Conference title games illustrate league's latest trends

Super Bowl XLIII is set and it should be a great matchup between the Steelers and Cardinals. However, after two terrific games on Sunday, it's clear a few things are fast becoming part of the game.

Let's take one last look back at the conference title games.

1. You better have a great safety

The final four teams all put a Pro Bowl safety on the field. It's tough to recall four safeties as good as Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Brian Dawkins and Adrian Wilson in two such important games. Ultimately, when the Steelers and Cardinals won, the play of Polamalu and Wilson were as critical as any other aspect of the games.

Polamalu lurked in the middle of the field and stole routes or broke-up passes. His 40-yard interception return for a score in the fourth quarter helped clinch the victory. Wilson finished with two sacks, two hits on the quarterback, a pass defensed and a forced fumble. The winning QB in Super Bowl XLIII will know where these safeties are at all times.

2. These QBs deserve an extension

The NFC Championship Game proved the Eagles and Cardinals need to sit down with their respective quarterbacks and get contract extensions done. Donovan McNabb brought his team back from a 24-6 deficit with 19 unanswered points and there's no chance Kevin Kolb is ready to perform at that level. Philadelphia is lucky to have a QB who has gone to five conference title games. Only Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Roger Staubach have played in more than McNabb.

The irony was Kurt Warner's presence on the other side of the field. After a great career with the Rams, Warner has bounced around the league. The Eagles can't afford to look like the Rams, who let Warner go and haven't done a thing since.

Warner locked up a trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame with what he's accomplished this season. Arizona needs to offer a minimum two-year deal with at least $16 million guaranteed, possibly going to a third year that's not guaranteed. Warner is playing great and makes teams pay for blitzing more than any other quarterback. During the regular season, teams came after him 208 times and sacked him five times, which is a sack every 41.6 pass attempts against the blitz. He also hit put up 14 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions against pressure calls.

3. The new way of doing things

The idea of a young coach and experience not being important is all the rage. Owners are saying things like this young coach relates to the modern players and we have to keep changing. Sunday's results did nothing to change the way owners will look at the head coach going forward. Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Tomlin are both in their second year and neither brought former head-coaching experience to the job on any level but are headed to Tampa for the big showdown.

There are so many out of work head coaches with Super Bowl rings who don't look any closer to returning to the NFL. Unless we see a big drop off next year, expect a number of well-respected coaches to stay out of work.

4. Pressure is the defense of choice

The final four teams all brought a lot of heat defensively. Sitting back and playing coverage with a four-man rush just isn't the way the game is played anymore. A three-man rush on third and long or a traditional four-man rush has been replaced by zone dogs and snatch blitzes. It's becoming more difficult for quarterbacks to identify which players are really coming.

The Steelers (187) and Cardinals (185) employed a similar number of five- and six-man pressure calls during the regular season. These teams average over 11.5 pressure calls a game, but the playoff run indicates a trend upwards to about 15 calls a game. During the regular season, Arizona produced a sack once every 12 blitz calls, gave up 12 touchdowns, only picked off three passes and surrendered a 57 percent completion rate. They will come after Ben Roethlisberger but they have to close the escape to the left that he loves so much and used at least a half a dozen times against the Ravens.

The Steelers are more efficient in their pressure calls, producing a sack every 10 blitz calls, giving up just five touchdowns, generating four interceptions but surrendering a 60 percent completion rate. Neither defensive coordinator will cut back on pressure calls in the Super Bowl.

5. Pocket passers do it again

Whether it's around the draft or during the regular season, there's been a lot of talk about today's quarterback being able to win with his feet. It's been suggested that you need an athlete under center who can create, extend plays and be a threat to run.

However, it's two pocket passers who run somewhere in the 5.2 range in the 40-yard dash are headed to the Super Bowl. A fast mind and an accurate arm win titles. Warner and Roethlisberger each hit eight different receivers while moving around ever so slightly in the pocket looking to throw.

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6. The winning drive says it all

In speaking with Ken Whisenhunt and Todd Haley last month about their offensive philosophy, both men emphasized there would be a commitment to the running game. That's easier said than done when you have Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Still, they committed to the ground game and it paid dividends on the winning drive against the Eagles.

Trailing 25-24 with 10:39 left, the Cardinals took the field for the most important drive in franchise history. Fourteen plays later, they had a 32-25 lead. But how they scored is the story. Arizona used nine running plays and five passes to move 72 yards for a touchdown. They ran the ball on three of four first downs and both third downs, before the third-down pass to Tim Hightower for the winning score. At one point, the Cardinals ran the ball four plays in a row. Keep in mind, those nine rushes totaled just 16 yards but set up the pass. On four pass plays following a run, Arizona completed all four attempts for 47 yards and a touchdown.

Look for the Cardinals to stick with the run, even against Pittsburgh's second-ranked rush defense.

7. Steelers everywhere

The reason I am so excited about Super Bowl XLIII is the number of coaches who know each other and have worked together. There are no secrets about Dick LeBeau's defense that Whisenhunt and his offensive line coach, Russ Grimm, haven't seen 100 times.

Grimm and Whisenhunt where part of Pittsburgh's coaching staff and battled LeBeau's scheme in practice play after play. LeBeau is very familiar with Grimm's protection schemes, while Whisenhunt should be able to recall all of Roethlisberger's habits. In addition, Cardinals special teams coach Kevin Spencer was also with the Steelers and will have a good idea of some of Pittsburgh's cracks in that phase of the game.

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