After XL favor, Steelers are the pick

The Steelers' Willie Parker should be able to run against the Cardinals' defense. G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. -- The last time I correctly chose the Super Bowl winner was Feb. 5, 2006: Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Seattle Seahawks 10. I never forget a favor, so when in doubt, always pick the team whose city's airport features a life-size, fully outfitted mannequin of Franco Harris making the "Immaculate Reception."

I'm taking the Steelers. Fifteen reasons why:

1. Hines Ward and his strained knee ligament are going to play Sunday night. He won't be 100 percent, but he also won't be a liability. He'll make at least three plays that make a difference.

And here's the thing about Ward: Those three plays don't necessarily have to be catches. The guy can block you into the Gulf of Mexico. His toughness is infectious. And if anyone can ignore a strained knee, it's Ward, the franchise's all-time leading receiver.

According to the pool report of Wednesday's practice, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is so confident about Ward's availability that he didn't bother watching the wide receiver work out on a side field.

"Hines is playing," Tomlin said in the pool report. "I'm not worried about him."

Tomlin said he isn't worried. Ward said he isn't worried. So I'm not worried.

(Why I could be wrong: Players and coaches have a tendency to, you know, lie about the severity of injuries. If Ward is useless, it puts a lot of pressure on Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington and rookie Limas Sweed.)

2. Two things worry me about the Steelers: their offensive line and their punter. Put it this way: Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times this season, and in the Steelers-issued Super Bowl preview packet, there's no mention of punter Mitch Berger on the page that reads "Individual Special Teams Notes."

The Cardinals are going to throw every blitz package they have at the Steelers' O-line. But I think this is where the two-week prep time will really help Pittsburgh. I also think the Steelers will be able to run on the Cardinals.

(Why I could be wrong: The Cardinals held Atlanta and Michael Turner to 60 total rushing yards, Carolina and DeAngelo Williams to 75 rushing yards, and Philadelphia and an injured Brian Westbrook to 97 rushing yards.)

3. Willie Parker had 27 carries for 146 yards and two touchdowns against San Diego in the divisional round. He had 24 carries for 47 yards against Baltimore in the AFC Championship.

Nothing personal, but the Cardinals' much-improved defense isn't as overpowering as the Ravens' defense. Arizona has cranked it up during the postseason, but I think Parker reaches triple-digit rushing yards. And if he does, that means the Steelers are in control of the game.

Parker isn't afraid of big moments. Remember his 75-yard TD run in Super Bowl XL?

(Why I could be wrong: See earlier concerns about Steelers' offensive line.)

4. The Steelers, unlike me and the Eagles, won't take the Cardinals lightly. They know that seven-point spread is inflated. They know what it's like to get on a late-season roll (the Steelers recovered from a November and early-December free fall in 2005 and ended up winning the Super Bowl). And the Cardinals beat them a season ago.

(Why I could be wrong: I'm not. Arizona victories at Atlanta, and against Carolina and Philly definitely got the Steelers' attention.)

5. Ben Roethlisberger was only 23 years (and 340 days) old when he played in Super Bowl XL, and it showed. He's the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, but let's be honest: He pretty much stunk it up that February 2006 night against Seattle. Even Roethlisberger admits, "I let the guys down."

Then-Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El had more touchdown passes (one -- a gorgeous 43-yarder to Hines Ward) than Roethlisberger (zero -- a gruesome 9-of-21 for 123 yards and two interceptions). It was only Roethlisberger's second year in the league, so you cut him a break.

But there are no excuses this time. Nobody will be more motivated to play than Roethlisberger.

"I think Ben wants to go out and redeem himself," Ward said. "I know he wants to silence some of the naysayers. I know he can't wait 'til Sunday."

I'm not saying Roethlisberger is better than Kurt Warner; he isn't … not yet. But at least this time he has five seasons' worth of experience. He'll be making his 81st career start, as opposed to his 31st start when he faced the Seahawks in SB XL. And only Tom Brady has more postseason wins during his first five seasons than Roethlisberger (Brady has nine, Big Ben seven).

"We'll go as far as Ben takes us," Ward said. "I think Ben will be fine."

Me too. Maturity counts.

(Why I could be wrong: Without a fully functional Ward, Roethlisberger might try to do too much. If that happens, he might violate his own Super Bowl week mantra, which is "don't turn the ball over.")

6. Of the 53 players on the Steelers' active roster, 20 played in Super Bowl XL. And if you include players on the team's reserve/injured list, the number grows to 23.

The Cardinals have never been to a Super Bowl. They're usually in hiding this time of the year. Until this season, the franchise had won exactly one playoff game since 1947.

Of the Cardinals, only Warner, cornerback Rod Hood, safety Matt Ware, wide receiver Sean Morey and tight end Jerame Tuman have Super Bowl playing experience. Morey and Tuman got theirs with the Steelers.

Super Bowl experience doesn't guarantee a win, but it helps ease the pregame and in-game anxiety.

(Why I could be wrong: Seven Cardinals coaches have Super Bowl experience. That helps.)

7. The Cardinals are trying to pretend Anquan Boldin's pout-fest during and after the NFC Championship was no big deal. "At this point it's a non-issue," Boldin said earlier this week. And maybe it is.

But Boldin has had to deal with the fallout from the sideline hissy fit and the postgame bolt from the stadium. There were questions about it last week. There have been questions about it this week.

The real question is: What happens if offensive coordinator Todd Haley pulls Boldin during a key series of the Super Bowl? Will Boldin go all T.O. on the Cardinals' sideline again?

