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A New Look For The Old Order
Authored by Matthew Gordon - 3rd February, 2009 - 5:58 pm

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The Pittsburgh Steelers had the NFL?s best defense, and were the face of everything your father loved about the league. A historic franchise that almost always fields contenders, its best player was NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. The Arizona Cardinals had a maligned defense and a flashy offense, with most of the highlights coming from the sensational combination of Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald. Unlike the Steelers, the Cardinals hadn?t won a championship in sixty years, far before the appellation of ?Super Bowl? became practice.

Most pundits agreed that a Pittsburgh win would be a fairly methodical affair, while a Cardinal upset would require some immense feat of the air. What onlookers received was a hybrid of the two: the Steelers won, maintaining their dominance, but the Cardinals came closer than many (including me) thought they could; the Cardinals? unceremonious dumping of the heavily-favored Carolina Panthers three weeks earlier had already upset the established wisdom of rushing to a crown; and the final game?s MVP was, of all things, a fleet-footed Steeler receiver.

The 2008/2009 Pittsburgh Steelers: A Purist?s Compromise?

This season, the Steelers relied far more on the passing game than before. With Jerome Bettis years out of the picture and Willie Parker facing injuries, the league?s most dependable team was forced to adapt by leaning on its defense and utilizing more of a passing offense. Fortunately, the defense ranked #1 in the NFL, and the quarterback-wideout tandem of Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward embodied the toughness of the Steeler heritage. Roethlisberger runs like a fullback and Ward blocks like a tight end.

Santonio Holmes was a crucial point of that offense, and he was what John Madden termed ?a big play guy?. He?s lightning-fast, has great hands? and isn?t overly strong or physical like Ward. This was the Super Bowl MVP. He?s not the type of player usually associated with the black and gold, but he?s a perfect counterpart to Ward in the offense.

I would have given the award to LaMarr Woodley, who had multiple sacks every game of the playoffs, stripped Warner at the end of the Super Bowl, and threw a colossal block for Harrison during the Super Bowl?s longest interception return. He played an incredible game during an incredible playoff run that saw the Steelers able to win big (against San Diego), ugly (against Baltimore) and epically (against Arizona). That Woodley, Harrison and Holmes were all so vital to the Super Bowl win shows that this particular brand of Steeler football is an adaptable hybrid.

The 2008/2009 Arizona Cardinals: A Favored Underdog?

This year?s Cardinals, fun as they were to watch, were a bizarre team. They were bafflingly inconsistent, patched together with young players and veterans, and no one was really sure if they had a defense until the playoffs. As the Steelers are to the NFL?s order, the Cardinals brought a happy kind of chaos.

Did they, though? What?s overlooked in all their supposedly upset victories, in those three games I decided to call ?lock of the week?, is that Arizona was the higher seed two of the three times. A key component of the expected, other than defense and rushing, is the favorite winning. Despite disparities in record, the Cardinals had the home field, and can thus be legitimately cast as the favorite even in light of the betting odds. The Falcons were a shock to finish 11-5, as most had the Buccaneers ready to finish second in the NFC South prior to their collapse. The Eagles were questioned at 5-5-1, before they went on their massive run, and then still needed help to make the playoffs. (Tampa, I?m once again looking at you, and Chicago can take notes too.)

The Cardinals also became a more traditional team in the playoffs, and it spurred their success. Karlos Dansby, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Adrian Wilson all played phenomenally. The running game was revived when former malcontent Edgerrin James rediscovered his legs. The Cardinals that fell 47-7 in New England looked like a one-dimensional team that couldn?t do anything but pass and would crumble at the first sign of weakness. The Cardinals team that pulled out gutsy wins against Atlanta and Philadelphia was an all-around team with a plan.

As favorites and as a balanced team, the Cardinals weren?t that surprising in hindsight. The game that should cause worry to any football conservative was the win over Carolina. Going into the divisional round, there was a case that the Panthers were the most dominant team in the league. Jake Delhomme was revived, the running game was utterly destructive, and the front seven was itching to drive Warner?s helmet into the tender Carolina soil. Put bluntly, that didn?t happen past the game?s first drive.

The Cardinals had two faces. The team that went 9-7 in the regular season couldn?t have done what the playoff version did. The Cardinals won their two home games through all of passing, rushing and defense, keeping in line with tradition, and won what many still consider a fluke in one of the league?s most hostile houses.

Is This a New Dawn?

With the Cardinals two minutes away from winning it all, people had to wonder whether the pass-happiness of the NFL was really prevailing over the grinding halt of old. Teams like the Panthers and Vikings, both franchises far more successful than the Cardinals, amassed their fortunes on the backs of two of the game?s top rushers. Both lost their first playoff game, both at home, both by more than one possession. Arizona?s Tim Hightower, meanwhile, couldn?t manage three yards per carry.

The league?s changed a little, sure. It inevitably does. The three key components of traditional football, though, are defense, rushing and the favorite getting the win. That happened three of four times during the Cardinals? run. Had the Cardinals not been playing good defense, the Panthers? more than capable offense would?ve managed more than its paltry thirteen points.

Super Bowl XLIII was an exciting game featuring some great highlights, many of them catches by some of the game?s best receivers. That doesn?t mean that football?s come down to a game of catch. If football were a game of catch, Harrison?s interception and Woodley?s strip would make it a very twisted game. With great passes, great plays on defense and the running game playing its role as a means to alter the opposing defense, it was a complete football game. The Steelers belonged there, which was evident all season. The Cardinals got there by playing a brand of football that?s existed in some form since they were in Chicago. The playoffs saw a hiccup in Panther World, but the Superbowl was a classic that went as planned.