How super are the Arizona Cardinals?

If you believe the playoffs, very. But if you believe the regular season, they don't stand a chance against the punishing Steelers.

By King Kaufman

Published January 20, 2009 12:00PM (EST)

Two questions about the Arizona Cardinals: Are they the worst Super Bowl team of all time? And how badly are they going to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Those queries neatly sum up the regular season and playoff run of your NFC champs, who beat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 in the Conference Championship Game, earning their first crack at the NFL title since 1948, when the Eagles beat them 7-0 in a snow storm in Philadelphia.

That was so long ago they didn't even have wi-fi in the helmets!

The Steelers outslugged the Baltimore Ravens 23-14 in an AFC Championship Game so brutal the teams didn't have huddles, they had triage.

The Steelers were quickly installed as roughly one-touchdown favorites in the Super Bowl, as well they should have been. They look like the best team in the NFL, a punishing defensive club with an offense that's solid average in just about every possible way. The Cardinals are merely that bunch in the desert with the crazy passing game and not much else.

Until the last three weeks.

There's a lot of chatter around about how Kurt Warner cemented his credentials for the Hall of Fame with the game-winning touchdown drive Sunday, about how he's all but willed the Cardinals to the Super Bowl through the sheer force of his personality, leadership and renewed brilliance.

That winning drive was a masterpiece. The Cardinals had dominated the first half, Warner connecting with dazzling wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald for three scores as Arizona leaped out to a 24-6 lead. Then Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb led a stirring comeback, three touchdowns in eight and a half minutes, the last a magnificent 62-yard bomb to DeSean Jackson that gave Philly a 25-24 lead.

Warner went 5-for-5 for 56 yards on the drive that will have its own capitalized name someday in Phoenix, if it doesn't already. The Cardinals marched 72 yards in 14 plays, taking up seven and a half minutes before Warner hit Tim Hightower for the eight-yard touchdown, then Ben Patrick for the 2-point conversion.

Great stuff, and a stadium full of red-clad fans going ape-crazy bananas had to warm the heart of any NFL fan with a memory longer than three years. And a heart.

But Warner and Fitzgerald -- and Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston and the rest of the Cardinals pass offense -- have been doing this all year. While the Cardinals were only winning nine games, Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston alone were piling up more receiving yards than half the teams in the league.

While Arizona was going 3-7 against all teams not in the minor-league NFC West, Warner was among the league leaders in every passing category, throwing for more touchdowns in a year than he had since 2001 with the St. Louis Rams, two teams ago.

What's changed in the postseason is that the rest of the Cardinals are playing as well as Warner and his pals. The running game has been a solid complement, Edgerrin James in the Boris Karloff role. The defense has become an opportunistic success story, getting big stops and forcing 12 turnovers in three games, seven even if you don't count Jake Delhomme's spontaneous combustion.

Warner's the story, but he's a constant. It's everything else that's made the Cardinals super in the last three weeks.

Which leads us to the real question -- because the one about how bad the Cards will beat the Steelers was a joke and the one about whether they're the worst Super Bowl team ever is an obvious yes, unless you ignore the regular season, in which case the question becomes why'd they play it -- which is: How super are the Steelers?

Pittsburgh beat the Ravens in a game that was just about what you'd expect, especially since it was the third time the teams had met this season. From multiple injuries on the opening kickoff to the crushing late-fourth-quarter hit that consigned Baltimore running back Willis McGahee to a stretcher, this was a bone-rattling defensive struggle on both sides.

The teams combined for a mere 24 first downs and 473 yards -- compared to 43 first downs and 823 yards in the Eagles-Cardinals game. The Steelers won because they were a little better at everything and they forced the Ravens to make a few more mistakes. You could almost say they were better because the Ravens had a rookie quarterback and the Steelers had Troy Polamalu. Not quite, but almost. The Steelers also had Santonio Holmes.

McGahee, who appeared to be unconscious after the hit from Steelers safety Ryan Clark, was kept in the hospital overnight and released Monday morning with a concussion and neck pain, but expected to recover fully.

Looking at the regular season, there's almost nothing that would lead a reasonable person to believe the Cardinals have a legitimate chance at beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl. This was a rare team that came into the playoffs with a "nobody respects us" attitude and was actually respected by almost nobody.

And with good reason. It's not every year that a team with three blowout losses on its résumé wins its way to the Super Bowl. It's not any year until now.

Then again, looking at the playoffs, there's nothing that would lead a person to be reasonable about the Cardinals. They can't be beaten. They're the perfect football team. They're super. Can't you see it? It's the force of Kurt Warner's will.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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