Gentlemen, we stand today on the edge of a great, wide chasm. After Sunday night, there will be no more football until draft day, and with God’s mercy maybe all of us can get through our own individual three-month Dark Age. I know it will be tough, and we will all be tested. Hopefully all of us can get through this without pulling a Hunter S. Thompson, who punched his timecard on this rock because football season ended, with there being nothing left to live for. And if you count the Pro Bowl as “football”, which it certainly is not, then you, my friend, are as equally delusional as you are fanatic.
But we still have one more game, and for some of us, we will consume enough calories to last us until draft day.
This game on Sunday night has a nice size of drama surrounding it, and I think a lot of that has been downplayed by the media over the past two weeks. This 2009 edition, and the stage, and all that surrounds the players upon it; it really is a great story.
The Arizona Cardinals take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team that has decades and decades worth of evidence as the worst franchise in the league, has been relocated time and again with no real changes made at any of those locations, versus what might be the most recognizable franchise in the whole league, firmly and permanently planted in the culture and hearts of a whole city. A team that is so embedded in the culture of the people who cheer them that the Pittsburgh Steelers have become the black and gold fabric that tightly holds this struggling, middle-class city from falling completely apart. The Cardinals, the transients of the NFL, have never done anything that has been worthy of the constituent’s time in any of those cities they briefly and unnoticeably swept through. A very small, local faction of fans is now claiming allegiance to a franchise that doesn’t deserve even THEIR attention. South of Chandler and north of Scottsdale, it is soccer and the Denver Broncos, respectfully. That small collection of fans, versus the war-machine, rabid and rampant fans of the Steel City, who travel better than any other franchise, filling opponent’s stadiums with Terrible Towels and a loud, booze-smelling ruckus. Cardinal fans, if any of them even care enough about that team to travel to Tampa, will find out how a real legion of fans carry themselves. Hopefully they will take notes. And judging by the playoff-ticket fiasco that transpired in Phoenix, where they almost couldn’t even sell enough tickets to be able to air the game locally, I’m not expecting many Cardinal fans to even show up.
The clash here is also very evident. About the only change Pittsburgh has made to their jerseys since God-only-knows has been the script for the numbers on the front and on the back. The Steelers are an old and storied franchise that builds themselves upon their great history, and unlike their opponent this weekend, history is readily embraced. The black and gold jerseys are legendary in the annuls of football. The Arizona Cardinals, however, have jerseys that are legendary for a far different reason, with that cardinal logo being synonymous with 3-13 football. Arizona looks like they belong in the WAC instead of the NFL. There are teams in the Arena League that have nicer jerseys than Arizona. There are high school teams in Denton who dress better than the Arizona Cardinals. This game, visually, is a match-up of a professional sports franchise and a minor-league affiliate.
In this football season that is now ready to draw the curtain shut, the Pittsburgh Steelers solidified their rightful place in this championship game by playing what is very possibly the NFL’s toughest schedule. En route to a 12-4 regular season finish, Pittsburgh time and time again found ways to win games against quality opposition, and were consistently strong all season. After a first round bye, the Steelers finished off a red-hot Chargers team, and defeated a very good Baltimore Ravens squad for the third time this season. The Arizona Cardinals, who went 9-7, stumbled into the playoffs as a lowly 4th seed, and received an automatic playoff bid by winning what has been the worst division in professional football since the Reagan administration. Let’s put it this way: The NFC West is so bad that the Arizona Cardinals won the division. The Cardinals illustrious resume also includes a 47-7 loss to a Patriots team that didn’t even make the playoffs. Oh, but the Cards were without their starting QB? So was New England. But something happened right as the playoffs started: Arizona became the hottest team in the league. The Cards peaked at the exact time they needed to do so. They beat a pretty good Atlanta team, they utterly and completely embarrassed a Carolina team that many had as Super Bowl contenders, and they withstood an almost miraculous comeback in the NFC title game against Philadelphia. No matter how great you are in the NFL, it is not a sprint, it is a marathon. And it is not how you start, it is how you finish.
