Twenty-five random things about the Super Bowl.
2. The Cardinals can’t win. The Steelers are better at everything it’s possible for a football team to be better at, with one or two exceptions. The Steelers are favored by a touchdown, and that seems generous to our friends from the desert. Anyone who picks the Cardinals is just dreaming.
3. The Cardinals also couldn’t win three straight playoff games to get to the Super Bowl. This was a team that only went 9-7 after being spotted a 6-0 record against its own pathetic division mates, the St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. The Cardinals lost four times by three touchdowns or more, and three of those came in the last five weeks of the season.
4. This column is picking the Cardinals. So, I’m dreaming.
5. Times are hard, and we all need something to believe in. I believe this preposterous run the Cardinals are on is going to last one more game. I believe the Steelers’ superior talent, brilliant coaching and near-home-field advantage, Steelers fans having braved the recession to make their way to Tampa in far greater numbers than Cardinals fans, will not matter nearly so much as a funny bounce or two and a couple of spectacular catches by Larry Fitzgerald.
6. Fitzgerald is one of the things the Cardinals do better than the Steelers. He does what he does — catch passes — better than anybody in the game right now. The Steelers have some pretty good receivers, most notably speedy Santonio Holmes and rugged Hines Ward, but there’s nobody like Fitzgerald. If the ball’s in the air and Fitzgerald is anywhere near where it’s going to come down, he’s going to catch it.
7. Ward has been one of the stories of the hype period, whether he’ll play on the knee he twisted in the AFC Championship Game. Of course he’ll play. Everybody will play. Having your team make the Super Bowl is the greatest advancement in healthcare since the discovery of germs.
8. Quarterback is another thing the Cardinals do better, though Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger is A) no slouch and B) the guy with the better future. But 37-year-old retread Kurt Warner, written off years ago by some fools, toting his memories and his brittle right hand from St. Louis to New York to Phoenix, cut by the Rams and Giants, benched by the Rams, Giants and Cardinals, inserted into the starting lineup in Week 1 by Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, has recaptured his turn-of-the-century glory, something that can’t be said for the train of thought in this sentence, and added a triumphant third act to one of the great stories in football history.
9. When the Steelers started winning in the early ’70s, they were a lot like the Cardinals, a sad-sack franchise, an afterthought. The best thing the Cardinals had ever done was dither so long over where to move from Chicago in the late ’50s that the AFL decided to be born in the meantime and the Cards ended up in St. Louis, which was something like their fourth choice. The best thing the Steelers had ever done was form one of the NFL’s early cheerleading squads in 1961.
10. The Cardinals won the 1947 NFL title and lost in the Championship Game the next year. The Steelers lost the first playoff game in their history to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947. As of the start of the 1972 season, neither team had been back to the postseason since.
11. None of that has anything to do with Super Bowl 43, but I just can’t resist talking about the Cardinals’ history of futility. It’s majestic. It’s hard to remember this now, and fans younger than middle age might not even know it, but until the early ’70s, the Steelers were right there in the dumps with the Cardinals.
12. You might not have heard this, but Whisenhunt was an assistant for the Steelers who had hoped to succeed the retiring Bill Cowher. But he took the Cardinals job instead and began molding the franchise in the image of the Steelers. This might be the most under-reported Super Bowl story since it managed to slip past everyone four years ago that Jerome Bettis was from Detroit.
13. The guy the Steelers hired, Mike Tomlin, is 36. He’s 36. He’s older than everyone on his roster, but only by nine days in the case of punter Mitch Berger. He’s almost a year younger than Warner. He’s also black, which is about the seventh-most commented-upon thing about him, and I don’t even know what’s in fourth through sixth place. That’s real progress in a league that not that long ago, in the scheme of things, actually debated whether blacks could play quarterback, never mind coach.
14. Tomlin, not Whisenhunt, got the Steelers job because he blew the brass away at his interview. He may have gotten that interview in part because of an NFL rule requiring teams to talk to at least one minority candidate for any head coaching job. That’s the rule the Detroit Lions flouted when they hired Steve Mariucci in 2003. It’s known as the Rooney Rule, after the Steelers owner, Dan Rooney, who headed the committee that introduced it.
15. It would be overly simplistic, maybe even downright juvenile, to say, “See for yourself how following or not following the Rooney Rule has worked out for the Lions and Steelers.” But see for yourself.
16. The Cardinals have not been winning their playoff games — victories over the Atlanta Falcons at home, the Carolina Panthers on the road and the Eagles at home — by funny bounces. They’ve played good football. They are not the same team that went 9-7 including six intra-division gimmes. They’ve raised their game.
17. This run deep into the playoffs has brought more attention to Warner, Fitzgerald and second wideout Anquan Boldin, who have led the Cardinals passing game all year. But the difference in the last three games has been much better defense and an improvement in the still only so-so running game. That’s the way of the world. The better your defense is, the better your quarterback looks.
18. The Steelers are great against the run. And they’re great against the pass. As great as Warner and Fitzgerald are, and they’re both having Hall of Fame-level seasons and postseasons, the two best players on the field when the Cardinals have the ball are Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison. If the ball’s in the air and it’s not going to come down anywhere near Larry Fitzgerald, it’s probably because Polamalu has jumped the route and intercepted it, immediately becoming a threat to score a touchdown.
19. The Steelers have won more playoff games since 2005 than the Cardinals have won in their history, and that includes the three wins this year. I could do this all day.
20. The Steelers cheerleaders, who were called the Steelerettes, were disbanded after the 1969 season. They wore hard hats. How cute was that? They were college kids. It was just a few years after the Steelerettes ceased to exist that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders — a version of which had been around since 1960 — became a phenomenon and created the template for the modern NFL cheerleader. The Steelers never did get back in the game, though, and still don’t have a cheerleading squad. Imagine.
21. One of the best matchups figures to be Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley matching wits with Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Haley is the architect of the Cardinals’ high-powered offense, and his bold, creative play-calling has been a big key in the playoffs. LeBeau is the architect of the zone blitz. Not just Pittsburgh’s. Anyone’s. He’s just as bold and creative on the defensive side of the ball as Haley is on the offensive side.
22. Warner’s going to have to have the game of his life, which is saying something. The Steelers are going to come at him from every which way, and he’ll need to make his reads with lightning quickness and throw with pinpoint precision, and even then he might find himself chasing Polamalu to the end zone. The Cardinals have been able to keep defenses honest in the playoffs with their just-enough running, Edgerrin James having shown some life in the last few weeks. They just won’t be able to do that against Pittsburgh.
23. A healthy Willie Parker should allow the Steelers to run the ball some and keep it out of Warner’s hands. That won’t be enough. Even with their great defense the Steelers are going to have to score a bunch of points. But it’ll be a factor.
24. In 1944, with both teams having lost a bunch of players to service in World War II, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Cardinals merged and went 0-10. Of course they did. They came to be known as the Car-Pitts. Like, the thing you walk on. Not nearly as cool or as well-remembered, until this month, as the similar merger between the Steelers and Eagles the year before. That team managed to have a catchy name, the Steagles.
25. Bruce Springsteen’s fans are debating what songs he’s going to sing during the halftime show, one person trying to out Boss-cred the next by naming the most obscure song in the E Street oeuvre. As if he were going to get up there and not sing “Born to Run,” a song from his latest album and “The Rising.” But this column can Bruce-nerd it up with the best of them: “Thundercrack,” “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” and a cover of Gram Parsons’ “The New Soft Shoe.”
That prediction has about as good a chance of being right as this one: Cardinals 38, Steelers 34.