Super surprises: Cardinals and Steelers are similar - but in different ways
Published: Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Updated: Sunday, March 20, 2011 18:03
TAMPA, Fla.-Hall of Fame coach John Madden could have been speaking for the entire pro football world when he pondered the matchup of Arizona and Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII."I've said the last few years, the NFL stands for Never Figure League," said Madden, who will broadcast the game for NBC. "When you think you know what's going to happen, you realize you don't know a doggone thing."
No one saw this one coming.
Arizona, champion of a weak NFC West, lost four of its last six regular-season games by an average margin of 24.2 points per game and was an underdog in all three playoff games, including two at home.
Yet the Cardinals, whose last NFL championship was in 1947 when they were based in Chicago, became the first No. 4 seed ever to reach the Super Bowl, and unquestionably are the most unlikely team to play for the title.
"When you look back at it, it's kind of staggering," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said of his team's wild ride to the Super Bowl.
Even the Steelers, who won Super Bowl XL as a sixth seed three years ago, are a mild surprise. They were a second seed and had lost 31-14 to top-seeded Tennessee in the second-to-last regular-season game.
But in the playoffs, the Titans were upset by Baltimore in the second round ... Indianapolis, which had won its last nine regular-season games, was taken out by San Diego in the first round ... and Pittsburgh, taking advantage of home-field advantage, beat Baltimore in the AFC championship game and will be appearing in its seventh Super Bowl and aiming for a record sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The seven trips to the Super Bowl are the second most in NFL history, trailing only the Dallas Cowboys, with eight. And Pittsburgh's five rings are tied for the most Super Bowl wins with Dallas and San Francisco.
Both Arizona and Pittsburgh are led by second-year coaches in the Steelers' Mike Tomlin, who at 36 is the youngest head coach to reach the Super Bowl, and Whisenhunt, who was the Steelers' offensive coordinator when they won Super Bowl XL under Bill Cowher.
Tomlin's pedigree is in defense, and that's what carried the Steelers to the Super Bowl. The Steelers, for the second straight season, were the NFL's top-ranked defense. They also led the league in scoring defense, passing defense, were second against the run, second in sacks and featured linebacker James Harrison, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Whisenhunt's background is in offense, and the high-flying Cardinals ranked fourth in total offense, second in passing offense and tied for third in scoring.
Yet the Steelers have scored 89 points in their last three games, their most productive three-game output of the season, while the Cardinals have played some stout defense, especially in a playoff game at Carolina where they forced six turnovers.
Both teams have former Super Bowl MVPs.
Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner was MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV when he led the St. Louis Rams to a victory over Tennessee. Warner, 8-2 in his postseason career, is bidding to become the first quarterback in NFL history to lead two different franchises to Super Bowl titles.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward was MVP of Super Bowl XL against Seattle when he caught five passes for 123 yards and a touchdown from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is 7-2 in his postseason career.
But the players who have grabbed_quite literally_most of the attention in the playoffs so far have been Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu.
Fitzgerald tied an NFL record with three straight 100-yard games in the postseason, tied another record with three touchdown catches in the NFC championship game, and his 419 yards in the playoffs are a single-season, postseason record. And he still has the Super Bowl left.
Polamalu has three career postseason interceptions, including a 40-yard return for a touchdown against Baltimore. It was the first interception return for a touchdown and longest return in Steelers postseason history.
The Steelers are seven-point favorites, but remember this. These teams met in the fourth game of the 2007 regular season in Arizona. The Cardinals scored 21 second-half points for a 21-14 victory.
(c) 2009, The Kansas City Star.