitzgerald is a top-notch receiver. Man-to-man, zone, double- or triple-teamed, Fitzgerald has proved that no matter how you approach him, he is going to make the catch. That's his job, and he does it well. So well in fact that he surpassed the great Jerry Rice in postseason playoff yardage.
The Steelers defensive backs are no slouches when it comes to pass coverage; thier cornerbacks and safeties combined for 17 picks in the regular season, and the linebacker corps added another three throughout the year. Of equal importance is the 71 passes defended by this group.
The Steelers were ranked No. 1 this season against the pass, and they have continued this trend in the off-season. This is not a team you want to have to throw on to win the game.
However, if you have to throw against them, the combination of Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin is the one you want; with both of them active, double-teaming one leaves the other in single coverage, which is just what Kurt Warner wants to see.
Edge: Cardinals by a hair
Kurt Warner vs. Steelers Blitz
James Harrison—17 sacks, including the postseason. Lamar Woodley—15.5 sacks, including the postseason. And don't forget DE Aaron Smith, who snuck through to get 5.5 sacks of his own.
Throw in corner and safety blitzes, and Kurt Warner has a long, hard day.
Edgerrin James/Tim Hightower vs. Steelers Front Seven
I included all seven guys in the Steelers 3-4 scheme. The guys up front in a 3-4 don't get a lot of tackles themselves, but they aren't supposed to; what they are supposed to do is occupy the offensive line so the linebackers can swoop in and steal all the glory.
And they do it as good as any group in the game. Farrior led the linebackers with 133 tackles this season and the group as a whole racked up 449 stops. The line didn't get completely shut out, though. NT Casey Hampton and crew racked up 208 tackles of their own before the linebackers could get to the ball carrier.
Hving to run around Hampton can cause a back to add an extra 10 yards to a one-yard plunge.
The Steelers ranked second behind only the Minnesota Vikings in rushing yards allowed, and Minnesota has already punched it's ticket home. The Cardinals rushing offense was dead last—even the Lions managed 10 more yards-per-game than Arizona.
Willie Parker vs. Cardinals Front
Parker had a sub-par year, but he was hampered with injuries for most of the season. Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell stepped in and performed well enough to get Pittsburgh to the top of the heap.
Now Parker is back, and if his last two games are any indication, he is at the top of his game at just the right time. Never mind that he only managed 46 yards against Baltimore; no one runs on Baltimore.The 146 yards Parker had against San Diego should be telling—Parker was sharp, making cuts, accelerating through gaps, and ripping off long run after long run.
Arizona has given up 232 yards on the ground in three games during the postseason; Pittsburgh has averaged 107.5 yards per game in the two they have played.
Ben Roethlisberger vs. Cardinals Rush/Secondary
Big Ben is routinely criticized for holding onto the ball too long and taking too many sacks. The numbers would seem to support that arguement—Roethlisberger hit the turf before getting rid of the ball 46 times this season, and was hit just as he threw the ball an untold number of times.
Problem is, he has made some amazing plays while running around in the backfield trying to find a receiver to throw the ball to; plus, if he takes a mind to he is capable of getting the legs in gear and moving the ball down the field.
If Arizona lets him run around all day like a kid on a school playground, he will—not might, will—find someone open downfield for a first down or more. If the Cardinals can keep him contained, his production drops off, but only a little.
And that's the rub for the Cardinals: Arizona was 22nd against the pass this year, and Roethlisberer has shown time and again that he can be just as effective in the pocket as anyone else if given the time.
Although they were able to pick Jake Delhomme five times against Carolina, Delhomme doesn't improvise as well as Roethlisberger does.
Let's just hope he gets Ward back so he doesn't have to rely on Limas "Stone Hands" Sweed.
Edge: Roethlisberger if Ward returns, Roethlisberger if Ward doesn't return, but just barely.
Ken Wisenhunt vs. Mike Tomlin
The most interesting back-story of the game. Wisenhunt was passed over for the head coaching job in Pittsburgh by the less-experienced Tomlin. Mike has done well for himself, managing the Steelers to the postseason in both of his first two years, and takes them to the Super Bowl this year. But Wisenhunt has the Cardinals in the Super Bowl after a 61-year championship drought.
These two have met before, an early season matchup in 2007 that Arizona won. Expect both coaches to remember that, and expect both coaches to engage in a colossal chess match for the entire game.
Plus, Wisenhunt has an opportunity to show the Steelers front office that they might have made the wrong choice for their head coach. Pulling off a win against the Steelers in the Super Bowl would be a coup of sorts.
Edge: Too close to call
It would appear that the Steelers eek this one out, because some of these categories could go either way depending on who is healthy and who isn't. And don't take the first impression as concrete, either: Just for fun, let's take a look at the first little guy/big guy matchup.
David vs. Goliath
Goliath is a large man; a giant, in fact. His sword alone would require five normal men to lift, and he can throw his spear more than 5000 cubits through the air. His armor is impenetrable to the pitiful arrows used by his foes; they are fortunate if they even leave a scratch upon his glistening breastplate.
A normal meal for Goliath consists of three jars of mead, a full side of cow, and various fruits and nuts. He sleeps on a bed of thistles to toughen his skin, and his battle cry alone has been known to topple small children. The very sight of him in full battle regalia has sent more than one man running away in fear.
David, on the other hand, is a small skinny sheep-herder with a sling and a rock. Good for fighting off the occasional wolf, but not really an effective war tool.
David spends his days idly watching the sheep graze whilst writing poetry to pass the time. He wears no armor, but is clothed in a warm fur to ward against the harsher weather in the winter months.
Edge: Goliath. He steps on David and crushes him beneath his sandals.
And we all know how that one turned out, don't we?