Championship Sunday: Cards, Steelers punch ticket to Tampa

Updated: January 18, 2009

Chris Morrison/US Presswire

The Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl for the first time, and Larry Fitzgerald is a big reason why. Fitzgerald caught three first-half touchdown passes, including a 62-yarder, as Arizona defeated the Eagles 32-25 in the NFC title game. SUNDAY ZOOM GALLERIES: NFC | AFC

Super Bowl XLIII outlook

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers have the Terrible Towel. The Cardinals were supposedly the terrible team from the terrible division, the NFC West.

Super Bowl XLIII is a game that should please everyone. The Cardinals are the ultimate underdog; they were the first No. 4 seed to host an NFC Championship Game. The Steelers are a proud franchise trying to win their sixth Super Bowl.

Ratings should be strong because the Steelers are one of the better draws in sports. But the Cardinals could be the more fascinating story. Their owner, Bill Bidwill, has long been criticized for the way he's run his franchise. The Steelers were criticized in a similar way until they won four Super Bowls for owner Art Rooney Sr. during the 1970s.

From the NFL's standpoint, it's a retro type of game featuring two families who have a long history of ownership in the NFL.

"If you win six, nobody else has ever won six,'' Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "We're going to play it how we see it. We're going into Tampa with the idea of playing well and having fun.''

Here is the first round of questions heading into two weeks of Super Bowl hype.

Edgerrin James

Dale Zanine/US Presswire

Edgerrin James has been effective, but the Cardinals are fueled by the passing game.

1. In the year of great running offenses, what happened to the running teams?

Two of the three worst running offenses in the playoffs are in the Super Bowl. The Cardinals were the worst running team in football during the regular season. They averaged only 73.6 rushing yards a game. During the playoffs, they have run better, but it's not their strength. Edgerrin James, who figures to be released after the Super Bowl, had 73 yards on 16 carries in Sunday's 32-25 victory over the Eagles. In three playoff games, he's had 52 carries for 203 yards. Those numbers are decent, but not great.

The Steelers were the 10th-worst rushing team during the regular season, averaging 105.6 yards. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians made a commitment to run more in the playoffs, and the results have been mixed so far. After rushing for 146 yards against the Chargers in the divisional playoffs, Willie Parker was held to 47 yards in Sunday's 23-14 victory over Baltimore.

2. How well do these teams know each other?

There is virtually no history between these two teams. The Steelers and Cardinals have played only eight times in 36 years, with the Steelers holding a 5-3 edge in the series. Three of those meetings came when the Cardinals were in St. Louis -- the Steelers won games in 1972, 1979 and 1988. The Cardinals beat the Steelers 21-14 on Sept. 30, 2007. The Steelers beat the Cardinals in 2003 and 1997.

3. What are the injuries heading into the Super Bowl?

AFC Championship: McGahee injury Video

Ravens RB Willis McGahee takes a scary hit from Ryan Clark in the AFC Championship Game.

Both teams are in pretty good shape. The biggest question marks for the Cardinals revolve around their defensive front seven. Linebacker Travis LaBoy, who has battled an ankle injury over the past month, suffered a biceps injury early in Sunday's game. His status will have to be evaluated over the next two weeks. Defensive end Antonio Smith, who has quietly become a force during the playoffs, suffered a right knee injury, but it didn't look too serious. The warm weather in Glendale, Ariz., aided WR Anquan Boldin on Sunday. Had the NFC Championship Game been held in cold weather, he might not have been able to stay warm enough to play through his bad hamstring. Boldin was able to play the entire game and caught four passes for 34 yards. He should be fine by Super Bowl Sunday. Punter Ben Graham played despite a groin injury.

As expected, the Steelers came out of a physical game against the Ravens with some banged-up players. Wide receiver Hines Ward sprained his right knee in the first half and didn't return. Ward said he'll have an MRI on Monday, but he thinks he'll be OK. Mewelde Moore, the team's third-down back, suffered an ankle sprain in the second half, but he was walking without a limp in the locker room. Safety Ryan Clark was helped off the field after crashing into Ravens halfback Willis McGahee with 3:29 left in the fourth quarter. McGahee was carted off the field. Clark may have suffered a concussion, and he'll undergo some tests Monday morning. For more, click here



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John Clayton's game balls


• Offense: Has there been a better playoff performer than Larry Fitzgerald? I can't remember one. He's been the most dominating offensive force in the playoffs. In Sunday's 32-25 victory over the Eagles, Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns. He seems to catch everything throw to him.

Cardinals QB Kurt Warner doesn't hesitate to throw to Fitzgerald in double coverage. Fitzgerald can outleap just about any defender and his run-after-the-catch ability is incredible. During the playoffs, he's caught 23 passes for 419 yards and five touchdowns. Throwing to Fitzgerald is almost an automatic completion. Warner targeted him 10 times Sunday and completed nine passes.


• Defense: For those who love the play of aggressive safeties, the Eagles-Cardinals game was a classic with Brian Dawkins and Adrian Wilson. Dawkins might be a future Hall of Famer, but Wilson was better Sunday. Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast works his entire defense around Wilson's ability to blitz and make big plays. Against the Eagles, Wilson had seven tackles, including two for a loss, two sacks, two additional hits on the quarterback, one pass defensed and one forced fumble. Very few safeties are going to be involved in that many plays both downfield and behind the line of scrimmage.


• Special teams: Heinz Field is one of the toughest places for a kicker or a punter to survive. The field is slick. The wind coming off the Ohio River drives most opposing kickers crazy. It's one of the reasons opposing teams don't even think about attempting 50-yard field goals at Heinz Field. Those long kicks either fall short or go wide. Steelers kicker Jeff Reed understands the conditions in Heinz Field the same way Adam Vinatieri knew how to deal with the twisting winds in Foxborough when he was with the Patriots. Reed was the best special teams player Sunday, going 3-for-3 on field goals.

ESPN video

Loose ends

• Experts' picks: How did we do?
Sunday Countdown |

• NFL Blog Network

Championship Sunday rundown

• Arizona 32, Philadelphia 25
The Cardinals are in the Super Bowl -- just as everyone predicted. Yeah, right. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb had a productive game (375 yards, three TDs), but the third-down pass he threw a step behind Hank Baskett late in the fourth quarter will likely sting for a while. Photos

• Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 14
Santonio Holmes (65-yard TD catch and run) certainly did his part to make up for the loss of Hines Ward (knee injury). An outstanding rookie season ended on a sour note for Ravens QB Joe Flacco (3 INTs). Photos


Looking ahead

An early look at Super Bowl XLIII:

• Arizona (12-7) vs. Pittsburgh (14-4): The Cardinals are underdogs -- again -- but it certainly doesn't hurt their cause that head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm are former Pittsburgh assistants.