The Steelers don't have these kinds of issues. Roethlisberger calls his team "a band of brothers."

(Why I could be wrong: Boldin uses the NFC Championship incident to prove everyone wrong and plays the perfect game.)

8. If the Steelers were playing on the moon, Steelers fans would charter lunar modules from NASA. Steelers fans travel everywhere, and they travel in massive Terrible Towel herds.

Steelers fans will outnumber Cardinals fans by a lot. The Cardinals are the designated "home" team, but the Steelers will have the closest thing to a home crowd.

"Every time we go to an away city, in a way it feels like a home game because there are so many fans," Roethlisberger said.

(Why I could be wrong: I'm not. I'll wear a Bill Bidwill bow tie if there are more Cardinals fans than Steelers fans at Raymond James Stadium.)

9. Just a reminder, but the Cardinals were 1-4 on the road against teams with actual winning records. They were 1-5 on East Coast trips. Their win at Carolina in the divisional round eases some of the travel curse, but not all of it.

Meanwhile, the Steelers, who played the most difficult schedule in the league, were 2-2 in road games against above-.500 teams (they won at Baltimore and New England, lost at Philly and Tennessee).

(Why I could be wrong: These aren't the same Cardinals of October, November and most of December.)

10. Never mind how many quarterbacks threw for 300 or more yards against the Steelers this season (one -- San Diego's Philip Rivers in the AFC divisional round, 308 yards). Guess how many quarterbacks threw for more than 220 yards against them? Two: Rivers on Jan. 11 and Peyton Manning on Nov. 9 (and Manning needed 40 attempts to reach 240 yards).

In the Steelers' 18 games, Dick LeBeau's defense has held opposing quarterbacks to less than 200 passing yards 11 times. And no opposing running back rushed for 100 yards against the Steelers this season.

(Why I could be wrong: The Eagles had the No. 3 defense in the league and still gave up 32 points and 369 total yards to the Cardinals. Warner had four touchdown passes. Larry Fitzgerald had nine catches for 152 yards and three TDs.)

11. But you say the Steelers haven't faced a quarterback like Warner, or wide receivers like Fitzgerald, Boldin and Steve Breaston. You're right. Then again, the Cardinals haven't faced a defense like Pittsburgh's.

Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston are the equivalent (possibly better?) of what Warner had in St. Louis with Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Az-Zahir Hakim. But LeBeau has a long history of taking away an opposing offense's strength; in this case, Fitzgerald.

Only five receivers had 100-yard-plus games against Pittsburgh this season (Andre Johnson, Derrick Mason, Mike Walker, Reggie Wayne and Justin Gage). Only two of them scored touchdowns (Wayne and Gage).

Fitzgerald is in a class by himself, but look how the Steelers' defense shut down similar types of receivers: Terrell Owens had only three catches for 32 yards and zero touchdowns; Plaxico Burress (who was suspended for the first quarter of the game) had three catches for 15 yards and no touchdowns; Randy Moss had four catches for 45 yards and zero touchdowns.

I'm not saying Fitzgerald is going to be neutralized, but no way does he score three first-half touchdowns like he did against Philly in the NFC Championship.

(Why I could be wrong: Because Fitzgerald is playing other-worldly these days.)

12. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is quieter than a cotton ball landing on a pillow. So when he says, as he did after the AFC Championship, that the 2008 Pittsburgh defense is "without a doubt" the best defense he's played on, well, you listen.

Polamalu doesn't exaggerate. The Steelers were No. 1 in the league in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. They were No. 2 in rushing defense. These are numbers that count.

Sure, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt knows most of LeBeau's personnel and schemes. Whisenhunt spent six seasons on the Steelers' staff, three of them with LeBeau. But guess what? LeBeau is familiar with Whisenhunt's schemes, too.

"They know our defense," LeBeau said. "That's why we try to have a whole bunch of them."

(Why I could be wrong: Whisenhunt's schemes could be better than LeBeau's.)

13. So I asked Fitzgerald how many different coverages he's faced this season. His answer: "I've seen pretty much everything you can see."

Not to get too X'y and O'y here, but one of the coverages involved a linebacker lining up opposite him. You know, a big body taking a whack at him off the line of scrimmage.

"Not many people do that anymore," he said.

They don't do it because the Cardinals rediscovered their running game during the postseason. So the linebackers were pulled back in.

But you have to figure LeBeau might try something a little different against Fitzgerald, including using one of his four linebackers -- LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Larry Foote or the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison -- to try to disrupt pass patterns, especially those underneath crossing routes the Cardinals like to run.

And though it doesn't get huge publicity, the Steelers' secondary is an elite group. Watch cornerback Ike Taylor, in particular.

(Why I could be wrong: The Steelers pay so much attention to Fitzgerald that Boldin and Breaston could have huge games.)

14. I'm not buying this idea that the Steelers might freak out and press if the Cardinals take an early lead. Pittsburgh is 6-1 in games in which its opponent scores first, 5-0 when it trails after the first quarter.

The Steelers are built to take some body blows. That's because their defense almost always keeps them in the game. And don't forget, Arizona was up 24-6 at halftime against the Eagles, but blew the lead in the fourth quarter before recovering to win.

(Why I could be wrong: The Steelers aren't built for shootouts. They scored 30 or more points only five times in 18 games. The Cardinals did it 10 times in 19 games.)

15. Pittsburgh 20, Arizona 17.

(Why I could be wrong: Because I remember what happened in the NFC Championship. Because I remember what happened in Super Bowl XLII with the New England Patriots and New York Giants. But I can't stiff the Steelers now. Not after what they did for me in 2005.)

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.