I don't want to say that last week took forever, but I've had more fun dropping by my local DMV office without an appointment.
Listening to a book on tape read by the robotic "Please take the ticket" voice at a parking ramp is more exciting.
Dick Cheney's wheelchair moved faster than last week, but such is the strange dynamic of a two-week pause before the Super Bowl. It creates a limbo, a strange free-falling sensation as we all watch the season hurtle toward its final collision, then suddenly stop to sneak a smoke in the alley.
I don't get it. Beyond the horrible glimpse this pause gives us of the next six football-free months, my primary gripe is seeing the momentum of an entire NFL season break stride. Look, the gaping, empty maw that is the offseason is a mere week away. How about the teams just suck it up, cram all that game planning and all those player treatments into one week like they have all season, and get it on?!
But no, we get a bonus week of ... nothingness.
Practices are closed, no one talks, secrets don't shake loose.
Why do you think so many other teams use this week to announce hirings and firings? They can't disrupt our focus on the game because there's nothing to focus on! We might as well laugh at the balls of Rod "0-16" Marinelli addressing the Detroit press as "ladies" because it's the only thing on the radar!
I take consolation in the fact that many of you did the right thing and filled the void by making Paul Blart, Mall Cop the No. 1 movie in America. I thank you for it, and I also remind you that it's even more delightful and nuanced the second, third and fourth time around, so don't be a quitter!
That being said, we made it through, and here we are, on the precipice of a week filled with uncomfortable moments at Media Day and the shadowy promise of player peccadillos in Tampa after midnight. Coaches have had enough time to overthink everything, players have had some time to let the enormity of the game fester and wreak havoc during all this idle time, and as of Sunday, the circus officially is within the city limits. Oh yeah, and then they actually play a game! And this year's edition offers a clash of styles, to put it mildly. I mean, have there ever been two Super Bowl combatants with such disparate cultures?
Oh, to be born a Pittsburgh Steelers fan -– how sweet it is. The Steelers officially are the best organization in the history of the NFL, and that's that. No other team has seen more generations of its players and coaches find a way to get to more Super Bowls and win more of 'em while never threatening their loyal fan base by hanging the relocation Sword of Damocles over their heads, like other smaller-market teams do. As a Buffalo Bills fan, I can only dream of a world in which the team I live for isn't perpetually linked with every new stadium proposal in Los Angeles. Class, baby, and the Steelers always seem to do it with the same philosophy -– grow your own talent and be physical on both sides of the ball.
Then you have the Arizona Cardinals, a team heretofore so inept and hopeless that you couldn't help wondering if they built their stadium on an ancient Indian burial ground. Actually, make that burial grounds, plural, because the Cardinals are one of the NFL's original franchises, dating to the 1920s, but they have moved around more than a journeyman defensive line coach. Like the Steelers, the Cardinals have been family-owned and operated for decades, but that's where the similarities end. Bidwill is a name that has long been associated with the worst owners in sports.
So how, after years of bad moves, did the Cardinals change their prolific mojo? Simple: They finally got smart and hired some Steelers guys. That's right: After missing the mark with big-name coaches past their prime, the magic started when the Cardinals said "yes" to Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, two guys who took a gut punch when the Steelers passed them over for Mike Tomlin as head coach. Handing Whisenhunt and Grimm the keys to all that under-utilized talent on Arizona's roster was like telling Rambo to put down the homemade bow and arrow and pick up an anti-aircraft launcher. They benched expensive underachievers without a second thought, got a finesse team to adopt some classic Steelers physicality and ball-hawking opportunism, and the rest is, believe it or not, history.
Perhaps the change is best summed up by a sign I saw a fan hoisting in the stands during the NFC Championship Game: "We are who we thought we were!" It was a delightful play on Dennis Green's unwitting audition for a Coors Light commercial. Yes indeed, at long last, the Cardinals didn't disappoint, they conquered. And while it might seem out of character here in the Manly House to turn our back on Steelers football, it says here that the Cardinals shock the world this Sunday in Tampa. Hey, I liked 'em against Philly, so why get off the train now?
