The following stories are predictions for this weekend’s Super Bowl XLIII in the form of fictional post-game reports.
Foxsports.com called the 2008 Arizona Cardinals the “worst Super Bowl team ever.” Every “expert” said the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers would roll over the 9-7 Cardinals. Every statistic suggested the delicate house of Cards (pun intended) was about to come crashing down. Yet, the “worst Super Bowl team ever” just ended its 61-year run as the joke of the NFL and can now call itself Super Bowl XLIII champion. How did the Cardinals do it? The key was the unstoppable Larry Fitzgerald.
Ever since the calendar turned to January, the All-Pro wide receiver took his game to a new level. Going into the last weekend, Fitzgerald had already set a single postseason record with 419 yards receiving, passing the greatest receiver of all time, Jerry Rice. Often double-covered by the Eagles secondary two weeks ago, Fitzgerald became one of only three wide receivers to score three touchdowns in the NFC Championship game. If Fitzgerald had failed to make a single catch in the Super Bowl, his postseason performance still would have ranked among the greatest of all time. But Fitzgerald made plenty of catches.
The Steelers’ defense, led by Troy Polamalu, had not even been tested in the postseason. Their divisional playoff opponent, the 8-8 San Diego Chargers, had a sputtering offense and took the field without their best player, LaDainian Tomlinson. Backup running back Darren Sproles stands at 5’6″ on a good day, not exactly a size that intimidates a defense. In the AFC Championship, the 18th ranked Baltimore Ravens’ offense was also not a true test for the Steelers’ defense. The Ravens’ best offensive weapon? A rookie QB named Joe Flacco out of Delaware.
Before the Super Bowl, not one NFL analyst pointed out the fact that the Steelers’ pass defense had yet to be tested in the postseason. In fact, the last time the Steelers faced a dangerous passing attack was against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 10, a game they lost 24-20. The fact is that Fitzgerald was the first legitimate offensive weapon the Steelers had faced in the postseason and they were just not ready for him.
We also saw how Kurt Warner becomes a different quarterback in big games and Super Bowl XLIII was no exception. Warner executed the Cardinals’ short passing game to perfection by using his trio of explosive wide receivers (Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston) to counter the heavy pressure from the Steelers line. By making his receivers spread the field, Warner forced the Steelers to deviate from their powerful pass rush and the Steelers were forced to cover all the Cardinals’ weapons.
The Cardinals’ great short-passing game allowed running backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower to gain enough yards to keep the Steelers off balance and slow down the NFL’s number one-rated defense.
On Sunday, the Cardinals jumped out to an early lead on a short Fitzgerald touchdown and, when Arizona has a lead, they’re at their best. With that lead, the Cardinals were able to play aggressive defense with their unique blitz packages and an additional safety in the box (both to stop Willie Parker and bring the extra man on Ben Rothlisberger). This aggressive defense allowed their secondary to remain disciplined in its man-to-man coverage.
Cardinal safety Adrian Wilson was the defensive player of the game. The Steelers played conservative football as they always do, running the ball frequently and passing less often. However, when the Steelers did pass, Wilson was always there and soon the Steelers offense became one-dimensional. In order to win, Arizona had to limit the running attack of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the last three weeks, the Cardinals shut down All-Pro running backs Michael Turner and Brian Westbrook. Last Sunday, the Cardinals’ run defense did not falter as Steelers’ running back Willie Parker had a difficult time running past defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and Arizona’s entire defensive line.
In the postgame celebrations, Fitzgerald picked up the MVP award. It was an easy choice. He dominated the entire game. But, on the final play, with seconds left in Super Bowl XLIII, Warner looked for Fitzgerald. He was double-covered. He looked to Boldin but he was covered. Warner, feeling the pressure from the Steelers, threw a screen pass to Hightower as he was hit. Hightower caught the chest-high pass and dove towards the endzone. Touchdown. Time had run out and the Cardinals had a 30-28 lead. This is how the “worst Super Bowl team ever” became the worst Super Bowl champion ever.