All the talk over the past two weeks focuses on the miracle season for the Arizona Cardinals. They have exorcised the demons of 61 years of bad memories and a rather mediocre 9-7 regular season to put together an improbable playoff run. Quarterback Kurt Warner has been excellent; running back Edgerin James has done a decent job on the ground, and receiver Larry Fitzgerald has had an historic postseason.
That being said, it will be hard for Arizona to hold off a Steelers defense that was first in the NFL in total defense, recording 51 sacks and 20 interceptions on the way. The key for the Cards is the running game. In their three playoff wins, James and Tim Hightower played a big part in keeping opposing defenses on their toes. Against Carolina, Hightower rushed for 76 yards, while James put in 57 more. Against a stout Philadelphia Eagles defense, James ran for 73 yards in Arizona's 32-25 victory. (WATCH CARDINALS PLAYOFF VIDEO!!)
The problem for the Cards is the fact that no one can run on the Steelers. Chargers running back Darren Sproles, who ate up the Colts for over 300 total yards in the wild card game, mustered only 15 yards against the Steelers. Even Willis McGahee couldn't do anything for the Ravens the following week against Pittsburgh.
Expect to see the Steelers completely shut down the Cardinals running game. Arizona will try to kick the run to the outside in space, but that won't be enough with blitzing safties like Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark charging into the gaps. (WATCH STEELERS PLAYOFF VIDEO!!)
Lack of a running game will put tremendous pressure on Kurt Warner. Warner does not move well in the pocket at all but is known as a quarterback with a quick release to make up for it. He will have to do that and more in order to avoid the heavy blitzes from defensive end James Harrison and linebacker Lamar Woodley.
The one advantage Arizona has is the deep ball. If the Cards can stretch the field with Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, then they will be in prime position to beat the Steelers.
Keep in mind the Steelers shut down a big time offense four times this year. They held the Chargers to 10 points in their first game, and only 24 in game two. They held the high powered Cowboys with Tony Romo, Terrell Owens, Roy Williams and Jason Witten to 10 points and held the Patriots with Randy Moss and Wes Welker to 10 points for the game. In other words, the Steelers know how to play an offense as good as Arizona.
On the opposite side of the ball. The Steelers have to run the football in this game. Arizona gave up 110.3 yards per game on the ground this year but have picked it up nicely in the playoffs. This means that the Steelers offensive line has to find a way to keep the likes of Bertrand Berry, Karlos Dansby and Chike Okeafor in check. If they do, Willie Parker could have a big night on the ground.
Protecting Ben Roethlisberger is a must in this game. The Steelers quarterback has been banged up all year with arm injuies, rib injuries, neck injuries, and knee injuries. They are going to have to keep off a Cardinal pass rush that smacked around Donovan McNabb in the NFC title game.
As for Roethlisberger, he is big enough to scramble around the pocket and find the open receiver in broken coverage, i.e., a wide open Santonio Holmes for a touchdown in the AFC title game against Baltimore. If Roethlisberger can make time for himself, he will find a way to avoid corner Antrel Rolle and saftey Adrian Wilson. Both played a big part in frustrating Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme in the divisional game, as Delhomme threw five interceptions that night. If the Steelers can keep from turning the ball over in this game, they should be fine.
What should viewers expect? If Arizona can force a couple of turnovers and find a way to pass on the Steelers defense, then this game will be very close and could come down to one drive in the fourth quarter. If Pittsburgh can get pressure on Warner, force him to throw interceptions and stop the Cards running attack, the game will be a total blowout in Steelers fashion, which at times can be quite boring to watch.
PICK: I can't remember a time in a playoff scenerio where the team with the better offense found a way to win the game. It is always the team with the big defense that finds a way to win. Last year's Giants used a strong defense to stop the high-powered Patriots. In 2001, the Patriots had a very good defense, and they shut down Kurt Warner and the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf." Therefore, this game will be ... a steel:
STEELERS 27, CARDINALS 14.