I was looking forward to writing this column all week. My plan was to tell the world exactly how the underdog Arizona Cardinals would pull off a mighty upset against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's Super Bowl XLIII. I had even scribbled a few notes to myself about just how they would do it.
Then, I sat down at my computer and began typing. However, there was just one problem.
I was completely out of my mind.
Lets face it, the Arizona Cardinals are not a bad football team. They finished their season 9-7. However, the Steelers have been absolutely dominant. They marched into the Super Bowl with a regular-season record of 12-4.
Over the course of the 16 game regular season, the Steelers cumulatively outscored their opponents by a count of 347-223. This translates to an average margin of victory of more than a touchdown and extra point. The Cardinals, on the other hand, outscored their opponents this season by just one measly point, 427-426.
If you look at their common opponents, these differences stand out even more. The Steelers and Cardinals faced five common foes: Dallas, the New York Giants, New England, Washington and Philadelphia. The Steelers went 3-2 in those games. They lost to the Giants and Philadelphia, while beating Washington, Dallas and New England. The Cardinals meanwhile went 1-4. They beat Dallas, but lost to everybody else -- including to New England by a score of 47-7. (Although the Cardinals beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, the Eagles beat them in Week 13, 48-20).
It is possible that the Cardinals are a better team now then they were at the start of the year, as they have won three straight in the playoffs. However, a look at their week-by-week performance does not seem to support that argument. In terms of wins and losses, the Cardinals began the year 7-3. They finished 2-4. Indeed, the Cardinals' only two wins over the final six weeks of the regular season came against NFL's doormats, St. Louis (2-14) and Seattle (4-12).
By contrast, it is the Steelers that have been on the great second-half role. Including the playoffs, Pittsburgh has won eight of their past nine games. This streak includes both wins at home and on the road against the Baltimore Ravens (11-5), as well as a pair of wins over the AFC West champion San Diego Chargers (8-8). To use BCS language, there's no doubt the Steelers had not only the better record in the second half of the season, but also the better "strength of schedule."
Finally, no even-handed analysis would be complete without looking at the regular-season injury factor. In fairness to Arizona, the Cardinals played large chunks of the season without their no. 2 wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Boldin missed Arizona's week 5 and 6 games against Buffalo and Dallas, as well week 16 and 17 games against New England and Seattle.
However, even with that said, the Cardinals managed to go 3-1 in their four games without Boldin. Indeed, they had a better winning percentage without Boldin than with him. So, we can't really call Boldin's return the difference maker that puts Arizona over the top.
On the other hand, the Steelers this season were forced to play without their star running back, Willie Parker, for parts of three of their four losses (this includes the game against Philadelphia where Parker got hurt). With a healthy Parker, the only team to get in the Steelers' way in 2008-09 was the Tennessee Titans--a well-rounded team that went 13-3. The Titans probably were the best team in the NFL this season. However, the they were upset in their first round playoff game by the Baltimore Ravens. Then, the following week, the Steelers defeated a solid Ravens team for the third consecutive time this NFL year.
So when it comes down to it, the romantic in me really wanted to tell the world why the Cardinals are going to win their first-ever Super Bowl. However, sounder judgment prevented me from doing so.
My prediction: Kurt Warner displays his usual strong leadership, and the three-headed monster of Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Boldin each play up to their abilities. However, in the end, the Steelers are just the better team.
Verdict: The City of Pittsburgh will celebrate it's sixth Super Bowl victory, this time by the final score of 23-17.