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Super Bowl XLIII

It’s the greatest sports day on the calendar. Super Bowl Sunday. The Pittsburgh Steelers, owners of five Vince Lombardi trophies, including a title three years ago, are seven point favorites over the Arizona Cardinals, former league laughingstock that last won a title six decades and two cities ago. Not exactly Jets-Colts, but still the history of one franchise isn’t really in the same league as the other, despite both are long-standing NFL franchises, that even shared a year in 1944 as the Cards-Pitts. Going back and forth over the past two weeks, each team has a legitimate shot at winning the game, if everything breaks right:
For the Cards to pull off the upset, on the offensive side of the ball they will need to keep Kurt Warner protected first and foremost. If starts looking like the Kurt Warner that faced the Jets in week four and can’t hold on to the ball, it will be a blow out. Warner can not turn the ball over for Arizona to stay close. But Warner might only need to make a few plays to Larry Fitzgerald, who has shown he can dominate a game like no other receiver in the league, plus Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston can benefit if the Steelers double Fitzgerald.
On defense, the Cards need to find a way to contain Willie Parker. His speed can wreak havoc on the Cards, but if Arizona can force Pittsburgh to continue to struggle in short yardage runs, it could keep the Steelers out of the end zone. Thanks mostly to Jake Delhomme, the Cards defense has forced the most turnovers in the playoffs. They’ll need to come up with a couple more on Sunday. If Hines Ward is to hurt to be effective (he will certainly play) it will be a major blow to the Steelers offense, who looked awful against Baltimore without him. Ben Roethlisberger had a sub par game in his last Super Bowl against Seattle, and he needs to prove he can step it up in the big game. The Cards will also need to dominate the return game, getting those extra yards against the dreadful Steelers coverage teams could mean the difference between zero and three points, or three and seven.
The one intangible the Cards have is their coaching staff, particularly head coach Ken Wisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm. Both were on the Steelers staff for years under Bill Cowher, were on the coaching staff for Super Bowl XL, and were considered top candidates to replace Cowher before Mike Tomlin came along. They know the Steelers offensive personnel, and how the defense operates. That will play a big part in how the Cardinals game plan and adjust. It could be enough to put them over the top.
But the case is just as compelling for the Steelers. For Pittsburgh to win a record sixth Super Bowl, Roethlisberger will need to play a much better game than he did against Seattle. If Ward is out, he’ll need to connect with Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington on a couple of big plays. If Ward is healthy enough to be effective and spark his teammates, it will make his job a lot easier. The offensive line needs to keep Roethlisberger vertical throughout the game, easier said than done for that group sometimes. But the Steelers offense will likely go through Parker. If he can get those big yardage plays, and allow the Steelers to dominate the time of possession, Pittsburgh will be in great shape.
On the defensive side, the Steelers need to use their hard-hitting linebackers to confuse Warner with various blitz packages and knock him around as often as they can. The Steelers will also be tough with the Cards receivers, getting as physical with Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston as the refs will allow. How many of the Cardinals players will think of Willis McGahee when they seen Ryan Clark barreling towards them? The Steelers were the hardest-hitting defense in the league this year. The vaunted Steelers run defense may not factor in the game, the Cards would be crazy to try and force the run when they are a clear pass-first team. As long as the Steelers can play an average special teams game, and not let up any big returns, they will be in prime shape to win.
The Steelers’ big intangible is the environment of the Super Bowl. Besides the fact they have more players with Super Bowl experience, the way things are shaping out could turn Super Bowl XLIII into a de facto home game. The Steelers are a national franchise with rich history and a legion of fans across the country and are the most beloved team in their city (sorry Penguins and Pirates) while the Cardinals have a much smaller fan base, virtually no good history, and its still hard to determine how popular the Phoenix fans are about the Cards. But who do you think is more likely to pony up the dough in this economy to head to Tampa (much cheaper and less chic than say Miami or New Orleans) for a football game, fans in freezing cold Pittsburgh or warm and comfortable Phoenix? It could be 65 percent Steelers fans, and much of the rest being neutral or unconcerned fans. Do the Cardinals beat the Eagles or Falcons without the home crowd?
Another factor that could have an impact is the Bruce Springsteen halftime show. Could The Rising encourage the Cards and their fans to rise to the occasion? Or could Born to Run inspire Willie Parker to wild. This is going to be a close game, and it could come down to the last drive again. I’ve changed my mind a few times, including while writing this sentence. The Steelers defense looks too good, and they will force a couple turnovers. This games has some of the makings of Ravens-Giants (the last Super Bowl in Tampa), but the Cards have the playmaker to keep it close. In the end, Pittsburgh wins it 23-21 on a late field goal. MVP- Larry Fitzgerald, only the second Super Bowl MVP from a losing team, who scores all three Arizona touchdowns.

Jason Levy

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