By Joey Merkel
In a poll of 48 University of Mary Washington students and two faculty members, over half believe that the Pittsburgh Steelers will take down the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. That would of course mean that the other 20 thought the Cardinals would be the ones to prevail. Not so fast. Of the 50 polled, only 14 people think that the Cardinals, who are a seven-point underdog, will be able to pull off the upset.
No you didn’t count wrong, so you may be wondering, “what happened to the other six.” Well, it seems that of every 50 people at UMW, three don’t know who is playing the game, and three of them couldn’t care either way.
But now that we know the experts’ choices, let’s take a little more of an in-depth look at both of these teams.
The Steelers, who finished the regular season number one in almost every single category, have been able to stop the run all year. Coincidentally, the Cardinals finished the regular season dead last in the league in rushing yards per game with an abysmal 73.6 yards per game.
However, if you look at playoff statistics, the Cardinals have averaged 111 yards per game, almost a 40-yard improvement. It seems that most obvious reason for this surge in rushing yards is playoff veteran running back Edgerrin James.
With James taking the bulk of carries, the Cardinals’ backfield is complimented well with one of the league’s top goal-line backs Tim Hightower, who is in his rookie year. In just his first season in the league, the fifth-round pick out of University of Richmond, tied Carolina Panthers first-round running back Jonathan Stewart with 10 touchdowns.
Like most playoff games, it’s important to establish the run and make sure the team knows you aren’t afraid to attack the middle. But with the Steelers giving up just over 40 yards per game on the ground during the playoffs, maybe the Cardinals should be scared.
Let’s take a look at positions. It is often suggested that the most difficult thing to do in sports is to quarterback in the National Football League, so it seems logical to start there.
In one corner, there is the grizzly, gray-bearded, veteran Kurt Warner playing for the Cardinals. Long thought to be a potential MVP candidate, Warner dropped out of the conversation after his team finished the season 2-4 and limping into the playoffs by winning the worst division in football. If you’ve heard rumblings of people arguing the Cardinals don’t belong in the Super Bowl, it’s probably because they know that in three of those four losses, the Cardinals managed to lose by 28, 31, and 40 to three teams that made the playoffs.
Back to Warner. After beating out University of Southern California product Matt Leinart for the starting quarterback position, the former grocery-bagger Warner finished the year with over 4,500 passing yards and 30 touchdowns. Though his mobility is an issue, Warner still has the ability to stare off safeties in the pocket and hit the open receiver.
In Pittsburgh, we have the young overachiever, Ben Roethlisberger. After being forced into the starting role in his rookie year after an injury to Tommy Maddox, Roethlisberger took his team to the AFC Championship and followed it up with a Super Bowl win in his second year. Roethlisberger is one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the league and arguably the best passer when out of the pocket in recent memory. His size and strength are a testament to how well he is able to shake off defenders and connect with his targets.
In the quarterback battle the advantage goes to Warner, though it is closer to being a draw. Warner had the better year statistically, and though they both have different traits that allow them to lead their teams to victory, Warner is going to be relied on more for their win, while the Steelers will most likely be relying on their defense.
Sorry Steelers fans, but the receiving core advantage goes to Arizona without even a discussion. The Cardinals have the best receiver in the league in Larry Fitzgerald and when you complement him with another top-5 guy in Anquan Boldin it keeps the defense so honest that one of these guys is usually getting one-on-one coverage.
However, as we have seen with Fitzgerald, who has broken every playoff receiving record there is, that even if he is double-teamed it doesn’t matter; he’s coming down with the ball.
The offensive line is a draw. Most people believe that the Steelers’ main weakness is their offensive line but how can you say that they are worse than a team that averages less than 75 yards rushing per game.
“Fast” Willie Parker will get the carries for the black and gold and has the playoff experience that James does. However, Parker’s age and quickness gives the Steelers a big advantage in the run game.
Offensively, the Cardinals have the better package simply because of how good their passing game is.
On the defensive side of the ball, it’s tough to give any advantage to the Cardinals because of how consistently AP Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and Troy Polamalu have been playing. But with Darnell Dockett and Bertrand Berry playing out of their skulls, the gap has closed a little.
The one advantage that I think the Cardinals have is at the cornerback position. Rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has continued to excel at the position and has two interceptions in the postseason. The defensive backs of the Cardinals lead all postseason teams with seven picks (with another by middle linebacker Gerald Hayes).
With only a seven-point spread in Vegas right now, odds-makers clearly think that this should be a very close match-up even if most picks will lean toward the Steelers. As for me, you need only look at history. When the league’s best defense meets one of the league’s best offenses, you don’t have to go back too far (a whole year) to see that defense wins championships.