It’s easy being an underdog when you’re playing with house money.
The first three postseason endeavors for the Arizona Cardinals were played against the world, and the expectations weren’t even set at “competitive” for the Cardinals’ postseason hopes.
Now all the world can do is watch as Cinderella takes the field this Super Bowl Sunday.
But whether she comes home happy depends on a few crucial elements. Here is a countdown of the Cardinals’ X-factors to bringing home Super Bowl XLIII.
1. Be the quarterback.
Kurt Warner has been nothing short of sensational. He’s thrown for 4,538 regular season yards while sporting a 30-to-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In the postseason he’s been lights out with eight touchdowns to just two interceptions.
But Warner will also have to beat his counterpart, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. That shouldn’t be too difficult, though.
This year Roethlisberger has completed only about 60 percent of his passes while sporting a mediocre 17-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Oh yeah, and has the world already forgotten about Roethlisberger’s first Super Bowl performance?
The one in which he went only 9-for-21 with two interceptions, and the only touchdown pass for the Steelers came from wide receiver Antwaan Randle El?
2. Steven Breaston
While Larry Fitzgerald might be the best receiver on the team, he might also just be the best decoy. Together he and Anquan Boldin will attract much of Pittsburgh’s secondary.
But Mr. Breaston himself has accumulated more than 1,000 receiving yards as the third option for Warner, and left alone, will be the unexpected and much-needed bailout receiver for Arizona.
3. Establish the run
But don’t try to win it. Arizona has to dance the fine line of running for the sake of running to keep the defense honest, while not getting lost in its attempt.
The Steelers have the best run-defense in the league, but if Arizona shies away from the ground game, then instead it’ll be their quarterback doing the sprinting as he scrambles away from a constantly packed box.
This is where a lead helps more than anything. With a lead, Arizona won’t feel as pressured and will be better able to control the pace of the game.
And while Arizona is 32nd in the league in the rush game, Pittsburgh is only 23rd.
4. Be the defense
Enough already about the Pittsburgh defense. Yes, it’s why they’ve won 14 games, but while everyone is busy obsessing with the Steel Curtain, they have inappropriately left trash on a Cardinal defense that in the playoffs has been nothing short of extraordinary.
I know what you’re thinking. While it might seem absurd to associate the Cardinals defense with anything extraordinary, this postseason it quite simply has been. Their turnover ratio is +9, they’ve shutdown veteran quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Donavan McNabb on consecutive weeks, and their run defense is phenomenal. The Cardinals shut down the league’s second- and third-best rushing attacks on consecutive weeks (Atlanta and Carolina, respectfully).
5. Play ‘the blitz’
Pittsburgh has the best defense in the league, and one of the things it does best is “the blitz.” Hell, a blind man could see that Pittsburgh will be bringin’ the heat Sunday.
Arizona must prepare for their opponents’ strengths and not shy away from them. Enter Kurt Warner.
Warner has the foresight to anticipate incoming blitzes and has the ability to make the appropriate changes against them.
In fact, this postseason, Warner has been prolific against the blitz. Expect a variety of quick options that Warner will use to expose it. This includes screens — especially when the corners blitz — but especially slants to his slot receiver as Warner exposes the temporally open field.
Arizona can’t scramble. However, if they play into the blitz and not against it, they could very well use Pittsburgh’s best weapon against them.
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