The Arizona Cardinals have had a magical season, inconsistent as it was at the beginning.
Yes, the team representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLIII had a regular season as up-and-down as they come, winning their first two games, then losing two, winning two, losing one, running off a three-game win streak, then losing four of their last six to limp into the playoffs.
None of that matters now. The Cardinals are the hottest team in the country and they have everything going in their favor.
I shall avoid using the term "playing with house money" because I’m sick of hearing it, and because it no longer applies. The Cardinals now have plenty to lose.
But that won’t rattle two-time NFL MVP and former Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner, who will start in his third championship tussle.
Warner has had a resurgent season in the desert, throwing for 4,538 yards, 30 touchdowns, and only 14 interceptions en route to earning his fourth career Pro Bowl selection.
Warner, 37, has been nearly flawless in the playoffs, throwing just two interceptions to his eight touchdowns, capped off by a remarkable performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game.
Of course, Warner’s targets are impressive as well. Larry Fitzgerald has been on fire lately, but that’s no surprise given his stellar season, one of the rare examples of consistency. Fitzgerald caught 96 passes for 1,431 yards and 12 touchdowns, scoring a career-high 72 points in the process.
On the other side, Anquan Boldin put in another fine season, totaling 1,098 yards and 11 touchdowns despite missing four games due to injuries. His hamstring is still a bit of a concern, but he was a full participant in practice last Thursday and Friday.
The forgotten man is the surprising Steve Breaston. Warner’s third option had a little more than 1,000 yards receiving as well this year. You can double-cover Larry Fitzgerald all you want, but the other guys are more than capable of beating the defense, and they’ve shown it.
The run game isn’t nearly as impressive as the pass for Arizona, but it’s more than enough to keep the defense honest, especially now that Edgerrin James has come back to life.
James had a resurgence in the playoffs since the Cardinals remembered he was on the roster. He showed flashes of the past during the playoffs with bruising runs and, despite his relative age, he still gets better the more carries he gets.
Rookie Tim Hightower is another running weapon, leading the team with 10 rushing touchdowns and proving to be a reliable receiver, much like third-string back J.J. Arrington.
So the offense is solid, which it will need to be against the tough Pittsburgh Steelers defense. That much has been discussed. So how about the Arizona defense?
Actually, the defense is what really sets this team up for success on the grandest of stages. They’re an impressive +9 in turnover ratio during the playoffs, bewildering not just rookie quarterback Matt Ryan but veterans Jake Delhomme and Donovan McNabb.
They shut down the league’s No. 2 and No. 3 rushing attacks (Atlanta and Carolina), making many forget about the rather mediocre statistics of the regular season...back when the Cardinals were inconsistent.
Time has forgotten how poorly Ben Roethlisberger played in his first Super Bowl. He completed just 9 of 21 passes in that game for 123 yards and 2 interceptions. Antwaan Randle El threw the only Steelers touchdown pass on a 43-yard completion to Hines Ward in the win over Seattle.
This season hasn’t been terribly dominant for Roethlisberger, who threw 17 touchdowns to 15 interceptions and completed a little less than 60 percent of his passes. Pittsburgh's phenomenal defense is the reason they have won 14 games—smothering the opponent's offense and just riding their own offense out has worked very well.
But Arizona has enough firepower to legitimately challenge the Steelers, and since the Cards’ defense has been playing like world-beaters, they should give the inconsistent Pitt offense some trouble. With that powerful offense playing consistently, expect the Steeler defense to have trouble as well.
The only X factor for Arizona is nerves. Don’t expect that to last very long. My prediction: Arizona 24, Pittsburgh 14.