Five reasons (cont.)
3. Ben Roethlisberger is overdue for another stinker. Let's face it, he's not going to win another ring by going 9-of-21 for 123 yards and zero touchdowns, like he did in Super Bowl XL. His 22.6 passer rating in that game -- against a team, Seattle, that was 25th in the NFL against the pass -- was an all-time low for a championship winner.
No argument here, Big Ben's matured in three years. But he's not an entirely different person. All this talk about "Ben was just along for the ride last time; now he's in charge," I think that's a lot of bogus spin. He had just as many touchdowns that year with fewer interceptions, and his completion percentage (albeit on far fewer attempts) was three points higher back then. So, basically we're dealing with the same guy, a guy who wins big games without gaudy numbers, whose passer rating and completion percentage dip a tad below his career averages when it comes to the playoffs, and who's thrown multiple interceptions in four of his nine postseason games.
Now he gets the Cardinals, whose opposing quarterbacks have been picked off eight times and sacked seven times in three games while posting a meager average passer rating of 69.7. As unassuming a unit as you'll ever find, the Cardinals defense is getting it done in the playoffs. That starts with their defensive line, which has been testing officials by timing their opponents' snap counts with great rewards. If they can get away with that again, it'll make for a long day for the Steelers' paper tissue-delicate offensive line and Roethlisberger, who'll be counting on that line to make his day easier.
4. Ken Whisenhunt has already delivered a Super Bowl-winning game plan before. I think he can do it again. In '05, of course, it was Whisenhunt calling the plays as the Steelers, a six-seed, beat the Seahawks 21-10 in a game in which Pittsburgh had six fewer first downs and 57 fewer passing yards than its opponent. That credit goes partly to the Steelers' defense, but also to Whisenhunt, who was resourceful -- and daring -- enough to put the ball in someone else's hands during a colossally crappy performance by Roethlisberger.
The turning point in that game was a play that started as a handoff to running back Willie Parker. Parker dished to college quarterback-turned-pro receiver Antwaan Randle El, who hit Hines Ward for a 43-yard score. Cue the confetti.
Whisenhunt's a don't-hold-anything-back kind of guy, as evidenced by his season-long experimentation with a variation of the Wildcat and the two flea-flicker passes he's called (both for touchdowns) already in the playoffs. Since Whisenhunt's arrival in '07, he's had a running back, a receiver and a punter attempt passes, and his receivers have rushed 15 times for 110 yards, a 7.3 yard average.
Still think he's bound to stick to the tried-and-true formations that got the Cardinals here? You might want to ask Anquan Boldin about that. He didn't fit into Whisenhunt's plans during a scoring drive late against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. That had to have Philadelphia's coaches scratching their heads.
5. Larry Fitzgerald. Plain and simple, the guy hasn't been stopped in the playoffs and there's no sign of it happening Sunday, when he'll finally have a fully-healthy Boldin on the field to give Pittsburgh's cornerbacks someone else to think about.
Consider the single-season playoff marks Fitzgerald has already set or is approaching with an entire game to go. His 419 receiving yards are already the best one-year total ever, 10 more than Jerry Rice's 1988 total. So, too, are his 16 first downs, tying Dallas Clark's '06 output. In touchdowns (five) he trails only Rice, who had six in that '88 season. In receptions, his 23 are four behind Wes Welker ('07) and Steve Smith ('05). I give him 'til halftime to pass that one.
Come Sunday, those stats will be weighing heavily on the minds of the Steelers' secondary, enough to push some extra attention Fitzgerald's way. When that happens, Boldin and Breaston will be there to clean up. Playoff records or not, Fitzgerald will be a big part of the Cardinals' first Super Bowl win.
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