There are always high expectations for conference championship weekend. This one surpassed them all. In the AFC, we saw the top two defenses slug it out for the third time this season, resulting in Pittsburgh earning its seventh trip to the Super Bowl. In the NFC, on the other hand, we saw one of the most surprising playoff success stories, as the Arizona Cardinals advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
How unlikely was Arizona's playoff run? The Cardinals have the lowest point differential of any team that has ever advanced to the Super Bowl. They outscored their opponents in 2008 by a total of one point -- 427-426. The previous low was in 1979, when the Los Angeles Rams had a plus-14 scoring differential. Not coincidentally, the Cardinals join those '79 Rams as the only 9-7 teams to reach the Super Bowl.
Arizona was 32nd running the ball during the regular season. Before the playoffs, highly-respected and knowledgeable analyst Cris Collinsworth called Arizona the worst playoff team ever. Maybe so, but they won when it counted.
Before we spend the next two weeks looking ahead to the big game, let's take a quick final review of the conference title games:
This was as loud as any game ever played. The stadium was full by the time teams were finishing their pregame warm-ups. It was so loud by the opening kickoff that the ball blew off the tee (the stadium roof was closed -- what else other than the noise would have caused it?).
Arizona's opening drive, which lasted 5:40 and ended with the first of three touchdown passes to Larry Fitzgerald, was notable for a couple of other things. First, on a third-and-1 from his own 29, Cardinals QB Kurt Warner beat the blitz with a 19-yard completion to Fitzgerald. Later in the drive, on first-and-10 from the Eagles' 40, Warner lined up in the shotgun and handed off to Edgerrin James, who had a 16-yard run. That was the longest running play by a Cardinal in the postseason. It was a great call by offensive coordinator Todd Haley, as it looked as though the Eagles were expecting a pass.
On the Eagles' first series, which began at their own 40 after Neil Rackers' kick went out of bounds, Donovan McNabb had a season-best 22-yard scramble. The drive ended with a field goal.
As good as the Cardinals looked on their first drive, they looked equally bad on the next, going three-and-out followed by a 34-yard punt. On the Eagles' ensuing series, we saw a rare double turnover. Aaron Francisco intercepted a McNabb pass, only to have it knocked out of his hands on a great hustle play by DeSean Jackson. Jon Runyan recovered for Philadelphia, and by that point we had a good idea of what to expect the rest of the way.
McNabb had good protection in the first half -- the entire game, really -- but he was not as sharp with his throws as he had been in previous weeks. Arizona defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast did a great job showing the Eagles different looks. Still, the Eagles overcame an 18-point halftime deficit to take a fourth-quarter lead. But the Cardinals answered with a 14-play, 72-yard drive that lasted 7:52. They went ahead on rookie Tim Hightower's 8-yard TD reception with 2:59 to play.
Warner cashes in
Kurt Warner, by virtue of his big numbers in the regular season, earned $1.5 million in incentives. Now, thanks to his work in Arizona's playoff run, he has already earned another $2 million in incentives. Since the contract calls for a maximum of $4 million in incentives, that leaves another $500,000 that the 37-year-old Warner can earn with a Super Bowl victory. That would seem like money well spent. Now all the Cardinals have to do is decide how they want to handle Warner's next contract. -- Brandt
Haley called a great game for Arizona. He seemed to know exactly what defense the Eagles were going to be in. In one of the many good storylines for Super Bowl XLIII, Haley's father, Dick Haley, was the Steelers' personal director for 23 years. So Haley grew up in Pittsburgh -- and he was a ballboy for the Steelers during their Super Bowl run in the '70s.
Speaking of storylines and ties between these teams … Arizona's second touchdown -- in which Warner lateraled to J.J. Arrington, got a throwback pass and then hit Fitzgerald on a 62-yard score -- looked an awful lot like a play Pittsburgh ran in its 2005 playoff game against Cincinnati (Antwaan Randle El back to Ben Roethlisberger, to Cedrick Wilson. Of course, the offensive coordinator for Pittsburgh in that game was Arizona's current head coach, Ken Whisenhunt. The offensive line coach was Russ Grimm, Whisenhunt's assistant head coach.
Fitzgerald is only the sixth player with three TD catches in a conference title game. The last to do it was Preston Pearson for the Dallas Cowboys in 1975. Fitzgerald also set a record for most receiving yards in his first three playoff games -- 419 yards; the old record was 391 by Anthony Carter of the Vikings in 1987 -- and he tied a record for most consecutive 100-yard receiving games in the playoffs (shared by Tom Fears, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice).
This game marked only the fourth time since 1985 that the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked NFL defenses met in a conference title game. In those three previous matchups, the winning teams scored 21 or more points.
Baltimore won the opening toss and deferred, hoping to get the wind in the fourth quarter, but the strong wind that was expected never came.
How tough were the two defenses? In the first quarter, both teams had four series of downs. The Steelers managed two field goals to take a 6-0 lead. The Ravens, in their first drive, passed three times and went no-huddle twice, but it didn't fool Pittsburgh. It took the Ravens five series and 17 minutes to get their first first down.
Both quarterbacks completed less than 50 percent of their passes. Neither team gained more than 73 yards rushing -- the combined average per carry was under 2.4 yards.
In most playoff games, one or two big plays can be the difference between winning and losing. The Steelers had the two biggest plays of the game: The broken pass play in which Roethlisberger scrambled out of the pocket and found Santonio Holmes, who busted loose for a 65-yard touchdown; and Troy Polamalu's 40-yard interception return that all but sealed the game with 4:29 to play.
But the game might have come down to an unnecessary roughness penalty on a punt return. After the Ravens scored to move within 16-14, Baltimore's defense capitalized on the momentum and shut down Pittsburgh's ensuing drive, forcing a punt that Jim Leonhard returned to the Ravens' 39. But Baltimore's Daren Stone was flagged for hitting a player out of bounds. So instead of good field position, the Ravens had to start their drive at the 14. Five plays later, Joe Flacco threw the pass that Polamalu picked off for the score.