Super Bowl XLIII matches a Pittsburgh Steelers franchise with perhaps the NFL's top Super Bowl pedigree (six appearances, five wins, first team to win four Super Bowls) against an Arizona Cardinals franchise that has migrated from Chicago to St. Louis to Arizona but has not captured an NFL championship since 1947. If History and Tradition could put on jerseys and shoulder pads they clearly would be wearing Steelers black and gold but I keep thinking of the old cliche about "throwing out the numbers when these two teams meet"--not because the Steelers and Cardinals play each other that often but because a lot of the names and numbers that are mentioned regarding this matchup are out of date or just irrelevant.
As Rick Pitino might say, Jack Lambert is not walking through that door; Terry Bradshaw is not walking through that door. The Steelers' glorious Super Bowl history will not mean a thing once the game begins--nor will Arizona's mediocre regular season record or the embarrassing losses that the Cardinals suffered down the stretch; those setbacks feel like they happened even longer ago than when Lambert and Bradshaw were winning Super Bowls.
Super Bowl XLIII will be decided based on some intriguing player and coaching matchups. I think that the most important matchup will be Arizona's offense versus Pittsburgh's defense; one of those two units will set the tone for this game. The first inclination may be to assume that Pittsburgh's league-leading defense has the edge but Arizona poses some problems that the Steelers did not have to deal with in their playoff wins over San Diego and Baltimore. Everyone is talking about Larry Fitzgerald and rightfully so: he has already set an NFL postseason record with 419 receiving yards, gaining at least 100 yards in each of Arizona's three playoff victories. Kurt Warner was outstanding in the regular season and he has been even better in the playoffs. He and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger each have already won a Super Bowl ring but while Roethlisberger went along for the ride when Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL, Warner ranks first and second on the single game Super Bowl passing yardage list, throwing for 414 yards in St. Louis' 23-16 win versus Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV and compiling 365 yards in St. Louis' 20-17 loss versus New England in Super Bowl XXXVI. The most surprising statistic is that Edgerrin James leads all postseason rushers this season with 203 yards. James provides some much needed balance to Arizona's offensive attack and if he can crank out 75-80 yards on 18-20 carries then the Steelers are going to have their hands full dealing with him while also trying to not get burned by Warner and Arizona's dynamic passing game.
Pittsburgh's offense did not look very potent after Hines Ward was knocked out of the AFC Championship Game with a knee injury. No matter what anyone says, the kind of ligament damage that he suffered requires at least 4-6 weeks to heal, so he will not even be close to 100% in the Super Bowl. Could he still have a big impact? Sure; Jerry Rice had a tremendous performance in Super Bowl XXIX despite playing with a separated shoulder. However, the likelihood is that Ward will be hindered and this may enable Arizona to get away with single covering him, freeing up a defender to play against Pittsburgh's running game. In the days before last year's Super Bowl, Tom Brady was hobbling around in a walking boot while proclaiming that he would be fine during the game--but he was uncharacteristically unable to sidestep the pass rush as the perfect Patriots' season went down the tubes, so Ward can say whatever he wants but his injury may very well have cost the Steelers a potential championship.
The coaching matchup is very interesting. Arizona Coach Ken Whisenhunt and his offensive line coach Russ Grimm were assistant coaches on Bill Cowher's staff when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. When Cowher retired they were both passed over in favor of Mike Tomlin, who has done a wonderful job as the Steelers Coach. If anyone knows not only what Roethlisberger is thinking but also how to attack Dick LeBeau's defense, it would be Whisenhunt and Grimm, two guys who worked with Roethlisberger on a daily basis while practicing against LeBeau's defense. I think that Jon Gruden's familiarity with the tendencies of his old Oakland team played a big role in Tampa Bay's triumph over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII; Whisenhunt and Grimm may very well pull off a similar number against their old team.
This is truly a difficult game to handicap. I expect it to be close and I certainly could make a case that Pittsburgh will shut down Arizona's running game, harass Warner into some costly interceptions and win a low scoring game--but if Arizona does not turn the ball over and provide Pittsburgh with easy points then it will be difficult for the Steelers to score enough to win this game. Maybe this is just wishful thinking from an admitted Cleveland Browns fan but after considering all of the matchups, I think that Arizona will win Super Bowl XLIII, 30-24.