Don't write off Cardinals — here's why
Warner can handle blitzes, Fitzgerald's a star and underrated Wilson is too
by Gregg Rosenthal, NBCSports.com
Everyone's ready to write off the Arizona Cardinals.
Las Vegas made Arizona 7-point underdogs to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals are just the second team with only nine regular-season wins to reach the NFL's biggest game. Arizona closed the regular season with just two wins in its final six games and allowed at least 35 points in each of those losses.
Still, maybe everyone's been too quick to write off the Cardinals. Here are 10 reasons why.
1. Kurt Warner makes quick decisions
To hang with the Steelers, you need an intelligent quarterback that gets rid of the ball quickly. That's Kurt Warner in a nutshell. As Warner showed in the NFC Championship, there aren't many blitzes he hasn't seen. Immobile 37-year-old quarterbacks only last if they know where pressure is coming from.
Pittsburgh will get their licks in, so you also need a tough quarterback. Perhaps no quarterback delivered more completions this season while getting leveled. Warner always gets up.
2. They can win the turnover battle
Pittsburgh's defense is historically good, but Arizona actually forced one more regular-season turnover. The Cardinals have turned it up during the playoffs with eleven takeaways in only three games. Pittsburgh also forces lots of mistakes, so Kurt Warner must keep his head on a swivel. He's had a fumbling problem during his career, but has yet to fumble in the playoffs. If that continues, Arizona should win the most important stat other than the final score.
3. The Cardinals have the most dominant player in the game
Larry Fitzgerald is changing the way we think about wide receivers. Traditional football logic says the further away you are from the ball, the less valuable you are. But Fitzgerald is dominating the playoffs like no one else. How can you defend Fitzgerald if he's doesn't need to be open to pull down catches?
The other great players in this Super Bowl rely on their teammates more than Fitzgerald. Troy Polamalu's awesome instincts are possible because of his mind-meld with free safety Ryan Clark, who lets him roam free. James Harrison is a great pass rusher, but his linemen do much of his dirty work.
Fitzgerald, on the other hand, is practically doing it all on his own. Try to stop him.
4. They have speed over the middle
Honestly, it's hard to find a flaw in the Pittsburgh defense. But squint hard and you can see they occasionally look slow in the middle of the field. Opposing teams have done well when isolating players on Steelers inside linebackers, especially 33-year-old James Farrior. Running backs Kevin Faulk, Tashard Choice, Chris Johnson, and Ray Rice have all made key plays against the Steelers by out-running Farrior.
Arizona will not bother running much, but J.J. Arrington and Tim Hightower should be factors in the receiving game. Their speed could give Pittsburgh problems while they are double covering Larry Fitzgerald. Slot guy Steve Breaston can also make plays over the middle.
5. The Steelers aren't unbeatable with a lead
These are not your father's Steelers on offense. The lack of a consistent running game hampers their ability to pull away from teams. They have won decisively in the playoffs, but Pittsburgh made their reputation in the regular season out of knuckle-scraping wins. They have won fewer than half their games by more than one score. Why expect it in the biggest game of the year?
6. The Cardinals can confuse the Steelers' offensive line
Pittsburgh's big men up front have improved in the playoffs, but they struggled during the season to recognize blitzing linebackers. Dallas did a great job pressuring the Steelers up the middle by disguising their intentions. Baltimore also effectively confused the Steelers in their regular season matchups.
No team is more creative and varied sending pressure than the Cardinals, led by mad scientist defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Some critics say Arizona is too creative, but they will mentally test Pittsburgh's line.
7. The Cardinals are at their best when things look worse
The Cardinals coughed up a 10-point lead in the final three minutes against Dallas before calmly winning the game in overtime. They lost two December games by a combined score of 82-21, and then ripped off four straight wins. The Eagles tied a record for the greatest comeback in NFC Championship game history, so the Cardinals responded with a slow fourth-quarter march for the ages.
What more can happen to this team? They may lose on Super Bowl Sunday, but they won't shrink when the going gets tough.
8. Arizona has their own Troy Polamalu
Adrian Wilson has been the NFC's best safety over the last five years. He's a physical specimen that is less rangy than Polamalu, but his intelligence and strength are awesome.
This season wasn't Wilson's finest campaign, but he's playing his best when it counts. Wilson recorded seven tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble in the NFC Championship. As an eight-year veteran who has only played for the Cardinals, this game will mean something extra for him.
9. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt and Offensive line coach Russ Grimm know the Steelers well
Jon Gruden was the last coach to face his former team in the Super Bowl. Many players in that game claim that Tampa's defense called out Oakland's plays before they happened. While that isn't likely to happen this time, Whisenhunt knows how to frustrate Ben Roethlisberger.
Whisenhunt won't waste time learning the strengths and weaknesses of Pittsburgh's personnel; it's all in his head. And Whisenhunt's offense will be prepared for Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau's zone blitzes because Whiz faced them every day in practice. If the Cardinals could beat Pittsburgh last regular season with an inferior team, they can keep it close this time.
10. No upset is too great
Haven't we learned anything yet? The Arizona freaking Cardinals are in the Super Bowl! In the last three years, two six seeds have won the Super Bowl as wild cards.
The Steelers have a historically good defense, but they aren't a historically good team. And David Tyree's ghostwriter will be happy to remind you that historically good teams don't always seal the deal.
Forget the "worst team in playoff history" thing already. The Carolina Panthers were undefeated at home, and lost by 20 to Arizona. The Cardinals are rightful underdogs against Pittsburgh, but don't get carried away. We have no idea what is going to happen. That's why we watch.
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