KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:00 ET
TV: NBC (Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer)
SERIES: 59th meeting. Steelers lead, 32-23-3. The teams played last year in Arizona, with the Cardinals winning, 21-14. The Cardinals were helped greatly by a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown by Steve Breaston. It was the team's first punt return for a score since 1993.
PREDICTION: Cardinals 27-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: This is a potentially fascinating matchup between teams that play vastly different brands of football. As much hype as there is about QBs Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner, this game will likely be decided on the ground. Pittsburgh wants to sustain drives, play a war of attrition and keep the ball out of Warner's hands as long as possible. A major force behind Arizona's postseason run has been a defense allowing an average of just 77.3 yards per game on the ground the past three weeks. That number is a bit skewed, however, because the Cardinals have jumped out to leads in each game and faced an average of 19 carries per contest. They're allowing 4.1 yards per carry during the same span.
RB Willie Parker's production will be even more critical depending on the status of WR Hines Ward, whose availability could be in question up until game time due to a knee sprain. Meanwhile, the Cardinals' offense has been far more potent with RB Edgerrin James regaining the feature role. He has averaged 5.6 rushing yards the past four weeks, which has been enough to keep defenses from selling out against the pass. The key will be whether he's able to continually gain positive yardage or if the Steelers will be able to stuff the run and then bring the house after Warner in third-and-long.
FAST FACTS: The Steelers seek to become the first franchise with six Super Bowl titles. ... Roethlisberger can join the Patriots' Tom Brady as the only quarterbacks with two titles by the age of 26. ... Before coming to Arizona in 2007, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm spent six years on the staff of former Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
KEY INJURIES: Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward took part in full practice Thursday, and appears set to play Sunday after suffering a an MCL strain in his right knee in the AFC Championship Game. The Cardinals are almost at full strength, with defensive end Travis LaBoy (biceps) and third-strung running back J.J. Arrington (knee) the only players in real danger of being limited.
-- WR Hines Ward went through his first full practice on Thursday since his right knee was sprained in the AFC Championship Game.
-- WR Santonio Holmes caught a 40-yard pass from QB Ben Roethlisberger in practice Thursday. Holmes has taken a backseat to Nate Washington in the big-play department most of this season.
-- WR Nate Washington would take Ward's place at flanker if the veteran bows out of the game. That caused confusion between Roethlisberger and Washington on a third-down incompletion in the AFC title game.
-- WR Limas Sweed, who dropped what would have been a 50-yard touchdown reception two weeks ago, would line up at flanker with Washington in the slot when the Steelers go to three wide receivers without Ward.
-- RB Willie Parker did not have 20 carries for five consecutive games and then finished the season with 23-27-24, including two postseason games.
--QB Kurt Warner has played well against the blitz this year. He is tough in the pocket and will stand in the face of pressure and take a hit, if needed. It might pay the Steelers to back off and play coverage.
--WR Larry Fitzgerald has set a playoff record with 419 receiving yards and he?s catching the ball no matter the coverage. It might pay off for the Steelers to be physical with him at the line of scrimmage and try to re-direct his pass routes. That might throw off quarterback Kurt Warner's timing.
--RB Tim Hightower has scored three touchdowns in the playoffs, one rushing and two receiving. Hightower?s versatility makes him an effective goal-line back. He has the power to run inside and is fast enough to get around the end, too. He has excellent hands.
--CB Rod Hood could be a big factor in the Super Bowl. The Vikings and Eagles picked on him late in the year and made big plays when Hood was singled up in coverage. If the Cardinals commit a safety to stopping the run, look for the Steelers to challenge Hood.
--WR Anquan Boldin is fully recovered from a hamstring strain that limited him in the NFC title game. Boldin hasn't played well in some of the team?s biggest games this year. He struggled against the Jets, Panthers and Eagles in the regular season, dropping passes and fumbling. He is excellent in running after the catch, but teams have had success punching the ball away from him.
--ILB Karlos Dansby thinks he has proven he's worthy of a lucrative long-term contract. Dansby has 23 tackles in the playoffs, including four for losses. His performance was a key in the Cardinals shutting down the running attacks of Atlanta and Carolina.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Byron Leftwich might like to return to the Steelers as Ben Roethlisberger's backup, but the pull of a chance to start elsewhere could be too much for him.
Leftwich played two full halves of football when Roethlisberger was injured this year, both victories, and in some mop-up roles. He compiled a 104.3 passer rating with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown.
The Steelers signed the former Jacksonville starter to a one-year contract in August after Charlie Batch broke his clavicle in a preseason game. He would become an unrestricted free agent Feb. 27.
"I always say, never count the Pittsburgh Steelers out of my equation because this year meant so much to me. Everybody always is saying 'Well you'll go here or you'll go there.' What if I'm in black and gold next year in the same situation? It's a situation that, ultimately, as much fun as I had, I know I could be happy in it. I know I can deal with it, but can I ultimately be happy not playing on a week-in and week-out basis?"
Leftwich completed 21 of 36 passes and did not play in 10 regular-season games and was only briefly in one playoff game.
"This year, during practice and during games, when I'm not out there it's killing me," Leftwich said. "I'll be telling Ben some time, let's blow these people out, somehow I've got to get in this game. I'll be like, Ben, I want to play today."
This is Leftwich's first time in a Super Bowl. Roethlisberger has practiced all week after missing one practice the previous week in Pittsburgh with what Mike Tomlin labeled a "back."
The Cardinals have been encouraged by the performance of injured players in practice this week and anticipate being close to full strength on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII.
The status of backup running back J.J. Arrington was the biggest question. Arrington, also the team's kick returner, suffered a knee injury in the NFC title game and missed practice all last week. He returned this week and has looked good in practice, according to coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Defensive end Antonio Smith has been limited in practice this week after suffering a knee injury against the Eagles in the NFC title game. But an MRI revealed no structural damage and Smith should be nearly 100 percent for the game.
An injury at outside linebacker would be problematic for the Cardinals. Clark Haggans is on injured reserve and Travis LaBoy is going to try to play with a biceps tendon injury.
LaBoy probably will be limited to certain situations, but he should be able to give starter Bertrand Berry a breather occasionally.
The special teams should be in good shape.
Punter Ben Graham's groin strain has improved and he has punted in practice this week. Kicker Neil Rackers is the backup punter, but he has little experience doing it in a game.