After last season's timeless Super Bowl upset, this season's clash between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals will surely leave fans wanting more.
Despite the absence of an 18-0 juggernaut, the hype surrounding Super Bowl XLIII is as saturating as ever. The pundits seem to agree that one matchup in particular will decide the game: What will happen when the Arizona offense (an unstoppable force thus far in the playoffs) runs into the immovable object that is the Pittsburgh defense?
Arizona's star wideout Larry Fitzgerald was thrust into the spotlight after exploding for 419 receiving yards and five touchdowns in three playoff games. Expect the physical Steelers defense to jam Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage, and for Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu and the rest of the NFL's No. 1 passing defense to take their best shots at him.
Polamalu and company should have plenty of chances - Cards quarterback Kurt Warner isn't afraid to throw to vulnerable receivers coming across the middle. (One need only check the game tape from the end of the Cardinals-Jets game in Week 4, when receiver Anquan Boldin had his face literally shattered by a bone-crushing hit after an ill-advised Warner pass.) When Warner's I-hope-this-doesn't-kill-him throws are coupled with fearless receivers like Fitzgerald and Boldin, it's enough to make opposing safeties salivate.
The Cardinals, however, simply have too many weapons for the Pittsburgh defense to contain. Double-covering Fitzgerald would allow Boldin to get open, and vice-versa. Drop seven into coverage and Arizona's newly-discovered running game will gash up the middle for modest, clock-devouring gains. Yes, the Steelers led the league in defense this season. But when faced with a potential Hall-of-Fame quarterback and two All-Universe receivers, Pittsburgh will have its hands full.
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh's offense has been careful with the football in their two postseason games. Twenty-six-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, already with a Super Bowl victory to his name, has been mistake-free in the playoffs, just weeks after suffering the third (or fourth, or fifth) concussion of his young career. Despite having a reputation as a big-game quarterback, "Big Ben" was awful in his only Super Bowl appearance, earning a miserable 22.6 passer rating. Meanwhile, Arizona's ball-hawking defense has racked up 12 takeaways already this postseason. Expect Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Antrel Rolle and the perpetually underrated Adrian Wilson to frustrate Roethlisberger all game.
It is often said that defense wins championships. It has also been said, however, that the best defense is a good offense, and I'm picking the high-flying Cardinals offense to shock the Steelers in Tampa.
The Pick: Arizona 30, Pittsburgh 22