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AFC champs will need time to heal

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Whoever decided that there should be a two-week break between the NFL's conference championship games and the Super Bowl can probably expect a shipment of flowers and chocolates from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After enduring their third no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners slugfest of the season against their arch-rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers will be spending most of this week soaking in ice tubs as they turn their attention to Super Bowl XLIII and the upstart Arizona Cardinals.

With a 23-14 win in the AFC Championship game -- their third hard-fought victory over Baltimore this year -- the Steelers are one game away from becoming the first franchise to capture six Super Bowl championships.

That's a far cry from their opponents from Arizona, longtime symbols of football futility who will be making their first appearance in the Super Bowl thanks to a thrilling 32-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game.

Led by a frighteningly good defence, and a quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) with a knack for the big play, the Steelers look like a team that will be awfully tough to beat.

 

Some random observations from Championship Sunday...

 

"ö A couple of Arizona-Pittsburgh connections are likely to get plenty of airtime over the next two weeks. Larry Fitzgerald, who continued his masterful post-season with nine catches for 152 yards and three first-half touchdowns yesterday, was a college phenom for three years at the University of Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was an offensive assistant with the Steelers for six seasons, so it could be tough for him to draw up any plays that the Steelers' defensive staff hasn't seen before.

And, for the record, the teams last met in Week 4 of the 2007 season, with the Cardinals winning 21-14 in the desert. Coming off the bench to lead Arizona to victory was backup QB Kurt Warner.

 

"ö A day that featured three of the most celebrated safeties in the NFL -- Baltimore's Ed Reed, Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Philadelphia's Brian Dawkins -- also served as an introduction to many football fans of Arizona's underappreciated Adrian Wilson. Wilson, who has played his entire eight-year career with the Cardinals, led his team with seven tackles and sacked Donovan McNabb twice, including once for a forced fumble. Wilson is finally getting his due.

 

"ö To understand just how unbelievable it is that Arizona is going to the Super Bowl, consider the following: The Cardinals are the first team since the 1979 Rams to reach the Super Bowl after a nine-win regular season. They outscored opponents by a grand total of one point during the regular season, and allowed 426 points overall. The most points allowed by a Super Bowl champion was 360 by the 2006 Colts.

The smartest people in football, the Las Vegas oddsmakers, are just as perplexed. Entering every round of the playoffs, the Cardinals have had the longest odds of any team remaining to win the Super Bowl.

 

Championship Sunday Awards

"ö Offensive player of the week: Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona. Nine years after coming out of nowhere to lead the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl, Warner has pulled the same trick, at age 37, with the Cardinals. Except for a shaky third quarter, while the Eagles were mounting their comeback, Warner flawlessly avoided the Philadelphia blitz. He finished 21-of-28 for 279 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. He completed passes to nine receivers (including himself, on a batted ball that ricocheted into his arms) and only one throw was in any danger of being intercepted.

"ö Defensive player of the week: Troy Polamalu, FS, Pittsburgh. With less than five minutes remaining, the Ravens still had a chance to drive for a potential game-winning field goal until Polamalu intercepted Joe Flacco and returned it 40 yards for a clinching touchdown. The Pittsburgh defence made Flacco look like a rookie for most of the evening, limiting the Ravens to 141 passing yards.

"ö Special teams players of the week: Jim Leonhard, S, Baltimore. Leonhard's 45-yard punt return in the second quarter was essentially all the offence the Ravens could muster before halftime. Starting from the Pittsburgh 17-yard line, the Ravens capitalized with a pass-interference penalty and a three-yard Willis McGahee touchdown run to narrow their deficit to 13-7. Leonhard contributed on defence as well, recovering a Willie Parker fumble and making four tackles.

avisaper@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2009 C3

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