The Steelers, of course, feature the best defense in the league. but they are going to be tested by a passing attack that was second only to that of the New Orleans Saints. And the Cardinals are likely to try to force the Steelers out of playing their typical 3-4 alignment by going three wide at receiver frequently. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that's how they start the game. When they do, Pittsburgh will be forced to replace one of their linebackers with a defensive back, which will help open things up for the running game as well. And that's key as well because Arizona needs to keep Edgerrin James involved in the attack. With just six men in the box and the field spread, he should find some success on the occasional run.
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has been Arizona's go-to guy on offense during the playoffs, and he is simply playing lights out right now. In fact, he's set a playoff record for receiving yards in a single postseason. He doesn't have blazing speed, but he is very athletic and has incredible body control which allows him to get to the ball at the highest point. And once he gets his hands on the ball, that's where it usually stays.
Quarterback Kurt Warner will attempt to use Fitgerald, along with the hard-nosed Anquan Boldin, to attack the sidelines deep. It's imperative that they keep the ball away from safety Troy Polamalu over the middle. The veteran safety simply makes too many game-changing plays to be tempting fate on a regular basis. So they'll have to pick and choose their spots over the middle carefully. With the way Fitzgerald has been playing, though, the Steelers will probably role coverage his way early to try to slow him down, but they have to be careful doing that because Boldin is just as capable of burning them. And third receiver Steve Breaston has been very effective as well, so they can't forget about him either.
The Steelers, on the other hand, would probably be wise to try to pound the ball on the ground on offense, keep the chains and clock moving, and shorten the game. They'll need to take some shots down the field as well, of course. But they also need to limit the Cardinals' opportunities as much as possible. And they need to put Warner on his back consistently, because he can be rattled.
That's perhaps the key to the game. If the Steelers get to Warner and force that loss of confidence that leads to tentativeness -- and generally turnovers -- the game is their's for the taking. But if he can stand in the pocket and look for his second and third targets and step into his throws, the Steelers just might be in trouble. The Steelers will come after the veteran QB with linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, but to counter their blitzing ability, Warner will spend a lot of time in the shotgun so he has that extra second to see the blitz coming and get rid of the ball.
Having said all that... I've yet to pick the Cardinals in the postseason, which would probably be a fair indicator of which way I am leaning in this contest. Or maybe not. Having watched the confidence of the Cardinals grow with each playoff win, they're beginning to win me over. They are playing the underdog role very well, using it to perfection as a motivating factor. And I think they are going to ride it out one more week to finally bring that first Super Bowl championship to the Cardinals franchise.
Prediction: Arizona 29, Pittsburgh, 25