In a little over a week’s time one of the sporting world’s biggest events will take place in Tampa, Florida as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals face off in Super Bowl XLIII. Very few people would have put money on that line up at the beginning of the season. In fact it would have been hard to foresee even three weeks ago.
Cardinal’s surprise all
The Arizona Cardinals were not supposed to reach the NFL playoffs. Yet American Football’s perennial losers won their division, the NFC West, with weeks of the season to spare. Ok so they made the playoffs but surely that would be the end of the road for the plucky pretenders from Phoenix?
Not so. In the wild card round they impressively defeated a talented Atlanta Falcons side before heading to Carolina to take on the much fancied Panthers in a tricky road game that the pundits thought would finally bring the curtain down on an amazing season for Arizona.
Wrong again. The Panthers were comprehensively defeated by twenty points and the Cardinals moved on to host their first ever NFC Championship game on Sunday night. Once again the opposing team, in this case the Philadelphia Eagles were tipped to progress. Once again the experts were confounded. And following a high octane 32-25 victory, Arizona will progress to its first ever Super Bowl appearance.
Coming in to the season the Pittsburgh Steelers faced the toughest schedule in the NFL based on their opponent’s standings the previous year. The Steelers have been a consistently good team over the last decade but have only one Super Bowl victory since 1980. More fashionable franchises such as the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers were hotly tipped to run away with the AFC conference. But the Patriots struggled following an early season injury to star quarterback Tom Brady and the Charges imploded only managing to squeak into the playoffs on the last day of the season.
Meanwhile the Steelers quietly went about their business and racked up and impressive total of wins which saw them clinch the AFC North Division at the expense of their arch rivals Baltimore. Having already defeated them twice in the regular season Pittsburgh secured win number three against the Ravens in a predictably physical encounter amidst the swirling snow in the AFC Championship game.
An intriguing prospect
Super Bowl XLIII promises to be an intriguing match up pitting one of the leagues most explosive offensive units in Arizona against Pittsburgh’s lead leading defense.
Arizona is lead by Veteran Quarterback Kurt Warner who has tasted the agony and ecstasy of Super Bowl victory and defeat following two appearances in the big game for the St Louis Rams. His experience may well count in the Cardinal’s favour. Warner has certainly been rolling back the years in the current postseason with a string of impressive performances. With two of the most talented receivers in the NFL to aim for in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin Arizona is a real threat in the passing game.
Fitzgerald in particular has been on fire of late, culminating in his three touchdown grabs from Warner in the first half of the Championship game against Philadelphia. But the Cardinals have also developed an effective running game in the past few weeks with veteran back Edgerrin James finding his feet at the perfect time and adding an effective balance to the attack. Further intrigue is provided by the coaching Staff. Arizona’s Head Coach, Ken Whisenhunt was the Steelers offensive coordinator when they won their last Super Bowl three years ago. He could have the inside track on Pittsburgh weaknesses.
The Steelers themselves have ridden their all conquering defense to the final. Few teams have been able to cope with their tough, hard hitting physicality. This is complemented by superb athleticism with the likes of Troy Polamalu who provides a constant threat to opposing Quarterbacks. The talented Safety came up with seven interceptions in the regular season and followed that up with a crucial pick in the dying minutes against Baltimore in the Championship game, before returning it for a touchdown.
The Steelers defense believes they can put points on the board on their own. But behind the increasingly impressive Roethlisberger the Steelers offensive unit has begun to role. Dangerous target men Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are a real handful while the Steelers big Quarterback embodies the toughness of the team in his desire to throw blocks as well as passes. It is the running game however that has long been Pittsburgh’s bread and butter. The Steelers star man at running back is Willie Parker who has struggled this season with injuries. But Parker is fit again and looks back to his best. Look for him to see plenty of the ball in Tampa as Pittsburgh tries to control the clock.
This game really is too close to call. The sensible choice would be Pittsburgh winning its record breaking sixth Super Bowl. But who would bet against Arizona claiming it’s first?