Here we go. It’s the biggest game of the year and, sadly, the last real game of significance before we become devoid of football for the next six months. I have 99 losses on the season and I’m hoping to avoid that triple-digit loss barrier. It won’t be easy, though. As much as Pittsburgh is favored, if we’ve only learned one thing this year, it’s that parity reigned supreme.
Here’s a look at this week’s matchup and how I think it’ll play out.
Last Week: 1-1
This Week: 1-0
Pittsburgh (14-4) vs. Arizona (12-7)
As I mentioned in a previous post, this game has shades of Super Bowl XXXVII in it. We’ve seen this script before featuring the league’s top defense against one of the top offenses, which raises the question: Which unit is better?
The fact that the Steelers only allowed 156.9 yards per game through the air in the regular season is astounding. The Cardinals will certainly have their work cut out for them and Kurt Warner will be under heavy duress all game. Warner claims he welcomes blitzes because he can get rid of the ball quickly to an open receiver, and we saw that in the first half of the NFC conference championship against the Eagles. But we’ll see how Warner feels about blitzes once the first crushing blow is delivered to his 37-year-old body.
The truth is, I don’t think this game will be won by the glamorous matchup — the Cardinals offense against the Steelers defense. That matchup makes for good television, but I’m going to keep my eyes on Arizona’s defense against Pittsburgh’s offense.
The reason Arizona slipped into the Super Bowl was because of their solid defense. They swarmed Atlanta’s Michael Turner in the wild card round and allowed just 60 net rushing yards to the league’s No. 2 running team. They physically beat the Panthers into submission in the divisional round, forcing five Jake Delhomme interceptions. And for the first half — and last drive — of the conference championship, they made life uncomfortable for Donovan McNabb and held Brian Westbrook to just 45 rushing yards.
We’ll get a good idea of who will win the game depending on how the Cardinals’ defense fares against the Steelers. They need to clamp down on Willie Parker and the run game, lock down Hines Ward and the Pittsburgh receivers, and get after Ben Roethlisberger, roughing him up for four quarters.
I like the Steelers’ chances of coming out and effectively running the football, a must if they’re going to keep Warner’s powerful offense off the field. It’s imperative that they win the time of possession. Parker’s 47 rushing yards in a game against the woeful Ravens’ offense two weeks ago will not be enough to offset the effects of a more explosive Cardinals unit. The Steelers will need an effort from Parker similar to his performance against the Chargers in the divisional playoff game when he rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
If the Cardinals come out of this game victoriously, we’re suddenly left with a disoriented view of the NFL. If a team like Arizona can come out of the woodwork and march to a Super Bowl title, suddenly, all the off-season evaluations and scouting become tedious and irrelevant. It makes for great parity to know that a team like this year’s Lions could win 8 games next year — with the right off-season moves, of course — just a year after becoming the first 0-16 team in league history.
I’ve been wrong before, and I could be wrong again, but I don’t think the Cardinals are as good as they’ve played throughout the NFC playoffs.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 24, Arizona 17
Actual Score: Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23