Arizona (+7) over Pittsburgh: They are best known as NFL laughingstocks and they were humiliated by your New England Patriots just before the playoffs began, but the smart money will be on the Arizona Cardinals to cover the seven points against Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII. Pay no attention to the notion that the Cardinals are frauds because they lost seven ballgames during the regular season and/or because they allegedly quit while playing the Pats. Any questions about Arizona were answered during the last three games as the Cardinals rolled Atlanta, Carolina, and Philadelphia.
Known for its offense, Arizona has three 1,000-yard receivers and the prolific Kurt Warner chucking the ball. But a closer look at Warner’s stats, particularly in the playoffs, reveals that he’s not just standing in the pocket slinging; he’s become an efficient passer. In the three postseason games, he’s completed 61-of-92 throws for 770 yards (256 per game) and eight touchdowns. Against Philadelphia, Warner threw 29 times, and 22 of those throws were passes that traveled less than 10 yards. The Steelers have great rushing linebackers, led by James Harrison, but if Warner can continue to connect on short, quick throws, Pittsburgh’s rush will be neutralized and it will be in trouble.
We already know Arizona’s receivers are tremendous, but don’t forget that its running backs (Edgerrin James, Tim Hightower) are excellent receivers, too. Pittsburgh’s defense is ranked first in the league, so nothing is a given, but no one — not even “The Steel Curtain” — has an answer for Arizona wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who may or may not be the NFL’s best receiver but who is surely the best receiver/playmaker in this game. The Steelers’ top receiving threat, Hines Ward, suffered a twisted knee in the AFC title game and is expected to play, but a limited Ward is not helpful to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose offensive arsenal pales in comparison to Warner’s.
Willie Parker, the solid Pittsburgh back, is healthy and running hard, but the Cardinal defense has been surprisingly sturdy in the postseason, allowing just 42 yards by Atlanta’s Michael Turner, 63 by Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams, and 45 by Philadelphia’s Brian Westbrook. Aside from Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, those are arguably the three best backs in football, and the Cardinals held all three in check.
If anything makes me queasy about taking the points, it’s the fact that Pittsburgh will have plenty of chances, because its defense will get its share of three-and-outs. It always does.
But nothing — not a comeback by Atlanta in the wild-card round, not a road game against heavily favored Carolina in the divisional round, not 19 unanswered points by Philadelphia in the NFC title game — seems to derail Arizona. The Steelers are formidable, but the seven points are too generous and are reflective of what the Cardinals have always been, not what they are. If they had the “NY” insignia on their helmets instead of a decal of a red bird, this spread would be less than a field goal.
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This week's OT cover
OT beat writersMaureen Mullen brings you Red Sox information and insights.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots.
Scott Souza is all over the Celtics.
Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
Mike McDonald takes a look at the humorous side of Boston sports