Snap Judgments: AFC, NFC titles
Larry Fitzgerald is dominating the playoffs like no wide receiver ever has before
The Cardinals are without a doubt the most unlikely Super Bowl team of all time
Ken Whisenhunt stands between the Steelers and a record sixth Super Bowl win
The Steelers bypassed over then-assistant Whisenhunt in favor of Mike Tomlin
PITTSBURGH -- Musings, observations and the occasional championship Sunday insight as we wrap our mind around the Super Bowl XLIII pairing for the first time amid the confetti shower that has descended upon Heinz Field....
The Cardinals-Steelers Super Bowl XLIII matchup is a shocker to be sure, but it certainly doesn't lack for sizzle. It has Kurt Warner's remarkable career renaissance at age 37 as its centerpiece, and Arizona's other-worldly receiver Larry Fitzgerald taking his spectacular game to the grandest stage of all.
It has something old (the familiar Steelers back in the big game for a seventh time) and something new (the Cinderella Cardinals making their first ever Roman numeraled affair).
It has a second-year Cardinals head coach who won a ring with the Steelers three seasons ago (Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt, the ex-Pittsburgh offensive coordinator) and a second-year Steelers head coach who's trying to etch his name alongside Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher in the annals of Pittsburgh Super Bowl history (Mike Tomlin).
It has two quarterbacks trying to win their second rings in vastly different ways -- Warner's championships would be nine years apart, while Ben Roethlisberger is going for his second NFL title in the past four seasons.
And it has a pair of big-play receivers who have had their share of heroics right here at Heinz Field, with the Steelers' Hines Ward and the Cardinals' Fitzgerald, who starred collegiately at the University of Pittsburgh.
But the Super Bowl hype for the next two weeks will definitely center most on Warner, who will be making his first appearance in the NFL's title game since February 2002, when his St. Louis Rams were upset by New England in New Orleans. That's the second longest gap between quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl starts, trailing only Denver's John Elway, who went eight seasons between Super Bowls (from 1989 to 1997).
I've never really been convinced of this before, but with Sunday's NFC title game win over Philadelphia, and a third Super Bowl trip assured, I believe Warner may have punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame. A win in Tampa in two weeks and it's probably approaching slam-dunk territory.
One of the weirder aspects to Warner's story is that he led the St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowls in his earlier incarnation, and now he's taking the Cardinals to the Big Game, the team that long resided in St. Louis.
Roethlisberger will be the "other" quarterback, but his making it to Tampa to chase the second ring of his career is a pretty good story in and of itself. If the Steelers win, Big Ben will be a two-time Super Bowl champion in the first five years of his career, something only New England's Tom Brady has bettered. Brady won two rings in his first four seasons, and three in his first five. Roethlisberger would match Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, who also won a pair of Super Bowls in his first five NFL seasons.
Roethlisberger is now 7-2 as a playoff quarterback, and only Brady won more postseason games in his first five seasons, with a 9-0 record.
Besides Warner, Fitzgerald will be the other glamour topic of the two-week buildup. We've witnessed plenty of spectacular playoff heroics by receivers over the years. Jerry Rice looking like a man among boys, circa 1988 or 1989, take your pick. Minnesota's Anthony Carter's one-man show of 1987 comes to mind, as does Steve Smith's fireworks for Carolina in 2005, and the ultimate Mr. Patriot, Troy Brown, doing it all in New England's magical first Super Bowl run of 2001.
But has any pass-catcher ever dominated a postseason to the degree that Fitzgerald has this month? Not in my book. Fitzgerald, heretofore known as the man who cannot be covered, almost single-handedly put the Cardinals on his shoulder pads and hoisted them into their first Super Bowl in franchise history. (And I still can't believe I just typed those words in that particular order).
Over the course of three playoff games, the fifth-year receiver torched Atlanta in the first round, tormented Carolina in the Cardinals' divisional-round upset of the Panthers, and put on an absolute tour de force first-half performance in Arizona's 32-25 NFC title game win over Philadelphia.
Fitzgerald's 419 yards receiving broke Rice's one-year playoff record of 408 yards, set in 1988. And his three-touchdown catches against the Eagles tied another playoff record, and set the mark for most receiving scores in one half.
Fitzgerald got better as he went on this month, catching six passes for 101 yards and a touchdown in the win over Atlanta, eight for 166 yards and a touchdown in the victory at Carolina, and grabbing nine passes for 152 yards and those three scores against the Eagles. His six catches for 113 yards and three touchdowns in the first half got the Cardinals off to a roaring start on Sunday, but he also came up huge on Arizona's 14-play, game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, catching three passes for 39 yards.
The most remarkable thing about Fitzgerald's playoff performance? His singular drive to come down with the football, no matter how high he had to jump, and no matter who was in supposed coverage. He simply willed himself to win almost every ball, and the Cardinals fed off his determination and desire.
I still can't believe this is the same quiet, polite young kid I used to watch play ball boy at Minnesota Vikings practices in the second half of the 1990s.
It may strike some as a bit too much of a Snap Judgment, but I'm convinced the 2008 Arizona Cardinals are the most unlikely Super Bowl team of all time.
Given their desultory franchise history, their years of wandering in the proverbial NFL desert, their so-so 9-7 regular-season mark, and the wholly un-competitive way they played down the stretch in the regular season, I can't think of another Super club that came out of nowhere quite like them.
My short list would include the 2001 Patriots, who were then largely viewed as a collection of blue-collar players and spare parts, led by a sixth-round quarterback; the 2007 Giants, a No. 5 seed whose title run somehow didn't even start until a Week 17 loss; and the 1979 Rams, who were a 9-7 but veteran-laden club that had been a playoff perennial throughout that decade.
But to me, all three of those teams were in a different league than this year's Cardinals, a club that has suffered more embarrassing losses this season than any Super Bowl club in history.
Three years ago, it was Whisenhunt who helped Roethlisberger and Cowher win their first and only Super Bowl title. He left Pittsburgh and took the Arizona job only after the Steelers surprisingly bypassed him and fellow Steelers assistant Russ Grimm (now the Cardinals assistant head coach) in favor of Tomlin. Now Whisenhunt and Grimm are the opposition as Pittsburgh goes for its NFL-record sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers are currently tied with San Francisco and Dallas with five Super Bowl wins apiece.
Whisenhunt's opposing coach in Tampa will be Tomlin, whose NFL coaching career was launched in that city in 2001, Tony Dungy's final season as Bucs head coach. Tomlin spent five years as Tampa Bay's defensive backs coach -- the final four on Jon Gruden's staff -- before leaving to become the Vikings defensive coordinator in 2006. If he wins a Super Bowl two weeks from tonight, he'll be the youngest head coach, at 36, to ever accomplish it.