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Five keys to winning the game
Don't drop the ball And we mean literally. Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner has a long history of coughing up the football, and Pittsburgh's nasty defense thrives on turnovers. When the Steelers get a turnover, they may be the best in the league at stepping on an opponent's throat. The Cardinals have overachieved just to get to this point and have not faced a defense this good. After all, it may be the best defense ever. Arizona has just one fumble and two interceptions in the playoffs. Its opponents? How about eight interceptions — thank you, Jake Delhomme — and four fumble recoveries for a plus-nine turnover ratio.
Another fast start, please This is the same team that gave up something like 500 yards in the first quarter against New England and trailed 47-0 in the fourth quarter. That wasn't much more than a month ago. But in the postseason, Arizona jumped on the Falcons for a 14-0 lead and raced to double-digit leads against Carolina and Philadelphia by halftime. Don't count on the Cardinals building a big lead on Pittsburgh's defense, but they can't fall behind. A big early deficit means the Steelers get to pin their ears back and make life miserable for 37-year-old Warner. And we've already covered his fumble issues.
How about running it? During the regular season, the run was to Arizona what Brussels sprouts are to, well, just about everybody. The Cardinals figure why run the ball when they've got Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin? Arizona has improved in the playoffs, but the Cardinals still rate as one of the worst running teams in the league. That throw-it-every-down mentality won't work against the best secondary in football (the numbers say arguably the best in NFL history) and a relentless front seven. Backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower need to at least give the Steelers something to think about besides destroying Warner.
NOT SO FAST, WILLIE Arizona's defense was rather charitable at times, ranking 19th overall in the NFL. But the Cardinals weren't bad against the run, allowing 110.2 yards an outing (16th in the league). While the Steelers struggled all season to get the running game going, ranking 23rd at 105.6 yards, healed-up running back Willie Parker has stepped on the accelerator in the playoffs. The best way for the Steelers to slow down Arizona's offense is to keep it off the field. If the Cardinals shut Parker down, they'll not only get the ball back, but also be able to focus on pressuring Ben Roethlisberger with a line that's been very good of late.
Time to be special You won't find many matchups in this game in which the Cardinals have a clear-cut advantage. Definitely at wide receiver, and possibly at quarterback, but Pittsburgh has the edge everywhere on defense and a big one at running back. But Arizona has a solid group of playmakers on special teams, notably returners J.J. Arrington and Steve Breaston. Arrington ranked among the league's top returners in yards per kick return and busted a 93-yarder for a touchdown. Few things swing momentum more than big special-teams plays, and the bet here is Arizona needs one to pull the upset.