While the Pittsburgh Steelers came into the season as a top contender in AFC, the Arizona Cardinals came out of nowhere to earn their first Super Bowl berth in franchise history. There will be plenty of storylines in the coming weeks, including Ken Whisenhunt’s past ties to the Steelers organization. Brad Wilbricht kicks off AZRedReport.com’s coverage of the biggest spectacle in sports.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will be going for their sixth Super Bowl crown while the Arizona Cardinals are still searching for their first. Pittsburgh has a postseason record of 30-20 while the Cardinals are just 5-5 in the playoffs. Sound like a mismatch? Welcome to the Cardinals’ postseason run. Arizona has no problem playing spoiler and has successfully done so for three consecutive weeks. The Cardinals will once again be expected to experience an uphill battle during the Feb. 1 matchup in Tampa, FL.
However, with two weeks to prepare and Arizona’s ability to continue playing the undercard role, this may turn into a closer game than most think. After all, just last season the Cardinals defeated Pittsburgh 21-14.
While the Steelers have experienced some turnover since Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt departed, he certainly knows the Pittsburgh organization inside and out, as does offensive line coach Russ Grimm. Whisenhunt spent six seasons in the Steel City and was offensive coordinator when the Steelers prevailed in Super Bowl XL. Meanwhile, Grimm arrived in Pittsburgh in 2000 and served as the team’s offensive line coach for seven years.
Earlier this season, the Cardinals were the talk of the NFL and were on the verge of becoming a legitimate contender in the NFC. Arizona got off to a 7-3 start and was one of the hottest storylines throughout the first half of the season. However, losing four of their final six games left the Cardinals out in the cold when it came to postseason aspirations. The majority of fans and media had written Arizona off, but they’ve managed to prove the doubters wrong.
The Cardinals earned their way through the playoffs but did receive some help along the way. In addition to the Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona defeated the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers en route to the Sunshine State. Following the Eagles' victory over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the Cardinals were in line to host the NFC Championship game. The Eagles overtime tie against the Cincinnati Bengals ended up costing them dearly as they were forced to travel to the desert and lost.
Two components that were question marks all season long in Arizona ended up catapulting the franchise to its first ever Super Bowl.
The Cardinals averaged a mere 74 yards per game rushing during the regular season but have rushed for 100-plus yards twice in the postseason. RB Edgerrin James was benched following Week 8 and rookie RB Tim Hightower was inserted into the starting lineup. The ensuing week, Hightower broke out for 109 yards against the St. Louis Rams but failed to top 35 yards in a game until the Wild Card round against Carolina.
RB Edgerrin James
After James reclaimed his starting position, he responded with 203 yards on 52 carries in three playoff games. Meanwhile, Hightower also benefited from reverting to his backup role, racking up 76 yards against Carolina. In addition, he was on the receiving end of the game-winning score against the Eagles. Hightower took a screen pass from QB Kurt Warner and inched past the goal line for an 8-yard touchdown.
Arizona’s defense suffered several bumps and bruises during a tough midseason stretch which included multiple trips to the East Coast. Prior to a win against the Seattle Seahawks in the season finale, the Cardinals allowed 37-plus points in four of its previous five matchups. All four games resulted in a loss, dropping Arizona to just one game over .500 entering Week 17.
With the game just under two weeks away, the Cardinals turn their focus to a physical Pittsburgh squad. Both teams emphasize a 3-4 defensive front and feature several playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. Although Arizona will be tabbed as underdogs for the fourth straight week, it all comes down to a one-game season and anything can happen following the kickoff of Super Bowl XLIII.
Brad Wilbricht can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org