Five reasons (cont.)
3. Big Ben wants to make amends. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a bad Super Bowl memory he's dying to erase. Roethlisberger won a ring three years ago in Detroit, but I don't think he wears it with much enthusiasm. He still can't quite forgive himself for going 9-of-21 for 123 yards and two interceptions in Pittsburgh's 21-10 conquest of Seattle in Super Bowl XL. His 22.6 passer rating that game was the lowest for a Super Bowl winning quarterback.
"Man, I played really bad, and that kind of eats at you,'' Roethlisberger said this week. "I do want to play better than I did. The first time, my play didn't help the team win. It almost helped us lose it. This time, I'm not going to say it's all on my shoulders, but if I turn the ball over and play poorly, it's not going to help our offense, and it's not going to win this game. ''
Roethlisberger admits he was nervous throughout Super Bowl XL, with the butterflies strangely staying with him from opening whistle to the final gun. But he was just a second-year pro at that point, whose meteoric rise to the ranks of NFL superstar quarterback might have finally caught up with him when he stepped on the biggest stage of his career.
I can't see the same thing happening this time, now that he has five full seasons under his belt and has played in, and survived, so many pressure-cooker situations. And I think he's going to be driven to be one of the key components of a Pittsburgh victory, instead of the sheepish, slightly embarrassed winner he was three years ago.
"I expect it to be different this time,'' Roethlisberger said. "I'm going to treat it like it might be my last [Super Bowl trip]. I've been here before and I kind of understand what went right and what went wrong last time.''
4. Running on empty. I know the Cardinals running game has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the playoffs, with Edgerrin James looking like his old self and some key moving of the chains accomplished by the part of the Arizona offense, which has been a bottom-ranked afterthought for most of this season. But that part of Arizona's winning postseason formula is about to end.
The Cardinals won't run on the Steelers. No way. No how. Arizona's success on the ground this month has been an aberration that the Steelers tough defensive front seven won't allow to continue. In fact, many experts say Arizona might not even try, choosing instead to come out and spread the field early, trying to build a quick lead on Pittsburgh with a passing-only offense that makes no attempt at balance with the run.
The Cardinals are just the fourth team to rank last in the league in rushing and still make the playoffs. But Arizona is the only one of those to win even one playoff game, and they've tripled that achievement. Pittsburgh has been dominant against the run this month, holding the Chargers and Ravens, teams with legitimate running games, to just 88 combined yards. The Steelers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, including the playoffs.
Remember how hot San Diego running back Darren Sproles was coming off his first-round shredding of the Colts' defense? The Steelers held Sproles to 15 yards on 11 carries in their divisional-round conquest of San Diego, and that's about where I see James' run totals finishing Sunday. If the Cardinals are to pull the upset, they're going to have to beat the Steelers almost exclusively in the air. There's no more solid Super Sunday prediction than this: Pittsburgh will grind the revived Arizona ground game to a halt.
5. There's no place like home. Think the Super Bowl is played at a neutral site? Not when the Steelers are in the game. Three years ago in Detroit, the Ford Field crowd was dominated by Terrible Towel-waving Steelers enthusiasts, and it made a real difference, turning what is sometimes a sterile, corporate-type crowd environment into a full-throated rooting colossus in favor of the guys in black and gold. The Seahawks and their modest collection of Super Bowl-attending fans never knew what hit them.
And it's about to happen again, this time at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, where I'm guessing the Steelers-to-Cardinals fan ratio will be at least 10 to 1. Even Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt, he of the Pittsburgh assistant coaching background, knows what's coming on Sunday night.
"I don't think that we're under any illusion that there's going to be a number of Steelers fans here,'' he said Friday morning. "I've seen that. I've experienced it on the other side. I know what kind of group of fans that that is. I know how they travel. We're preparing with that thought in mind. We're ready to handle that.''
Maybe the Cardinals think they're ready to handle it, but the only way they'll neutralize the traveling component of Steelers Nation on Sunday is by jumping out to a big early lead and taking all the air out of stadium from the start. Impossible? No. Likely? Not in the least.