The 2008 NFL season has but one game remaining to be played and to call this season a remarkable one would be something of an understatement.
This season featured the first 0-16 team in history (Detroit), Miami going from a 1-15 record a season ago to 11-5 and into the playoffs as a division champion and two teams directed by both rookie head coaches and quarterbacks making postseason play.
And, this season saw defending Super Bowl champion New England lose All Pro quarterback Tom Brady barely minutes in, yet still finished with a 11-5 record. That said, the Patriots became only the second 11-5 team not to make the postseason.
So it’s rather fitting that a team known for decades for its futility and lack of commitment to winning would make this season’s Super Bowl.
The Arizona Cardinals, whose last championship came more than 60 years and two cities ago, won the NFC Championship to advance to their first Super Bowl in franchise history.
That should be good news for the local economy as Las Vegas can expect a major influx of visitors from Arizona to enjoy Super Bowl weekend and the accompanying festivities. Locals are advised to make their Super Sunday plans early.
The Cardinals are just the second team since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule to make the Super Bowl with a 9-7 regular season record.
Arizona will face the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won the AFC Championship by defeating division rival Baltimore for a third time this season. The 9-point margin in Sunday’s 23-14 win was the largest of their three, but the game was not decided until Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu intercepted a Joe Flacco pass with under five minutes left and returned it for the decisive TD.
And that’s where the tremendous number of ironies surrounding Super Bowl XLIII begin.
The only previous 9-7 team to reach the Super Bowl was the 1979 Los Angeles Rams. Those Rams lost 31-19 in Super Bowl XIV to the Pittsburgh Steelers who were completing a remarkable stretch of winning four Super Bowls over a six season span.
A decade and a half later the Rams would relocate to St. Louis, replacing the team that left after the 1987 season – the now Arizona Cardinals.
Both Arizona and Pittsburgh are led by second season coaches. Mike Tomlin became just the third coach since 1969 to lead Pittsburgh following Bill Cowher’s retirement after the 2006 season. Passed over were a pair of candidates considered to be front runners for the Pittsburgh job, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. Both had been on the Steelers’ staff since 2001.
After Dennis Green was let go as head coach late in the 2006 season the Arizona job became available. The Cardinals hired Whisenhunt who brought along Grimm as his top assistant. So while Pittsburgh has more Super Bowl experience from a player standpoint, that edge is somewhat offset by the knowledge of Steelers personnel by the Arizona coaching staff.
The Steelers are making their seventh appearance in the Super Bowl, seeking their sixth title. Chuck Noll coached Pittsburgh to their first four Super Bowl Titles while Cowher won the franchise’s fifth just four seasons ago. In Super Bowl XL the Steelers defeated Seattle 21-10. Current Steeler QB Ben Roethlisberger led that Steeler team to the title so he as well as Warner will be seeking a second Super Bowl win.
In the seven seasons since realignment the four teams in the NFC West are a collective 64 games below .500 against the rest of the NFL. This past season saw the NFC West a whopping 20 games below break even.
Arizona brings a potent offense and a suspect defense to the Super Bowl. In fact, the Cardinals allowed over the course of the regular season the most points ever allowed by a Super Bowl participant, 426. For nearly a quarter century the 1983 Los Angeles Raiders held the mark of allowing 338 points.
Yet interestingly two seasons ago the Indianapolis Colts made the Super Bowl despite allowing 360 regular season points. And last season the New York Giants nearly eclipsed that total by making the Super Bowl after allowing 351 during the regular season.
Pittsburgh brings the league’s best defense into the game, a defense that allowed only one team, Tennessee, to gain more than 290 yards all season through 18 games including the playoffs. And the Titans gained just 323.
Arizona averages 365 yards on offense, gaining 425 total yards or more in six of its 19 games. So we have the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object, making for what early analysis suggests will be a most intriguing conclusion to the 2008 season.
Next week: Our predictions.