TAMPA, Fla. - Of course the Steelers will win. They're favored, right? More experienced? Better record? Nastier defense?
I mean, when was the last time you saw an upset in the Super Bowl? Ummm, actually, don't answer that.
Before I roll through the reasons why Pittsburgh will win Super Bowl XLIII Sunday, it should be noted: the Cardinals are not a hopeless cause. The storyline we've all pursued - Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt's familiarity with his old team - may be the one we're still talking about at 11 p.m. Sunday. Whisenhunt is the X-factor. He's not afraid to take a risk, as he showed with a game-sealing gadget playcall for the Steelers in Super Bowl XL. He knows he's going to have to take some risks on Sunday against the Pittsburgh defense. If you're the favorite, as Pittsburgh is, you need to be wary of the team with nothing to lose.
But the Steelers will be ready. If there's one thing that could be gleaned from a news-free week it's that Pittsburgh is locked-in mentally. Talking to outside linebacker James Harrison on a few occasions, I got the feeling he wanted to play this thing last Monday.
Asked about the secrets to the Steelers' defense, Harrison said, "There isn't some magical fairy dust we sprinkle on each other. We just play the game."
And when the game is played, the Steelers will win. Here's why.
The LeBeau factor
Dick LeBeau, 71-year-old defensive coordinator for the Steelers, and the man credited with being the godfather of the zone blitz knows Whisenhunt from their years spent together in Pittsburgh. Whisenhunt and his offensive coordinator Todd Haley would like to engage in skullduggery.
LeBeau is the one guy in the league who will have a feel for what The Wiz and his staff will try to pull. That doesn't mean LeBeau knows when the gadget play is coming. But he will have the defense on alert and they will minimize that part of the Cardinals offense which has been a big factor in these playoffs.
LeBeau will also have his blitzes and coverages working in concert against Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner. Warner, like most of us, hates to be hit. His defense mechanism for that is a good one. He's got a quick mind, quicker release and excellent accuracy. But the zone blitz is designed to make a quarterback pause and process whether what he's seeing is legit or not. And that will be the difference. No matter how good receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are, it won't matter because the Steelers are going to force a bad game from Warner.
Many of the Steelers have been playing in games like this their entire careers. High-stakes games in the AFC North, playoff games, prime-time games, a Super Bowl three years ago. They know the drill.
The Cardinals just kind of wandered on stage and looked up to see the spotlight on them. Sure, Warner's seen some big games and Whisenhunt can explain what to expect, but this is waaaaaay out of their comfort zone. There's a tempo to getting ready for a Super Bowl that must be respected. Because of the longer pregame delay between warm-ups and the kickoff, because of the longer halftime show, because of the pomp of the day, keeping emotions in check until you want them to crescendo is a major factor.
The Steelers are ready. Arizona's not.
Strength of schedule
Let's be realistic. The Cardinals are fighting up a class in this one. Hat-tippage to them for getting through the Falcons, Panthers and Eagles in these playoffs. Each of those teams had something they do well entirely taken away from them by Arizona. But the Steelers are a breed apart.
Nothing Arizona's offense has seen compares to Pittsburgh's defense. Arizona's defense does not compare to the ones that Pittsburgh has already gotten through (San Diego and Baltimore). As Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon told me when asked about this matchup, "A great defense that has two weeks to prepare for any offense is usually going to win."
Big Ben factor
Do the Cardinals have a superior offense? Yes. But the Cardinals' offense isn't going against the Steelers' offense, is it? It's going against Pittsburgh's defense. So no matter how many eye-bugging stats from Fitzgerald, Boldin and Steve Breaston get rolled out, no matter how many "big plays" are anticipated, they don t necessarily have the edge the stats would indicate.
In fact, Ben Roethlisberger may be the most explosive player on the field because of his ability to thrive when a play is disrupted. Roethlisberger did just that against the Ravens, who have a pretty disciplined defense. Don't expect Arizona to be able to deal with Big Ben once he starts freelancing.
Oh, your final score? That would be 37-24. Steelers.
- Tom E. Curran, NBCSports.com