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Different Directions, Same Super Meeting Spot

090128_event_superbowl_nick_mangold_320.jpg has profiled all the playoff games this NFL postseason, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday evening:    

(4) ARIZONA (12-7) vs. (2) PITTSBURGH (14-4), 6 p.m., NBC


Polar opposites will meet Sunday in Tampa.

The AFC's Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to secure their sixth Super Bowl ring while the NFC's Arizona Cardinals are playing in their first championship game in six decades.

It's a culture of winning versus a culture of, until recently, losing, but this Super Bowl — No. XLIII — could go either way. Despite giving up 56 points to the Jets in Week 4 and losing to the Pats by 40 in Week 16, the Cards got hot at the right time and have every reason to believe they can continue making history.

"This is the greatest sports story ever," Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said after 'Zona earned its trip to Florida. "Look at the history, man. Who else has been losing for 60, 70 years? Some people don't even live for 60, 70 years."

Pittsburgh fans in their 60s and 70s have had a lot to cheer about. Just three years ago, the Steelers got one for the thumb, disposing of the Seahawks, 21-10. Before that, the Black & Gold were crowned champs following the 1979, 1978, 1975 and 1974 seasons.

If the Steelers are victorious this weekend, they'll have won more Bowls than any other franchise in NFL history.

"It's one of those things, you don't realize the magnitude of it until you look back on it.," said offensive tackle Max Starks. "We're proud to be tied for the most with two other teams [Dallas and San Francisco], but it's time to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack."

Even though the Cardinals don't share as decorated a history as their opponents, they'll have a signalcaller who's played in two Super Bowls, winning one, and is a two-time league MVP. The 37-year-old Kurt Warner, who didn't start an NFL game until he was 28, is they key figure in this spectacle.

"I think the perception around the league about me was that I couldn't play anymore anyways," Warner said. " 'There was no more football left in him and he's basically just trying to survive. The Cardinals won't win and Kurt Warner can't really play, so I guess it's a fine mix.' I think the Cardinals knew something a lot of people didn't. They took a chance, I took a chance, and together we've made something special happen."

The Steelers, who had the NFL's top defense throughout the regular season, won't be intimidated by Warner or his fantastic pair of receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. But the Cardinals might have an edge here in that their leadership is tied back to Pittsburgh and they know what to expect from Steelers defensive guru Dick LeBeau.

Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm were assistants under former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher for six years. When Cowher retired, the Steelers turned to Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin while Whisenhunt and Grimm went to the desert.

The Cards, who've played with chips on their shoulders all postseason, are underdogs again. Last season the Giants fared pretty well when nobody gave them a shot. So can this year's Cinderella find her shoe and beat up Rocky Marciano with it?

Statistical Picture

Both QBs have put the ball on the ground this season. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger has fumbled 14 times, 10 times on strip sacks, and lost seven fumbles. This has been music all week to the ears of Arizona DE Antonio Smith and blitzing S Adrian Wilson.

Arizona's Warner, meanwhile, has fumbled 11 times (nine on strips) and also has lost seven. The Jets were the most successful defense at harassing him, stripping him four times in Week 4, and the Steelers are fully capable of creating similar havoc led by Defensive Player of the Year LB James Harrison, who had forced seven pocket fumbles all by himself.

But if the Cards can protect their QB, he's got a dangerous receiving duo in Fitzgerald and Boldin. When healthy, Fitz/Boldin has been impossible to stop, combining with Warner for 185 receptions for 2,469 yards and 23 touchdowns, a per-game average of 11.6 catches, 154.3 yards and 1.4 TDs. Steve Breaston also had a 1,000-yard season — only the fifth time in NFL history a team has had three four-figure receivers.

Warner's TD drive percentage of 26.0 percent was fourth-best among qualifying QBs this regular season, and his playoff TD drive rate has been even better at 27.0 percent. Roethlisberger's been conservative this postseason with a 55.9 percent completion rate, two TDs to no INTs, a 90.8 passer rating and a 20.8 percent TD drive rate (17.8 percent in the RS).

Both ground games feature big names who've seen better seasons: Willie Parker for Pittsburgh (3.8 yards per carry) and Edgerrin James for Arizona (3.9 avg.)

S Troy Polamalu has had a ballhawking season with eight total interceptions, including his devastating 40-yard TD return vs. Joe Flacco and the Ravens two Sundays ago. First-round rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie led Arizona with four interceptions in the regular season and "DRC" has added two more in the postseason.

