Five reasons why Cardinals will win
Cards will bust 'defense wins championships' theory, like '06 Colts
Arizona offense was built for comebacks, while Pittsburgh is not
Ken Whisenhunt has put together a winning Super Bowl game plan before
Defense, they say, wins championships. And the Super Bowls of the past decade have largely supported that notion -- the Giants' pass rush against the high-scoring Patriots last year; the '05 version of the Steel Curtain facing the Seahawks' MVP running back, Shaun Alexander; Warren Sapp's '02 Bucs over Rich Gannon's Raiders; the '01 Ravens over the Giants. So there you have it: one reason why the Steelers will win Super Bowl XLIII. Defense. But that's all I've got, because I don't believe it.
Instead, I think the Cardinals will buck the trend, as the Colts did in Super Bowl XLI, when they overcame a fierce Bears defense. In that game the Colts sent two All-Pro receivers against a solid Bears pass unit. And for the most part the Bears' backs held firm. But all it takes is one little misstep -- a teeny coverage seam, a slip on the grass, a minor hesitation on a run fake -- to erase a dozen good defensive plays. And guys like Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Anquan Boldin (who'll be at his healthiest state of the entire playoffs) will find those opportunities, as Reggie Wayne did two years ago on a 53-yard grab made possible by Bears safety Chris Harris' misplay. In the Steelers I see a tremendous defense, but nothing groundbreaking. These Cardinals receivers, though, we'll be writing about them for years.
Here, then, are my five reasons why Arizona will beat Pittsburgh:
1. The Steelers don't have what it takes to come back. Here's what they're dealing with in the Cardinals' offense, which averaged 26.7 points per game, good for third-best in the NFL. Arizona opened five games this season by jumping out to a lead of at least 10-0. (That doesn't count when it scored 31 straight after falling behind 7-0 to the Rams in Week 9.) In the Cardinals 12 wins, including the playoffs, they opened up leads averaging 18 points at some juncture in those games. Against teams whose defense ranked in the top 15 in scoring, that average lead was even higher: 22 points per game.
So let's make the presumption that Arizona's offense jumps to a fast start -- not a certainty, but indulge me a little here. Do we really think the Steelers' offense, ranked 22nd overall in the NFL and 20th in scoring, is going to come storming back? Fourth quarter comebacks are one thing, but does Ben Roethlisberger have it in him to lead a charge back from 14 points down in the first half?
The largest deficit the Steelers overcame in '08 was a 10-point hole in the third quarter against Dallas and 13-3 against Baltimore. Beyond that, they overcame three-, two- and one-point second-half leads to the Ravens, Chargers and Jaguars, respectively. But that's it.
Bottom line: Pittsburgh has only faced four teams with top 10 offenses, and half of their losses came in those games. They fell behind the Eagles 10-3 in the second quarter and never rallied; and they moved a total of one yard over two series while trailing the Giants by seven to give that game away.
2. Arizona's offense, however, is built for a comeback. In their 12 wins the Cardinals have come back from margins of one, three, four, seven -- four separate times -- and 11 points. And three of those comebacks were in the playoffs, when it mattered most.
With so many scoring options (three players with at least 10 touchdowns, more than any other team) they were rarely out of reach of wins this season, save for during a 47-7 shellacking in New England. That comeback attempt was nixed by a combination of snow and Kurt Warner's benching against the Patriots. Even in three lopsided defeats to the Jets, Eagles and Vikings, the Cardinals were in it until late in the game. In New York they reeled off 21-straight points (all on running scores, playing against their opponents' expectations) to cut a 34-point lead to 13. In Philly they cut a 24-point lead to 14 in the fourth quarter before an interception ended things. And against Minnesota they whittled a 28-point margin down to 14 before the Vikings finally iced it.
The main difference between Pittsburgh and those four teams? Offense. The Steelers scored 21.7 points per game. The other four mentioned teams averaged more than 25.
In total, the Cardinals scored three times in a row seven times during the season. They also did it four, five and seven times in a row, once each. If Pittsburgh manages some early points, Arizona is well-built for a comeback.