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Blogger Debate: Steelers vs. Cardinals

1/28/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and James Walker

TAMPA, Fla. -- Here's hoping Super Bowl XLIII between the Cardinals and Steelers is as competitive as our latest playoff debate between divisional bloggers.

From the big-game exploits of Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger to Larry Fitzgerald's chances against the Steelers' top-ranked defense, we've got this matchup covered.

We're also picking winners and final scores, so pull up a chair.

How much of an advantage do Arizona Cardinals coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm enjoy in going against their former team?

James Walker: This has been a major topic for the Super Bowl, and much of it has been overblown in terms of X's and O's. With the amount of movement with coaches and players in the NFL, this situation happens more than people realize. In this instance, it's leading up to the biggest game of the year, so a lot more attention is being brought to it. But the biggest edge for Whisenhunt and Grimm is the knowledge of tendencies. They know what routes Roethlisberger likes to throw on third down, for instance. They could be aware that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau blitzes more from the blindside because it causes quarterback fumbles. It's things that go a little deeper than the playbook. Arizona's coaching staff can game plan off those tendencies and try to put players in the right positions. But other than that, execution on the field is going to have a bigger impact in this game.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals should benefit from enhanced knowledge of the Steelers' personnel, specifically Roethlisberger. Whisenhunt will know better than most what bothers Roethlisberger and how to make him uncomfortable. That knowledge probably served the Cardinals well when they beat the Steelers last season. Roethlisberger completed only 53 percent of his passes with two interceptions in that game, and that was before the Cardinals had a cover cornerback as gifted as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. I'm sure Roethlisberger and the Steelers learned from that encounter, so the Cardinals' familiarity might not help as much this time.

Can the Steelers' top-rated defense slow Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, when no one else has this postseason?

James Walker: The key word in this question is "slow," because Fitzgerald is on a historic pace in the postseason and no team will all of a sudden shut him down. But relatively speaking, Pittsburgh's top-rated defense has as good a chance as anyone to give Fitzgerald problems. The Steelers allowed a league-low 156.9 yards passing per game in the regular season. They did it by taking away opponents' No. 1 receiving threat and sacking the quarterback. I expect Pittsburgh to come up with a scheme that pretty much says "Arizona, we're going to see if anyone other than Fitzgerald can beat us today." He will probably see double teams. It could also include constant shadowing by Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor. The Steelers would want nothing more than for Warner to constantly look in the direction of someone other than Fitzgerald. That's why this Anquan Boldin story line is so huge.

Mike Sando: How quickly we forget. Boldin did not play when the Steelers and Cardinals squared off in 2007. Fitzgerald finished that game with 10 catches for 120 yards. The Cardinals won, 21-14. I keep expecting these playoff defenses to do something -- anything -- to take away Fitzgerald. If LeBeau and that Steelers defense cannot do it, nobody can. I know Jim Johnson and the Eagles expected more from their defense in the NFC Championship Game. Perhaps the extra week of preparation will help LeBeau and staff find a way. I'll believe it when I see it.

Who is the better big-game quarterback, Arizona's Kurt Warner or Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger?

 Warner  Roethlisberger
James Walker: This is a great question because it involves two quarterbacks who do not get enough credit. I'll start the argument for Roethlisberger by saying he's never lost a Super Bowl. "Big Ben" also is 7-2 in the postseason and on a much faster pace for big-game success. Warner was a late bloomer. He didn't play, or win, his first Super Bowl until he was 28.

Roethlisberger, 26, is already chasing his second ring. And for all the hype surrounding Warner's run, entering this year he had a losing record in five of the past six seasons as a starter. He owned a 13-29 mark over that span and, until this year, hadn't played in a big game for a very long time. That has to factor in.

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger has never experienced a losing season and owns a much higher career winning percentage (.709) than Warner (.565). So I'll take the consistent winner in Big Ben over the quarterback who is batting much closer to .500 for his career in Warner.

Mike Sando: Only Bart Starr has a higher passer rating than Warner in the playoffs among quarterbacks with at least 150 attempts. Joe Montana ranks third. We could end the argument right there.

There's a lot to like about Roethlisberger overall, but he has, by his own admission, walked into a perfect situation. We'll never know how many Super Bowls Warner might have won with that Pittsburgh defense on his side.

Not many quarterbacks can win a Super Bowl completing 9 of 21 passes with two interceptions and a 22.6 rating. Roethlisberger did against Seattle in Super Bowl XL, sparing his big-game reputation from a debilitating hit. Remember, Antwaan Randle El was the Steelers' best quarterback in that game.

Warner is the more accurate passer of the two. He's far superior at getting rid of the football quickly to avoid sacks. Warner has also helped lead two previously destitute franchises to the Super Bowl. Those are strong credentials. Roethlisberger might pass them in time, but he's not there yet.

Which players can cement their legacies by winning this game?

Mike Sando: I think Warner can secure a spot in the Hall of Fame with a strong performance in a Cardinals victory. It doesn't get much better than that in terms of cementing a legacy.

Boldin also has much to gain from a strong performance. Fairly or not, his reputation took a hit after that sideline argument and early exit from the celebration following the NFC Championship Game. If Boldin's injured hamstring is indeed OK, this game presents a prime opportunity for him to redefine himself.

Despite putting up strong overall numbers, Boldin has had some problems with dropped passes and fumbles this season. Injuries have contributed to his frustrations. With all eyes on Fitzgerald, this might be the time for Boldin to break through.

James Walker: I believe a Steeler who could really cement his legacy in this game is receiver Hines Ward. As it stands today, the Hall of Fame committee will be tested by Ward's candidacy. In a pass-happy era, Ward will not retire with equal numbers as contemporaries such as Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison. Ward played his entire career with a run-oriented franchise. Instead, Ward will be remembered most for his clutch performances, smarts and reputation as arguably the most physical receiver to play the position. But toughness and smarts may not register with the number crunchers on the committee. A second Super Bowl ring -- and perhaps a second Super Bowl MVP -- would. This is especially the case if Ward shines on the big stage, despite a sprained knee that likely requires wearing a brace.

Who wins Super Bowl XLIII?

James Walker: I picked the Steelers to go to the Super Bowl way back in Week 8, so it's only natural to assume they'll finish the job. Pittsburgh will win this game, 21-17. Arizona is an easier style matchup for the Steelers, who would have a tougher time with more physical teams like the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles or Carolina Panthers. The Cardinals have a lot of holes (defense, running game) for a Super Bowl team and needed Fitzgerald to go nuts in every playoff game to get to this point. Unless Fitzgerald explodes for another three touchdowns in the first half, I like Pittsburgh's chances.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals weren't supposed to win any of their previous three playoff games and they aren't supposed to win this one. The smart money might be on the Steelers, but the smart money was on the Patriots last season and we all know how Super Bowl XLII turned out. Arizona's coaching staff keeps finding ways to get more from the Cardinals' talent than anyone could have expected. I'll stick with them another week. Someone has to pick Arizona. Cardinals, 20-14.