On special teams, watch Pittsburgh PR Santonio Holmes against Arizona punter Ben Graham — In the last five games, Holmes has a TD return but has also fumbled three times (two muffs). Steelers K Jeff Reed hasn't missed a kick this postseason and Cards K Neil Rackers' only two misses were a pair of 50-plus FG tries.

Pittsburgh finished the regular season with NFL top-two rankings in total defense (1st), run defense (2nd), pass defense (1st) and scoring defense (1st) and with a bottom-10 ranking in rush offense (23rd). In their two playoff games they held San Diego and Baltimore to a combined 44.0 rushing yards per game and 2.4 per carry.

Arizona finished the regular season with NFL top-five rankings in total offense (4th), passing offense (3rd) and scoring offense (tied for 3rd) and with bottom-10 rankings in rush offense (32nd and last) and scoring defense (28th). In their three playoff games they have averaged 31.7 points and 362.0 yards per game.

The Steelers had a plus-4 turnover differential in the regular season and are plus-5 in their two postseason victories. The Cardinals had a zero turnover differential in the RS but are plus-9 in their three playoff wins.

Playoff/Rivalry Histories

These two long-lived franchises have never met in the postseason. The Steelers lead the all-time series, 31-23-3, but the Cards have won three of the last five since their move to Phoenix in 1988, including a come-from-behind 21-14 home win in Week 4 of 2007. In that game, Whisenhunt, who had left Pittsburgh's staff after the '06 season, came out on top of Tomlin, the head coach who replaced Bill Cowher.

The Steelers, having finally "won one for the thumb" after the 2005 season, are poised to win one for the other thumb, or any other finger of their unringed hand that they choose. Their all-time playoff record is 30-19.

Arizona ended its NFL-long playoff drought at nine seasons and is in position to win its first Super Bowl ever and only the franchise's second NFL title — the first coming in 1947 with a 28-21 triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cardinals' all-time playoff record is 5-5.

Jet Fuel

Ben Graham is in the Super Bowl. He was the Jets punter for three full season and four games this season. After being released for the second time by the Green & White after Game 4 (coincidentally vs. Arizona), Graham worked his way west and ultimately wound up in Phoenix. In four RS games for the Cardinals, Graham had a 42.0-yard gross average (43.3 in four games with the Jets) and a 32.0 gross (36.1 with the Jets). On 15 postseason punts, Ben has a 39.9-yard gross (not good) and a 35.1 net (fair) and has nine I-20s punts compared to one touchback (great).

LB Victor Hobson signed on late with the Cards, played in one game but has not played in the playoffs.

Whisenhunt (Jets' TEs coach, 2000) has four former Jets players or coaches on his coaching staff: RBs coach Maurice Carthon (1997-2000), strength coach John Lott (1997-2004) and quality control/offense Dedric Ward (Jets WR 1997-2000).

The Steelers have two defensive stalwarts who were also Jets defensive starters at one time: LB James Farrior, the Jets' first-round pick in 1997 who left for Pittsburgh after the 2001 season, and S Tyrone Carter, who started a career-high 10 games for the 2003 Jets and since has spent the last five seasons with Pittsburgh, starting three games this season, including the AFC Divisional Round win over San Diego.

30 Rock

The Cardinals have already joined the elite ranks of NFL playoff teams that have scored 30 points or more in three consecutive games in one postseason, and they can become the only team to do it four times in the same postseason with a 30-point eruption vs. Pittsburgh. Here are the seven 30-30-30 teams in playoff history:

 Season Team Points Total
 1978 Pittsburgh 33-34-35 102
 1983 L.A. Raiders 38-30-38 106
 1989 San Francisco 41-30-55 126
 1992 Dallas 34-30-52 116
 1994 San Francisco 44-38-49 131
 1996 Green Bay 35-30-35 100
 2008 Arizona 30-33-32 95

Are the Steelers the Ones?

Pittsburgh's defense was ranked first in the NFL regular season in total yards, passing yards and points allowed. Two other teams since the 1970 merger — the 1996 Packers and the 2002 Buccaneers — had those same rankings, and both won Super Bowls. And teams with any one of those No. 1 rankings have fared well in previous Super Bowls:

 Ranking, Category SB W-L, Pct.
 No. 1, Total Defense 7-1, .875
 No. 1, Pass Defense 4-2, .667
 No. 1, Scoring Defense 11-2, .846

— Randy Lange contributed to this Super Bowl preview.

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