By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, February 1, 2009
TAMPA In the days immediately after the conference championship games, I had the Pittsburgh Steelers winning Super Bowl XLIII. My rule of thumb, particularly in football, is that whenever there's a superior defensive team, pick it. For proof, you need to look no further back than the start of this decade. In 2001 the Baltimore Ravens, the team with the superior defense, beat the New York Giants. Two years later Tampa Bay, the team with superior defense, beat the potent Oakland Raiders.
And historically, postseason results tilt toward superior defensive teams such as the Steel Curtain, Doomsday, the '85 Bears and Lawrence Taylor's Giants. Everything I learned from smart football people says, "Take the Steelers, say, 21-20." This Steelers team doesn't have legendary players like Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount, but this Steelers team did finish the regular season ranked No. 1 in pass defense and total defense and No. 2 in rush defense.
All that said and considered, the closer we get to the Big Game, the more I've become convinced that the Arizona Cardinals have exactly what it takes to beat a great defense. They've got the quarterback in Kurt Warner, a pair of "No. 1 receivers" in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, a third receiver who'd be No. 1 for some teams in Steve Breaston. And on top of all that, the Cardinals have a coach (Ken Whisenhunt when he coordinated the Steelers' offense in the Super Bowl three years ago) who has a track record for spreading the field and exhausting his playbook. Whisenhunt not only knows he has to be bold to beat the Steelers' defense, indications are he's committed to it.
So Tuesday I was leaning toward picking the Steelers. By Wednesday I'd decided to take the Cardinals. Thursday I was back with defense. Friday, after talking to a couple of defensive Hall of Famers who are slavishly devoted to the "defense wins championships" philosophy, I was ready to go with the Cardinals because even they believe Warner, Fitzgerald and Boldin have what it takes to become the exception.
In other words, I have no idea. I know, I know, I know . . . columnists are supposed to be definitive. Pick a side and defend it.
I'd love to. I always do in this space the morning of the Super Bowl, and I'll have to pick again now, but I have zero confidence in boldly taking either side. My gut says the Cardinals, 31-20. Everything I've learned about pro football in 23 years of covering the sport says, "Don't overthink this. Take the defense."
Even the players involved believe the game will come down to whether the Steelers' defense can stop Warner, Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston. The Steelers' defenders certainly think that subplot will largely determine the game.
Safety Ryan Clark said it's not unlike the regular season, when Pittsburgh would play high-powered offenses. "We'd get the same questions," he said. " 'How are you going to stop their number one receivers? How are you going to stop their number one receivers? How are you going to contain them?' Those are valid questions because other people don't stop these teams. If you look at what the Cardinals have done in the playoffs, and the run they've been on, scoring 30 points [at least] in every game against good football teams . . . what they're doing is spectacular. It's going to be a big challenge for us. [But] we've had those all year and we step up every time, and we play football."
The one difference between what most observers believe and what the Steelers believe is that Warner, not Fitzgerald, is Pittsburgh's No. 1 enemy. Even Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said: "It's not just Larry. The key guy in this game is Kurt Warner versus our defense."
And as linebacker LaMarr Woodley said, "Kurt's a guy that's seen it all and done it all. He's one of those guys that when he's back there he can definitely break down your defense. . . . I think the key to us stopping Kurt Warner is applying pressure to him. Doing what we've been doing all year long."
So, if I'm forced, I'll stay with the Steelers, 21-20, on the strength of a sack-strip-fumble recovery in the final 90 seconds of the game.