The minute I saw the Cardinals installed as significant underdogs heading into this game, I found myself smiling. While I certainly expected it, one never knows what the evil geniuses in Vegas have up their sleeves. But they couldn't go against the grain of an eternity of public perception. We just aren't capable of seeing the Cardinals as winners –- it's too awkward, too weird. The entire concept of the Cardinals winning a Super Bowl feels like itchy wool pants on a humid day in Tampa. Then you stack 'em up against an historically elite team like the Steelers –- a team God clearly loves –- and any hope of even being competitive starts to feel like a fever dream –- and that's precisely why I like Arizona's chances. I mean, the public also liked the New England Patriots last year -- and why not?
But it goes deeper than a strong contrarian instinct. Just how beat up are the Steelers after that AFC Championship Game smackdown against the Baltimore Ravens? Normally, two weeks' rest should be enough, but doing the bumps-and-bruises math on a season when you beat each other senseless on three separate occasions, and I begin to wonder. There's no doubt a gamer like Steelers WR Hines Ward will play, but is he going to be his usual, difference-making self?
Conversely, I think Anquan Boldin will be ready to rock, and I don't care at all about that sideline dust-up with Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Dude came back and played with metal plates in his face -- Boldin is just a passionate gamer who wants the ball during crunch time. Equal props to Haley, who unflinchingly stood his ground and called the package that got the win. His play-calling has been so outrageously good, it's no surprise Haley suddenly is in the mix on the remaining head-coaching vacancies.
Needless to say, Larry Fitzgerald is the player of this postseason -– a true rarity, he's actually a bargain at $10 million per year. I mean, five straight 100-yard games and three touchdowns in the first half in the NFC Championship Game, against Asante Samuel and a superb Philly defense? What's not to like?
Toss in Steve Breaston as your third wideout, solid tight end play and a rejuvenated Edge, and the Cardinals just have too many weapons to be treated like an also-ran in this contest. Top it all off with Kurt Warner playing at the top of his game -- witness how he handled Jim Johnson's complex blitz schemes with aplomb -- and I don't care if the Steelers shut off the run (which they probably will). All that does is take the chains off Arizona's alpha game. I say dance with the crazy aerial attack that brung ya.
Much has and will be made of Whisenhunt being in grudge mode against the Steelers, but to underestimate it is a huge mistake. He knows Dick LeBeau's blitz schemes better than he knew Philly's, and more importantly, he knows their personnel intimately. All you need to do is look back to Jon Gruden's better days with Tampa Bay. His Buccaneers also were significant underdogs when Gruden faced his former team in the Super Bowl, but they routed the Oakland Raiders.
It's not that I don't have love for the Steelers -– I come from a world that makes everything Pittsburgh far more relatable than the sun and fun of Arizona. I like the team, I like their stars, I love their fans -– the best sign I saw in the AFC Championship Game was hoisted behind the referee when he went under the replay hood, only to be upstaged by some classic Raven-hating: "You're still from Cleveland, and you still suck!" I just like the smell of what Arizona is cookin' up in the playoffs, after running what now looks to have been vanilla, "don't tip your hand" preseason schemes for the last three weeks of the regular schedule.
No way this game is a rout, and I think Tomlin has done everything possible to make his hiring look equally brilliant. I'm just seeing a close game, and an exciting one. Hey, both quarterbacks already have won Super Bowls, so I don't think we're going to see any Jake Delhomme-style, five-interception meltdowns. On the other hand, in his two previous Super Bowls, Warner has posted a passer rating that quadruples Ben Roethlisberger's ugly single-game rating in the 20s. Then again, there's no way the Cardinals have played anyone this tough and physical this season. Arizona must play a perfect game –- if it falls behind early, it's gonna get ugly; I think the first quarter tells the tale here. Then again, who else do you want chasing a 21-point deficit? Again, what's not to love?
Final score: Arizona 31, Pittsburgh 27