For everyone making Super Bowl predictions, I have a couple of questions: What exactly are your predictions based on? Is there any logic or analysis behind them? Or is it all just hunch?
I’m asking because I’ve been doing Super Bowl predictions for 20 years and have written three books on professional football and countless articles on football analysis, and I can find absolutely nothing to base a prediction on for Sunday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.
Let’s start with the Steelers. They were 12-4 during the regular season, and all four losses were to playoff teams: 6-15 to the Eagles, 14-21 to the Giants, 20-24 to Indianapolis, and, in the next to the last game of the season, a rather convincing 14-31 loss to Tennessee. All four of those teams, it seems to me, are better than Pittsburgh; the Steelers were 20th in the league in points scored, and that’s not even close to mediocre. They didn’t really have an impressive win all season long, unless you count their 33-10 victory in Week 13 over the Brady-less Patriots. In the postseason they lucked out completely, not having to play the AFC’s two best teams, the Titans and the Colts.
Then why are the Steelers still standing? I have no clear answer, and I haven’t seen anyone who does.
The case of the Arizona Cardinals is even more baffling. Many are saying that they’re the worst team ever to make it to the Super Bowl, and though I am a big fan of Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald, I have to admit that this is probably true. During the regular season, Arizona scored 427 points, tied for third with the Giants, and allowed 426, which is pretty much as close to mediocrity as you can get. Their 9-7 record was just good enough to win the division – a division whose other three teams were a combined 13-35 in conference play and with a 10-26 record against the rest of the NFC West.
I haven’t done a detailed study on this, but I would guess that by any objective standard one could use, the Cardinals have the worst defensive record of any team to make it to the Big Game. On Sept 28 they gave up 56 points to the Jets; on Nov 23 they gave up 37 to the Giants; on Nov 27 it was 48 to the Eagles; on Dec 14 it was 35 to the Vikings; and in Week 16 they gave up 47 to New England and lost by 40 points. (Backup QB Matt Lineart started in that game and tanked, but he can’t be blamed for the disgraceful defensive performance.)
I hear a lot of people saying, "The Cardinals have really turned it around defensively," but what is that judgment based on? Just two playoff games – Jan 10 against the Carolina Panthers, which the Cardinals won 33-13, and Jan 18, when they beat the Eagles 33-25. But Arizona’s defense didn’t play that well against the Eagles. Philadelphia outgained them by more than 100 yards and gave up more than 400 yards running and passing to Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb. Nor did the Cardinals defense play all that well in their first postseason appearance on Jan. 3 against Atlanta, a game the Cardinals won 30-24.
That leaves only the Carolina game as an argument for this supposedly great defensive turnaround, and yes, they were very impressive in that game, crushing a Panthers team that looked to be much their superior during the regular season. (Carolina was 12-4.)
Why did they beat Carolina by 20 points? I really can’t tell you, and I haven’t found anyone who can. Let’s look at it this way: Since beating the St. Louis Rams 34-10 in Week 14, the Arizona defense has given up 165 points in six games. And for all you math majors out there – Jets fans can go smoke a cigarette while we go work this out [Editor’s note: Smoke this.] – that’s a whopping 27.5 points a game average. Just for emphasis, let me point out that over that same span the Cardinals scored just 145 points. Does anyone remember a team playing in the Super Bowl that was outscored over its previous six games by 20 points? I don’t.
Something very strange has happened in pro football, and I’m going to be honest and tell you that I haven’t figured it out. For the most part, the Super Bowl has always been like professional wrestling: what’s supposed to happen did happen. You could almost always know who was going to win by their regular season statistics. The question was usually not who was going to win but by how much. But the last Super Bowl between the Giants and Patriots was the weirdest in the game’s history.
Most pro football commentators are fond of calling the New York Jets’ 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 game "the biggest upset in Super Bowl history" — the Colts were favored by 17 to 19 points, depending upon which pundit you read. But looking back on it, it’s doubtful that the game really was an upset. The Jets, with Joe Namath at quarterback, were younger, faster and better coached. (The Colt’s coach, Don Shula, though the winningest coach in NFL history, was also the worst big-game coach in the league’s history.)
The reason analysts didn’t realize that the Jets were better was because there was no interleague play, nothing to base judgment on. But we had plenty to base judgment on in the 2007 season, and there was absolutely no question that the New England Patriots were better than the New York Giants. In fact, over the course of the regular season, the Patriots might have been the most dominant NFL team ever, outscoring their opponents by 315 points, while the Giants, who scored just 22 more points than their opponents, scarcely looked like one of the top 10 leagues in the league.
Understand, I’m a Giants fans, but by all rights they should have been thrashed by the Patriots. The only things the Giants had going for them were a better pass rush and a more creative blitz in the playoffs than they had during the regular season — but I don’t know why it would be better in the postseason.
Which brings us full circle to Super Bowl 43. If you’re looking for a Cinderella team, there are some similarities between last year’s Giants and this year’s Cardinals, but one big difference: The underdog Giants had the hot pass rush going into the playoffs. But this year it’s the favorite — the Steelers, by seven according to most oddsmakers – that is much more effective in rushing the quarterback. The Steelers ranked 2nd in the league with 51 sacks, while the Cardinals were tied for 14th with 31.
Kurt Warner is probably the most underrated quarterback ever and may be the best in the game now, Peyton Manning notwithstanding, and he has three great receivers to throw to, but absolutely nothing else about the Arizona Cardinals inspires confidence. His counterpart, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, did not have a good season, or at least playing behind the Steelers’ battered and injured blockers he didn’t look very good. But, like Warner, he already has one Super Bowl ring, and he doesn’t need to be great in order for the Steelers to win.
In a big game, you look for the things that have been constant all season, and the one constant on either team has been the Pittsburgh defense, which gave up the fewest points in the league. The Steelers’ coverage and blitz packages are designed by the dean of NFL defensive coordinators, 51-year veteran Dick LeBeau. Neither team is likely to get much on the ground (though the Steelers will make more rushing attempts, if only because that’s their style), but the game will be won by the team that plays the best pass defense, and that’s probably going to be the Steelers, who intercepted 20 passes over the season to the Cardinal’s 13. And you have to expect that LeBeau will design something that will make Warner pay a price in sacks and interceptions for the 300-plus yards he’s almost certainly going to get in the air.
No matter what happened in the playoffs, I refuse to believe that the Steelers or the Cardinals are better than the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Carolina Panthers or Indianapolis Colts, but they’re the teams in Tampa this weekend. Neither the Steelers or Cardinals are all that good, but somebody’s got to win, and in what looks to be a low scoring, mistake-filled contest, it will probably be the Steelers, 17-13. But that’s mostly a hunch.