If anything, the 2008 NFL Season was far from dull. While the Cardinals and Steelers each won their respective divisions to secure playoff berths, neither team was a slum dunk to make it to Tampa at the start of the postseason.
Let’s recap, shall we?
The Steelers entered the playoffs with huge question marks to be answered, most surrounding their offense. In their last regular season game of the year, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was taken off the field strapped to a stretcher after the back of his helmet slammed against the turf following a hit between two defenders. Along with his health, Pittsburgh’s offensive line, although starting to gel in the final month of the season, seemed to be a weakness that defenses like the Titans and Ravens could exploit if they had the opportunity to face the Steelers in the postseason.
So while they ranked first in total defense entering the playoffs, the Steelers had major issues. Yet they steam rolled an overmatched Chargers team in the divisional round, then turned Joe Flacco’s inexperience against him in the AFC Championship Game and now they’re one win away from winning their second Super Bowl title in three years.
Conversely, the Cardinals had a little steeper hill to climb. Although their offense was explosive throughout the season, they played poorly down the stretch and many believed that if they had to go on the road in the playoffs, they would never survive. Not only that, but many pundits also didn’t believe ‘Zona would get past a good running team like the Falcons, who were sure to ride Michael Turner to victory in the opening round.
Thanks to three Atlanta turnovers and a soundly executed game plan to shut down Turner, the Cards beat the Falcons to set up a regular season rematch with the Panthers in the second round. Six Jake Delhomme turnovers later and Arizona was heading to the NFC Championship Game despite everyone and their mother suggesting that they would never be able to win on the road. Then despite the Eagles’ best efforts at a second half comeback, Arizona was able to hang on Sunday to secure a trip to the Super Bowl, which seemed like an improbable task at the start of the playoffs.
Now that the matchup has been set, what do we have to look forward to? Plenty, actually. Below are five storylines that should wet your appetite for the next two weeks before kickoff on February 1.
1. Anquan Boldin vs. Todd Haley.
Perhaps the most intriguing storyline heading into Super Bowl XLIII is what the relationship will be like between Cards’ wideout Anquan Boldin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The two could be seen having a heated discussion on Arizona’s sideline during the NFC Championship Game Sunday and Haley mouthing, “Don’t call me that” several times during the exchange. According to several reports, Boldin was so upset after the game that he refused to talk to the media and left the locker room abruptly without celebrating with his teammates. Haley claims the receiver was upset with being replaced by Steve Breaston in one of the formations during Arizona’s pivotal game-winning scoring drive, but nothing has been confirmed. So what happens now? More than likely, the situation will get brushed under the rug because the last thing any team needs is to head into the Super Bowl with its star receiver and offensive coordinator at odds. But one has to wonder if Boldin (who publicly stated that he wanted the Cardinals to trade him in the offseason) will put aside his personal feelings in order to help his team win a Lombardi Trophy. He better, because if he thinks that Arizona (or any team for that matter) will spend millions of dollars on a player that put himself above his team’s push to win a Super Bowl, than he has another thing coming.
2. Kurt Warner vs. the Steelers defense.
The Pittsburgh-Arizona matchup reminds me of the 2002 Super Bowl between the Buccaneers and Raiders. Like Pittsburgh this season, Tampa Bay led the league in total defense that year. Oakland had the best passing offense in the league and was led by long-time veteran quarterback Rich Gannon. Arizona doesn’t have the best passing offense in the league (they were second to New Orleans), but they are led by trusty 11-year vet Kurt Warner at quarterback. In Super Bowl XXXVII, Gannon threw a record five interceptions, three of which were returned for defensive touchdowns as the Bucs routed the Raiders 48-21. Granted, this isn’t Warner’s first Super Bowl (it will be his third), but his situation is eerily similar to Gannon’s. The Steelers’ defense excels at making quarterbacks (young and old) look silly when they drop back to pass. And while he hasn’t shown signs of it yet this postseason, Warner can get awfully turnover prone if he feels too much pressure. The Eagles were able to get to Warner in the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game and the Cardinals’ offense wilted. But they couldn’t do it on a consistent basis (neither could the Falcons or Panthers), and Warner picked them apart with the help of Larry Fitzgerald. Can the Arizona offensive line protect Warner long enough for him to find open receivers? Or will Warner suffer a similar demise as the one Gannon did?
3. The injury status of Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward.
Unlike the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers don’t have to worry about injuries on the defensive side of the ball come February 1. But the same can’t be said for their offense, which will likely dress a less than 100% Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward. Big Ben is dealing with a multitude of nagging injuries ranging from bruised ribs to a spinal cord concussion he suffered in Week 17. Ward caught three passes for 55 yards before exciting the championship game with a right knee injury. The team is calling the injury a “slightly sprained MCL,” but he’s expected to play in the Super Bowl. Both of these players will embrace the two weeks off they have between now and kickoff, but one has to wonder whether or not the injuries will come up again any point during the game. Backup quarterback Byron Leftwich has looked good in spot duty this season, but he’s highly immobile and will turn the ball over from time to time. At receiver, the Steelers can get by with Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington, but Limas Sweed has dropped two potential touchdown catches the past two weeks and it isn’t easy replacing Ward’s instincts and leadership on the field. Pittsburgh needs both players to be healthy because while the Cardinals’ defense doesn’t look good on paper, they’re one of the most underrated units in the NFL and are playing extremely well right now.
4. Does Ken Whisenhunt hold an inside edge?
Mike Tomlin and Ken Whisenhunt were hired eight days apart in 2007. Some believed that when Bill Cowher decided to retire, that Whisenhunt (the Steelers’ offensive coordinator at the time) would take over as head coach. But Whisenhunt eventually decided to head west and take over the seemingly impossible rebuilding plan in Arizona. Tomlin was then plucked from his defensive coordinator position in Minnesota to coach the Steelers, and now two years later the two will meet in the Super Bowl. The question becomes: Will Whisenhunt have inside knowledge of how the Steelers run their offense since he was their offensive line coach when they beat the Seahawks in the 2006 Super Bowl? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know ways to help Arizona defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast defend Ben Roethlisberger (who Whisenhunt coached for two seasons in Pittsburgh) or find ways to exploit the few weaknesses the Steelers have defensively. Remember, Jon Gruden helped Monte Kiffin scheme against Rich Gannon (his former quarterback in Oakland) in Super Bowl XXXVII and the Bucs wound up intercepting the Raider QB five times. It would be unwise to overlook Whisenhunt’s knowledge of the Steelers when breaking down this matchup.
5. Steelers open as 7-point favorites.
This isn’t a huge storyline by any means, but the general media loves to shy away from the gambling aspects of the big game, so it’s fun to talk about. Don’t expect the Steelers to remain 7-point favorites for very long. Pittsburgh fans will likely push the spread up to –8 or –9 by kickoff, making the Cardinals an intriguing pick in my opinion. Pittsburgh’s average margin of victory this year (including the postseason) was right around 10 points and that includes a 31-0 ass kicking of the Browns in Week 17. So as good as the Steeler defense is, they haven’t necessarily blown opponents out this season. Point is, if the spread jumps up closer to 10, there’s a good chance the Cards will keep the game close and produce a cover. If the line drops, then it’s hard not to love what the Pittsburgh defense could potential do to Kurt Warner and the Steelers might be an easy choice. So basically, let the public make your decision for you and if the line stays put, then maybe partaking in some Super Bowl squares or the total (which opened at 47) is the better way to go.
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