The Tampa Two: Cardinals, banged up Steelers ready for Super battle
Brutality of Ravens-Steelers puts rivalry at the top of NFL pecking order
Don't be so quick to jump on the Kurt Warner for HOF bandwagon
The Bill Belichick branches, 10 Things I Think I Think and much more
PITTSBURGH -- We have 13 days to hype the Super Bowl, and I'll even do some of that here. But first a few words on what we saw last night in the Baltimore-Pittsburgh Texas Cage Match.
This is now officially the best rivalry in football. It just passed New England-Indianapolis in my book. The thing is, it's a little bit like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, or Balboa-Creed. I'm not sure how often I want to see it. I'm afraid someone's going to get maimed. If I've ever been to a game with more intense hitting, I don't remember it. This was primeval.
There were three hits in this game that made the Hines Ward season-ending jaw-breaker of Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers look like flag football, and one of them left Baltimore running back Willis McGahee laid out on the field. He had to be strapped to a gurney to be carted off. All signs point to him being fine. Late last night, I asked the sport truck who hit him, Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark, what will hurt when he wakes up this morning. "Everything,'' Clark said. My fingers hurt just typing about this game.
If I'm Larry Fitzgerald or Kurt Warner, I'm saying a prayer the night before the Super Bowl. First, to give great thanks for one of the more incredible ascensions to a conference title ever. And second, to humbly ask, "Please do not let me get killed out there.'' The women and children and football players with birds on their helmets should be safe in Tampa, though, because it's not Baltimore on the other side of the field from Pittsburgh. Ravens-Steelers seems to bring out the MMA brawler in the players, as happened earlier this season, when Ray Lewis broke Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall's shoulder standing him up on a jarring straight-ahead tackle.
There was much more of that Sunday in Pittsburgh's 23-14 AFC Championship win, starting on the opening kickoff, when Baltimore safety Daren Stone was concussed flying into the Steeler wedge. Later, string-bean Steelers receiver (and nearly one of the biggest goats in franchise history) Limas Sweed decleated Baltimore cornerback Corey Ivy with a semi-blindside hit and knocked him out. Clark delivered a crushing blow to McGahee later.
"That was just ... so violent,'' the Pittsburgh backup quarterback, Byron Leftwich, said. "These two teams play violently. You look out there and can't believe the hits you're seeing.''
The spiritual leader of the Ravens, Lewis, is 33 and not long for the rivalry, obviously. But the youth all over the place points to this being borderline Yankees-Red Sox for a long time. The coaches are 46 (John Harbaugh) and 36 (Mike Tomlin). The quarterbacks are 26 (Ben Roethlisberger) and 24 (Joe Flacco). Each team has some young keepers of the flame from recent drafts, like 24-year-old Pittsburgh sacker LaMarr Woodley and 24-year-old Baltimore defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, assuming they can survive the rivalry.
"Seems like this was 10-times worse than the regular season against them,'' Woodley said. "They had a chip on their shoulder out there, maybe because we beat them twice during the regular season. Whatever, it was rough out there.''
Four Steelers in the locker room last night mentioned -- without being prompted -- that they were thankful to have the usual Super Bowl bye week so they wouldn't have to play this weekend all beat up. We'll see what sort of impact the physicality of the game has on the Super Bowl. With the exception of a strained right-knee ligament suffered by Ward and some bruised ribs for Roethlisberger, the Steelers came out of the game pretty well. Ward and Roethlisberger will be ready to play in two weeks.
With the Super Bowl matchup set, let's attack the myriad topics on and off the field:
Can you count on anything -- like regular-season records -- in the postseason anymore?
Think of this: The Arizona Cardinals scored one more point than they allowed this year (427-426), and lost by 28, 21 and 40 in the last six weeks ... and are going to the Super Bowl.
Last year, the Giants, the fifth seed in the NFC, won three straight road games and shocked the previously 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl. Three years ago, it was another six-seed, these Steelers, winning three road playoff games and then the Super Bowl.
What exactly does the regular season mean anymore? And why are so many low seeds winning the title?
"If the NFL has now arrived at a strange point where regular-season performance does nothing to predict playoff performance, and every team has an equal chance to win if they make the tournament, is that bad for the league?'' Football Outsiders president Aaron Schatz said in an e-mail last night after watching the Cardinals win. "It's honestly feeling like we've reached that point.''
My feeling: So much is determined on health. If you're the Ravens, and you play an intensely physical style of football, you're going to have to be lucky to reach the Super Bowl, because it's likely you will have left some bodies by the side of the road during the course of the season. And without question, they were physically spent as they left Heinz Field last night. They hadn't had a weekend without a game for the last 18 weeks, while the Steelers had a bye in Week 6, a game with no playoff implications in Week 17, and a playoff bye in Week 18. "We're as healthy as we've been all year,'' Tomlin said the other day.
The Ravens talked brave in that next-man-up kind of way, but with their two starting corners out and vital cogs Terrell Suggs and Derrick Mason both playing with strapped-down shoulders, it didn't exactly give them the fairest chance in the title game. But them's the breaks.
It's never been truer that the hottest teams, and the healthiest teams, are the ones with the best chance in January. That's why it might be tempting to hand the Steelers their sixth Lombardi Trophy right now, but you can't underestimate a hot team with the best receiver on the planet right now, Larry Fitzgerald.