For the last few years, there has been a two week break between the Championship games and the Superbowl. There might be a few reasons for this: to give players time to recover from injury, to allow for more preparation, or for still more interviews and media hype. I actually preferred the previous schedule, where Superbowl weekend and Australia Day weekend coincided, because here, the Superbowl is played on Monday at 10:30am.
This year, I’ve really struggled to write anything meaningful about the post-season, because every week I’ve been stunned by the results. Like many others, I thought we were headed towards a Superbowl with the number one or two seed from each conference. Instead, there has been a record number of upsets, and it has been particularly difficult to put a finger on what the key to success has been or will be. So despite having an extra week, it’s taken me until the eleventh hour to write something (hopefully) meaningful about the Superbowl.
The old cliches are largely true: (1) Run the ball and control the clock. Both teams have strong offensive lines, and reasonably fresh running backs who are able to do this. This is actually more important for the Steelers, because to win, they will need to keep the Cardinals offence off the field. Even though the Steelers are 6.5 points favourites, the Cards offence is so fast scoring and scary that they could break out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, and turn the whole game upside down into a blazing shoot-out. Arizona were able to put together a long drive to hold on to the Championship game against Philly, but frankly, this is not their style. Because Warner has a quick release, and because his receivers are big and strong, he may elect for very short drops and quick throws, and then rely on the strength of Fitzgerald and Boldin to gain most of the yards after the catch. This strategy will reduce the effectiveness of the Steelers front seven. So look for the Steelers to establish the run early, and try to control the tempo of the game.
(2) Turnover margin. This statistic comes up time and again – the winner of playoff games invariably does so by creating turnovers. Here, Polamalu is the most dangerous player on the field, and may be instrumental in putting more points on the board than the Steelers offence, if this is a tight defensive game. I think the Steelers secondary is the better (and one of the best this season), but that said, the Cardinals have freaky receivers who create mismatches with their size, and will be a challenge foe any secondary.
There has been much talk about the coaches, with Wizenhunt and Grimm being overlooked for the job at Pittsburgh after Bill Cowher left. Bear in mind that Mike Tomlin inherited a franchise with recent post-season success, a good list, and has simply kept the well-oiled machine running. Wizenhunt, on the other hand, has built success from almost nowhere by creating an explosive offence that has a mix of experience at QB and RB, youth in the receivers, and a great offensive line, and has coached the defence to be good enough to stop other teams from scoring as quickly. He definitely deserves more credit for his achievements than his counterpart, and has the greater potential to break this game open.
Down under, all the talk has been about “secret weapon” punter Ben Graham and how he will pin back Holmes with his super left foot. He might come in to the game if this is a tight defensive struggle and a field position battle. I actually think it will break open offensively, and the 46.5 points spread will be broken. Graham won’t punt the ball much more than five times, which should work out to just under $10,000 each. Nice work if you can get it!
Bottom line: Cardinals will not be blown away, will beat the spread, and if they can get an early lead, will dictate the flow of the game and actually win this. Look out for clever coaching moves, and trick plays from both teams.