During these playoffs, the Cardinal offense has been burning brighter than holiday lights on a house decorated by Clark Griswold. That offense is led by quarterback Kurt Warner, who in my opinion should be a first-ballot Hall of Fame candidate regardless of this game’s outcome. Warner is a guy who came from a I-AA school, played in the Arena League for the Iowa Barnstormers (who have some of the best helmets in the history of the sport), won a Super Bowl in St. Louis, started getting injured as his career was headed into oblivion, was brought in as a teacher-coach to pretty-boy beer pong champion Matt Leinhart, and somehow managed to resurrect his own career as well as the entire franchise. I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for Kurt Warner as a human being, on and off the field. Warner’s biggest weapon is Larry Fitzgerald, a kid who coincidentally enough played half of his college games at none other than Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. Fitzgerald has been playing like the monster most people knew he would one day become in the NFL. That’s bad news for any defense. The other mammoth part of the aerial attack is Anquan Boldin, who, despite going over 1,000 yards this year like Fitzgerald did, does not seem to be enjoying his days in Phoenix, despite his team’s Super Bowl appearance. If anyone out there has any clue how to rationalize that, please call ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ at 800-876-5353, or email me and I’ll contact Robert Stack on a Ouija Board sometime between now and kickoff. As far as any kind of rushing attack goes, the unnoteworthy and largely irrelevant Edgerrin James does not exactly rival Bo Jackson on Tecmo Bowl, to say the least. His compatriot Tim Hightower, however, DOES show signs that he would like to stay employed in the NFL, and many are visualizing a 1st round RB acquisition to accompany Mr. Hightower for 2009. Defensively, Arizona isn’t winning many awards. This team is highly led by the offensive side of the ball. They are 19th overall in defense, 22nd against the pass, and 16th against the run. Karlos Dansby leads this questionable defense with 119 tackles, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, an undrafted rookie, leads the team with 4 INTs.
The Steeler’s defense has been as incredible as the Cardinal’s offense. This franchise has a long history of great defense, and the 2008 edition was yet another chapter in that book. Through the regular season, this defense was ultimately ranked 1st overall, 2nd against the run, and 1st against the pass. That’s right, the hottest passing attack in the NFL will meet the number-one ranked pass defense in the Super Bowl. The defense is led by undrafted Player of the Year James Harrison, 4th in sacks with 16, and 1st in forced fumbles with 7. Harrison has been punishing people all season. And also punishing people all season has been this secondary, led by former USC stud and All-Universe safety Troy Polamalu, who is tied for 2nd in the NFL with 7 INTs. You cannot say enough good things about Polamalu’s tenacity and discipline. On offense, this team is team is made up of a bunch of guys who carry lunch-pails every day. Hines Ward is probably the hardest working player on the field on Sundays, and continues to be a bigtime receiving threat. Santonio Holmes is coming into his own, and Willie Parker has erased all questions about his value as a starter. Like his Super Bowl nemesis Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger was another QB who was questioned out of college as a pro prospect, the knock on him was supposedly an awkward release. His ability to win is unbelievable, no matter how poorly he can look for 3 quarters. All this guy does is win football games. And the Steelers have done just that with him at the helm, 14 times so far this season, behind the worst offensive line in the NFL.
Don’t make any mistake here, folks. The real beauty of this football game lies with these coaches. It all starts in an old steel town with too many bridges… When legendary coach Chuck Noll had finally come to the end of his run, the Steelers organization had a decision to make. Long known as a tight organization, they had to pick whether or not to stay in-house and go with a member of the Noll staff, or go outside and find their guy. Many believed Mean Joe Greene, a member on that staff, would get the nod. The Rooney family decided to go out and find their guy, which raised a lot of eyebrows. They settled on a defensive coordinator with one year’s experience from Kansas City. That guy was Bill Cowher, and the world said, “Who?” After the Steelers won the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 2005 season, Cowher stayed on for one more run and finished 8-8 before riding off into the sunset. The Rooney family had a decision to make: do they stay in-house and hire offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, the heir apparent, or do they go with an additional member of the Cowher staff, offensive-line coach Russ Grim? Or, do they go outside and find their guy, again? Not wanting to create a good-ol’-boy network, they hired a defensive coordinator from the Vikings with one year’s worth of experience: Mike Tomlin. The world said, “Who?” Whisenhunt would go to Arizona… and a dejected Grim would follow suit. Fast forward two seasons and here we are, talking about two coaches on one side who contributed mightily to the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl team, and a coach on the other who seemingly did not deserve it but was given the Pittsburgh job over the both of them. Listening to Tomlin speak, it is as if they knew all along that they’d be playing in Tampa this weekend. A young, serious, and cerebral coach, every accomplishment, no matter how great or how small, is business as usual. He expects his players to play in the Super Bowl, and having long-time NFL defensive genius Dick LeBeau on his side only makes life easier. For Whisenhunt and Grim, no matter what they say otherwise, they want to beat Pittsburgh by 400 points.
This game is an odd match-up for both of these teams. Although Pittsburgh’s pass defense is rated the best in the league, they have not come close to seeing a team that is hitting the target as much as Arizona has been in these playoffs. Conversely, Pittsburgh’s methodical offense has the ability to score points on this Cardinal defense every time they get the ball. There were supposed to be a number of teams in these playoffs that were going to stop the Cardinal’s offense and did the opposite. This Arizona team, who had a tumultuous regular season and peaked very late, is a perfect example of the beauty… and the beast… that comes along with playoff football. I am inclined to think that a streaky, inconsistent team with a two-week layoff will fizzle. Pittsburgh, with a 6th Super Bowl ring in the balance, is perched to become the greatest franchise in NFL history. Resurrected Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals, the unlikely contenders and big under-dogs, are set to make a quantum leap. In the end, I have to go with the team who has been there before, in a battle that has all the makings of a fitting cap on another great season of ups and downs.