At the beginning of the season, if you asked any football fan what the Super Bowl match-up would be, exactly zero of them would say "Cardinals-Steelers." But between the resurgent play of Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, and the gritty play of the Steelers, this is the match-up that will happen on Feb. 1 in Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII.
The two teams took very different paths to the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh, by virtue of a 12-4 record, was awarded a bye for the first round of the playoffs. They stopped the San Diego Chargers last weekend, and then won an extremely hard-hitting game against their divisional rival, the Baltimore Ravens. That is not to say that the Steelers didn't face adversity on their path to the Super Bowl. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker both had stints on the disabled list, but both players bounced back splendidly for the postseason.
The Cardinals won the hapless NFC West early on, punching their ticket to the postseason before any other team in the NFL. However, their record required that they play wild card weekend, where they beat the upstart Atlanta Falcons 30-24. Their Cinderella story continued with a shocking win at Carolina, and then the equally shocking win in Arizona against the Eagles to clinch their spot in the Super Bowl.
Kurt Warner's resurgence has been the key to Arizona's success, especially as he has created connections with receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Despite the youth of most of the team, Warner's experience in big games has paid off for the Cardinals. He hooked up with Fitzgerald for 419 yards in the postseason, breaking Jerry Rice's record.
Warner's accuracy will give the Steelers' defense fits, as he has only been picked off 14 times in the regular season, with six of those picks coming in just two games. To disrupt Warner, the Steelers need to break through and sack him many times, as he gives up an average of seven yards per sack. The Steelers are capable of putting Warner on the turf often, as James Harrison and Lamar Woodley have combined for 27.5 sacks.
The first thing that the Steelers must do to prepare for the Super Bowl is take a few days off and get healthy. Hines Ward left with a knee injury, Ben Roethlisberger had some pain in the ribs, and with the way they hit, the whole team is feeling some bumps and bruises. Those hard hits will need to continue to disrupt the Cards' offense, and Roethlisberger, Ward and Parker will need to be at their best.
Interestingly enough, no matter who wins, history will be made. If the Cardinals win, it will break the second-longest drought by a professional franchise between championships, as the Cardinals last won the NFL championship when they were the Chicago Cardinals in 1948. If the Steelers win, they will break the NFL record for Super Bowl titles with six. More than anything, that shows the juxtaposition of these two franchises playing each other, one of the least successful going head-to-head with one of the most successful.