Super Bowl XLIII Preview: Arizona Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (the Redbirds are Still Vegas Underdogs)

Bid Bidwill, Ken Whisenhunt, and Rod Graves in January 2007

The Arizona Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl, and the world didn't end. Despite their myriad critics, maybe that means they belong there. Dangerous corollary for a young team: Maybe they're beginning to think they belong there.

Luckily for our historically star-crossed Redbirds, who've been thriving in the role of underdog, the oddsmakers aren't buying it. After Arizona beat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 in the NFC Championship in Glendale on Sunday, Vegas installed the Cards as early 6 1/2 point dogs to the AFC-champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII on February 1 in Tampa, Florida.

That may seem like more disrespect, but it's actually the opposite for a team that entered the regular season at 45-1 odds of making the Super Bowl. Even though Vegas can't bring itself to make Arizona the favorite, a 6.5 under to the Steelers, the best team in the NFL's best conference, is a sort of back-door duff of the hat to the Cardinals. Imagine what sort of astronomical number it would have been for a Cardinals-Steelers match-up three weeks ago, before the Cards robbed Vegas blind three weeks running with playoff upsets over the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina Panthers, and Philly.

You want astronomical? How about the odds that we would ever find anything printable to say about Cardinals owners Bill and Michael Bidwill or their lackey Rod Graves, the team's vice president for football operations, but here's credit where it's due.

Back in January 2007, when they were searching for the replacement for the calamitous Dennis Green, the Bidwills and Graves actually smacked one out of the park (we know, mixed metaphor) when they selected Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt over the other finalist, Mike  "Blah" Sherman.

Whisenhunt's history with the Steelers -- and the fact that Pittsburgh chose Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin over Whisenhunt to succeed Bill Cowher -- will be a central storyline leading up to Tampa. But the story's not so much that Pittsburgh passed on the Whiz, 'cause Tomlin rocks. And it's not that Atlanta and the Miami Dolphins also passed on Whisenhunt, 'cause both franchises returned to respectability this season under promising first-year head coaches (Mike Smith and Tony Sparano, respectively).

No, the story is that the Cardinals didn't pass. Their choice of the fearless, aggressive Whisenhunt cut against the grain of 60 years of franchise futility and dunderheadedness. The ultimate payoff came yesterday with Arizona's equivalent of "The Drive," the 14-play, 72-yard, all-the-marbles answer to Philadelphia after the Eagles had put the Cards on the ropes with that Donovan McNabb-to-DeSean Jackson 62-yard bomb.

Fourth quarter waning, down 24-25 after surrendering 19 straight points and a 24-6 lead, no momentum, shaky running game, choke-point Charlie situation of 4th-and-inches at midfield against the NFL's third-rated defense. What do you do?

Mike "Blah" Sherman would've punted the ball like it's radioactive.

Ken Whisenhunt got together with his offensive coordinator Todd Haley and called a running play for Tim Hightower.

The Arizona Cardinals go to the Big Dance, where they'll face the anti-Cardinals. Before Sunday, the Cards were one of only six teams in history never to go to a Super Bowl (the Chicago Cardinals did go to an NFL Championship in 1947 before they called the Super Bowl).

The Steelers have won five of the six Super Bowls they've played in. Pittsburgh has the top-rated defense in the NFL, and one of the top all-around players in strong safety Troy Polamalu, who iced the franchise's seventh AFC championship on Sunday with a fourth-quarter pick-six against Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. The Steelers have visionary ownership in the Rooney family, an experienced QB with a championship under his belt in Ben Roethlisberger, a solid running back in Willie Parker, and even those damnable Terrible Towels.

Troy Polamalu, a QB's worst nightmare

But Arizona has its own little piece of Pittsburgh in Whisenhunt, and we'll see if the Whiz has brought a bit of that Steeltown grit and magic with him come February 1 in Tampa. We already believe that he has.

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Clay McNear
Contact: Clay McNear