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01-20-2009, 02:23 AM
For Cardinals and Steelers, Differing Pasts and Expectations

Published: January 19, 2009

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/sport ... f=football (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/sports/football/20super.html?ref=football)

Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin, who is about to make his maiden trip to the Super Bowl, took only moments late Sunday night to remind everyone that getting to the Super Bowl was not exactly what the Steelers had dreamed of back in August. When you already have a very crowded trophy case like the Steelers’, getting to the Super Bowl is not the goal, but something closer to a birthright, the way having a smothering defense is.
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In the crowd Sunday were plenty of Jack Lambert jerseys mixed in with the Troy Polamalus as the Steelers defeated Baltimore, 23-14, to win the American Football Conference championship. The Steelers earned their seventh trip to the Super Bowl, and if they win, they will claim their sixth championship, more than any N.F.L. team.

“I told this group that we have miles to go until we sleep,” Tomlin said.

The Cardinals could be excused for letting their giddiness overwhelm them a little longer after earning their first trip to the Super Bowl. They have spent nearly their entire history being a team apart, peripatetic and sometimes even a little pathetic. Nobody wears vintage Cardinals jerseys, because, like wine turned to vinegar, the vintage was always pretty sour. That makes their unexpected arrival this year all the sweeter.

When the Giants made their feel-good run last year, they at least had a successful history to draw on and they were a team on the rise in the last month of the season. The Cardinals? Their history is so replete with failure that one of their singular contributions to the game was a catchphrase derived from a former coach’s meltdown: “They are who we thought they were.”

The Cardinals ended up not being what anybody thought they were. Even a month ago, they appeared to be the worst team in the playoff field after a late-season collapse sent them skidding to a 9-7 record, devoid of a defense or a running game. So on Sunday, they reveled in their Cinderella-ness just a bit longer than usual in the back-to-work N.F.L. While the Cardinals were erasing decades of futility — one player conceded that he could not quite say he ever thought the day would come — the Steelers were enhancing decades of nobility.

“It’s one of those things that you don’t realize the magnitude of it until you look back on it,” Steelers offensive lineman Max Starks said. “We’re proud to be tied for the most with two other teams, but it’s time to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack.”

Still, despite their different backgrounds, and how wide the gulf between the expectations of them at the start of the season, this has a chance to be a classic Super Bowl. It matches not just an upstart against an icon, but a powerful, explosive offense against what might be one of the greatest defenses in history.

Think defense always wins? Ask the Philadelphia Eagles. They had not given up a passing touchdown in their previous five games. Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught three in the first half. If there is a weak link to the Steelers’ defense, it is the secondary. The passing defense was ranked first this season, thanks largely to the ferocious pressure James Harrison & Company bring on the quarterback. They will surely try to rattle Warner and force fumbles, too, but the Cardinals handled the Eagles’ pressure by getting the ball out quickly, using a variety of screen passes and underneath passing routes.

The Steelers and the Cardinals played last season, with Arizona winning, 21-14, in Week 4. It was Arizona Coach Ken Whisenhunt’s first game against the franchise he used to work for, the one that had passed him over to hire Tomlin. Whisenhunt would presumably know the Steelers better than most opponents; he was Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator when the Steelers won the Super Bowl three years ago and saw the defense every day in practice.

Fitzgerald had 10 receptions for 120 yards in that game, but the Steelers’ Santonio Holmes outshone him, with six catches for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been nearly flawless this postseason, threw two interceptions and the Pittsburgh special teams — which have been shaky this season, especially against the Ravens — gave up a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown.

“I remember guys coming out of that game a little beat up, a little nicked up, but that’s just a physical football team, that’s how they play,” Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry said. “They’re very good at what they do.”

The Steelers have been for years and they will be heavy favorites to win again. That would make them the most successful team in history. For the Cardinals in the afterglow of Sunday’s victory, it almost seemed to be enough that they are no longer the biggest laughingstock in the league.

“The thing I learned about being an underdog is that when you go on the field, you have nothing to lose,” Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “We found out how Philly was going to play, everyone picked them to win, but we just relaxed. We already had a great season, regardless, win or lose. We were just trying to put the icing on the cake.”