In less than a week, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa will play host to the biggest annual event in the modern sports world. On Sunday, Feb. 1, Super Bowl XLIII will be played between the Arizona Cardinals, an upstart team on fire, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, a perennial playoff team in its second Super Bowl in four years.
The Cardinals, winners of a sub-par NFC West division at 9-7, ride an incredible wave of adrenaline and momentum into Florida, relying heavily on their steady run defense and an explosive offense resting on the arm of resurgent veteran quarterback Kurt Warner.
Each step has been uphill, and in a precursor of things to come, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said, “We believe in ourselves. I like being the underdog, and we're going to continue to be the underdog."
The first step was against the Atlanta Falcons, and the Cards emerged victorious 30-24. They then traveled to Charlotte and stunned the Carolina Panthers 33-13. For most of the postseason, Kurt Warner felt that the Cardinals locker room contained the only people that believed they could win.
After defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25, Warner told the crowd, “When nobody else believed in us, when nobody else believed in me, you guys did and we’re going to the Super Bowl.”
The Cards’ defense has played a key part in the road up to the Super Bowl. They shut down Falcons running back Michael Turner, holding him to 42 yards for the game. Carolina’s Jake Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble, and the front seven held D’Angelo Williams to only 62 yards on the ground.
The run defense was there again in Philadelphia, holding offensive juggernaut Brian Westbrook to 45 yards rushing and only 61 total yards
On the other sideline, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been harkening back to the old days of the Steel Curtain, leading the league in almost every defensive category. “They say defense wins championships,” Steelers’ receiver Hines Ward said. “Well, we have the No. 1 defense. And they're the reason why we're really going to the Super Bowl."
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has led a steady offense that hasn’t been flashy, but is doing enough to complement the defense and get them this far.
They had a first-round bye and hosted the San Diego Chargers in the second. Willie Parker ran for 146 yards and two touchdowns. The Steelers' defense held spark plug Darren Sproles to 15 yards on the ground, while sandwiching three long drives totaling 14:43 around 17 seconds of Chargers offense in the third quarter.
The next step was the Baltimore Ravens, whom the Steelers had defeated twice during the season. The defense held the Ravens and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco to only 198 total yards. Flacco had three interceptions, including one in the waning minutes that Troy Polamalu returned 40 yards for a touchdown.
The Cardinals linebackers and ends have been disrupting the offense, with Carlos Dansby and Travis LaBoy anchoring the front seven while the secondary is manned by veterans Roderick Hood and safety Adrian Wilson.
They have been able to use the run more than during the regular season, and Edgerrin James has been revitalized in the playoffs. The Cardinals were last in the league in rushing offense during the regular season, averaging 73.6 yards per game.
In the playoffs, they’ve been up at 111 yards per game. James, averaging 39.5 yards per game during the regular season, has upped it to 66.7 yards a game in the postseason.
Receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, who have been catalysts for the Cardinals, will have a challenge against the Steelers secondary, who allowed a league low 157 passing yards a game. "They seem to make their plays with guys hanging off Larry Fitzgerald, and he just outjumps them,” Troy Polamalu said.
"When you have a quarterback like Kurt Warner throwing it on the money, that helps, too." But Kurt Warner will have to get past the best defense in the league to win the game.
Prediction: Steelers 24 Cardinals 14