Last night before I went to bed I caught the half-hour compressed show about Super Bowl XXXVI on ESPN, where the Patriots won their first Super Bowl against Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams. Nearly the whole game Warner was obviously bothered by his right thumb, shaking his hand before taking snaps and between every play.
That was one of the best Super Bowls ever, because everyone was rooting for the Patriots to upset the Rams juggernaut, coached by an extremely self-satisfied Mike Martz. Remember when we all rooted for the Pats? Like it was somehow destiny that a team called the Patriots would win the first post-9/11 Super Bowl?
There’s two things nobody seems to be mentioning when it comes to Sunday’s tilt: Pittsburgh is lucky to even represent the AFC, and Warner is playing better than he ever has.
Tennessee killed the Steelers 31-14 to clinch home-field advantage in Week 16, and the Titans would have similarly thrashed the Steelers in Nashville had they not given that game away against Baltimore. Baltimore is not a good team in the sense that we’re all familiar with. They can’t really run or pass, and their defense isn’t even close to being a top-10 defense over the past decade. Opportunistic for sure, but the Ravens winning was the best gift Pittsburgh ever could have received.
Still, Baltimore has one talent that can’t be ignored, the ability to hurt their opponent. And Pittsburgh wasn’t exactly healthy entering the AFC Championship Game. Sure the extra week of rest helps, but it’s clear Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward (only their two best players on offense) are playing with injuries that take months to get over, not days.
Warner’s thumb is healthy on the other hand, and on his right hand as well. There’s your difference. The Steelers can double and triple-team Larry Fitzgerald all day long, but Anquan Boldin is twice as good as any receiver Pittsburgh currently can boast. Cover Santonio Holmes deep and you’re fine. He’s not going to jump over multiple defenders and make the catch like Fitzgerald can, and Ward is going to need all the courage and pain-relievers he can stand to make an impact against Arizona’s underrated secondary.
Arizona’s entire defense is better than advertised in fact, throttling Carolina’s passing attack and holding strong against the rushing attack of Philly, and both of those offense’s are better than Pittsburgh even on their best day.
These playoffs have confounded me to the point where I feel silly even making a pick at this point, but I have the same sort of feeling about Arizona and Warner I did in seven years ago about New England and Brady. The Cardinals have played the best during these playoffs, and Pittsburgh snuck into this year’s Super Bowl with the choke job Tennessee demonstrated three weeks ago. Pittsburgh’s defense is decent, it isn’t legendary — I actually think Edgerrin James will have success running the ball, even though most experts would deem that last remark absolutely insane.
But most of all, Warner’s thumb is healthy and the Cardinals’ offensive line has kept him upright against the Panthers and the Eagles. I don’t think Warner or his thumb are in any danger on Sunday evening; nor are the Cardinals.
Prediction: Cardinals 30, Steelers 17