Whisenhunt's best shot in the cards for Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- Now that the Steelers have reached their second Super Bowl in the last four seasons, they will strut into Tampa, Fla., certain of what unites a team, what boosts its will and makes it a champion. They will enter the big game playing Steelers football, executing what the Steelers do -- playing physical, playing smart, peeking occasionally for the big shot, the hammer play. They will feature fundamentals, Steelers staples like blocking and tackling and ball security. They will artfully prepare to become world champions.

They will do this in order to bring a full-tilt attack against the Arizona Cardinals.

And they might as well hold up a mirror and prepare to engage themselves.

Because the Cardinals are Pittsburgh Light, a near carbon copy, the Steelers of the West, the Steelers of the desert. The Cardinals make no bones about it, no apologies.

Two seasons ago they hired Ken Whisenhunt to lead them. He has, all the way to multiple playoff victories for the first time in 61 years and to their first Super Bowl.

Whishenhunt had served three seasons as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator. He told the Cardinals he would bring his Pittsburgh upbringing to Arizona. The Cardinals welcomed it. Counted on it. Whishenhunt delivered.

And now Pittsburgh can count on this: Whisenhunt will give them that extra oomph in Super Bowl XLIII. Oh, he wants a Super Bowl title desperately for his players, his organization and Cardinals fans. But he wants to stick it to the Steelers.

Remember, two season ago Steelers owner Dan Rooney was faced with the challenge of replacing coach Bill Cowher. Steelers players always assumed that Whisenhunt was the head coach in waiting. But Rooney passed over Whisenhunt for then Minnesota defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin.

Whisenhunt was disappointed, hurt.

Now he gets the Steelers in the biggest game of the season.

Rooney gets it.

"He's a great coach, a good person, I know his family," Rooney said of Wisenhunt in the Steelers' joyous locker room after they bashed Baltimore in the AFC title game on Sunday. "He's doing the job. Do I know what we're getting into here? Do I think he's extra motivated against us and me? Yeah."

No doubt. Some Steelers painted the picture even more clearly, more directly.

"Everybody thought he was the next guy, our next head coach," Steelers receiver Nate Washington said of Whisenhunt. "I'm pretty sure he's highly motivated against us beyond the normal Super Bowl motivation. I expect he'll have his guys flying. I was very happy to see him win today. He got to go somewhere else, to a place that had been struggling, and show that he could have been the guy to carry the torch from coach Cowher. He is really going to come after us. That is definitely going to happen."

His problem will be that the Steelers are the originals. The real thing.

They took the NFL's toughest schedule this season and won 12 games and the AFC North division. They whacked San Diego in the playoffs and then Baltimore, turning a 16-14 lead into a decisive 23-14 victory with a pick returned for a touchdown. The Ravens hardly knew what hit them, especially since their defense had been doing the scoring in this postseason.

Whisenhunt knows the Steelers. He knows all about them.

He has fashioned his team in Arizona in their likeness, especially now with the Cardinals' revitalized running game. And he has given them that noticeable, late-season spice that so many NFC champions have presented in recent years.

For much of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the NFC champion seemed to always rotate between Washington, Dallas, San Francisco, Green Bay and the New York Giants. Those teams formed the core of the NFC's best. The door for others was relatively shut.

Then as we entered this decade, St. Louis cracked through with a couple of Super Bowl trips over three years.

These, however, are the NFC champions since the 2002 season: Tampa Bay, Carolina, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, the New York Giants and now Arizona. Surprise entrants all around. Some, like these Cardinals, out of the blue. Or red, in the Cardinals' case.

We have a Super Bowl where both quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers and Kurt Warner of the Cardinals) have already won championship rings. We have a matchup of powerful receivers and swift, full-of-punch defenses. Exceptional kickers all around. Imaginative teams on both sides of the ball.

It is the Steelers. It is the Cardinals.

They are related.

This game will have that cat-and-mouse element of which party knows the other best, which one can identify and exploit weaknesses it intricately knows and which can turn familiarity, kinship, into an advantage.

"Coach Whisenhunt must have been upset the way it went down here and I'm sure he knew he was going to be a good head coach wherever he landed," Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes said. "He will definitely pull out all of the tricks. He'll be on us. We'll be on him."

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