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PRO FOOTBALL

It's stability vs. futility in the Super Bowl

Steelers are going for their record sixth title, while Cardinals haven't won anything since the Truman years.

February 01, 2009|Sam Farmer

TAMPA, FLA. — When tens of millions of worldwide viewers tune in today to Super Bowl XLIII, they will see two divergent clubs.

The Pittsburgh Steelers want to make history.

The Arizona Cardinals want to erase it.

Arizona is a team tired of left-handed compliments. For too long, the Cardinals have heard they're the best thing produced by a bad franchise.

Pittsburgh is a team looking for a left-handed complement. The Steelers want an NFL-record sixth Super Bowl ring to go with the five on their right hand.

In the end, of course, both teams crave the same thing: to stand on the turf at Raymond James Stadium tonight, in a blizzard of glittering confetti, passing the silver Lombardi Trophy from hand to grass-stained hand.

"Everybody has game jitters," said Steelers running back Willie Parker, whose club can move past fellow five-time winners San Francisco and Dallas with a victory. "It's not about being nervous. We've already been here before, so we already know what to expect."

For the Cardinals franchise, this is all new. Their last league championship came 61 years and two cities ago -- when they played in Chicago in 1947 -- the longest drought of any NFL team. In fact, of the four major sports, only baseball's Chicago Cubs have endured a longer dry spell, last winning a championship in 1908.

"I understand what the Cardinals have been through," Arizona defensive end Bryan Robinson said. "I understand the heartache they have experienced. I've only had three winning seasons in my 12-year career; it's tough."

And that's what makes this situation all the more magical for the Cardinals, who overcame a drop-off at the end of the regular season to pull off stunning consecutive playoff victories over Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia -- all upsets.

Today, once again, a familiar theme: Pittsburgh is favored by a touchdown.

"We are definitely the underdogs," Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "We all play with the underdog mentality. Once we got in the playoffs and we realized we were going to be the underdogs no matter what or who we played, we thought we would shock the world."

No quarterback shocks the world like Arizona's Kurt Warner, who joins Craig Morton (Dallas, Denver) as the only quarterbacks to start for two franchises in the Super Bowl. Warner, the onetime grocery bagger and arena league player, led St. Louis to a Super Bowl victory in 1999 and back to the big game in 2001, when the Rams lost to New England.

Warner said the tough stretch the Cardinals had at the end of the season, when they lost four of six, has empowered them in the playoffs.

"I think those games shocked us a little bit on, 'OK, this is what we're going to face as we're going to move forward. This is what the playoffs are going to be about,' " he said.

As he did with Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt in St. Louis, Warner has terrific receivers in Cardinals stars Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Those two will be key factors against Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense, especially because Arizona doesn't have a strong running game. The Cardinals finished last in the league in rushing, although they have gotten better in recent weeks.

Pittsburgh's running game, too, struggled during the regular season but has bounced back. Typically, the Steelers rely on that to control the clock and tempo.

Whereas Warner thrives when he gets the necessary protection in the pocket, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is at his best when he's able to move outside and create, freelance on the fly. He's likely to throw five or more deep balls per half, and he has the speedy receivers in Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington to stretch the field. He also has Hines Ward, the most valuable player of Super Bowl XL, as his go-to target.

Even though his team won, Roethlisberger struggled in that Super Bowl three years ago. He completed nine of 21 passes for 123 yards with two interceptions. His quarterback rating of 22.6 -- the lowest for a Super Bowl-winning quarterback -- was even younger than his age.

He said his entire attitude is different heading into this game.

"I'm more relaxed, I'm having more fun," he said. "The first time was my second year in the league, and I was so overwhelmed because it was a such a dream to be in the game. This time, I'm enjoying it and having more fun.

"I'm sure once the ball is kicked off there will be nerves going through it, but if you're not nervous for this game then there's something wrong with you."

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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