Super Bowl 43: A Mismatch?

Super Bowl 43 follows soon after the inauguration of the 43rd man to be President, Barack Hussein Obama, a symmetry of sorts. But wait, you say, Obama is President #44. No, he is not. Obama is the 43rd man to serve as President. Why should we count Grover Cleveland as both the 22nd and 24th Presidents, just because he won, lost, and then won again, in his 3 runs for the office, yet FDR counts only once as President #32, though he was elected 4 times?

In any case, the Super Bowl will be played Sunday evening in Tampa between the five time champion Pittsburgh  Steelers, and the first time Super Bowl-contending Arizona Cardinals.  It is not a match that anyone saw coming when the regular season ended. The Cardinals, even after they beat Atlanta in a first round playoff game, were  given odds of 50 to 1 to win the Super Bowl before their divisional playoff game with Carolina. Their regular season performance was hardly one to garner any respect. 

The Cardinals won the NFC West with a 9-7 record, sweeping all 6 games against conference foes.  This was not much of an achievement, given those 3 teams had a combined record of 13-35.  Against the rest of the NFL, Arizona was 3-7. For the season, the Cardinals scored 427 points, and gave up 426. That placed them 18th of 32 NFL teams in point differential with +1. That was not bad when you consider that the Cardinals' defense ranked 28th in the league, giving up more points than all but Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver. Those 4 teams combined were 12-52, not very good company for a Super Bowl team. source

Remember that defense is supposed to win football titles. The five teams with the fewest points allowed this year were:  Pittsburgh (12-4), Tennessee (13-3), Baltimore (11-5), Philadelphia (9-6-1), and the New York Giants (12-4).  Arizona scored a lot of points. In this category most points scored, the Cardinals ranked 4th in the NFL. The top 5: New Orleans (8-8), San Diego (8-8), the Giants (12-4), Arizona (9-7), and Green Bay (6-10). High powered offense seems less correlated with winning records. 

The Cardinals had some other blots on the record. They lost by 40 to New England, by 28 to Philadelphia, by 21 to the Jets, and by 21 to Minnesota (this last one at home). source  Only St. Louis (2-14), Detroit (0-16), and Oakland (5-11) had more losses by 21 or more points.  Arizona was joined by Kansas City (2-14) and Cincinnati (4-11-1) with 4 such losses.

San Diego, another team, that was belittled when the playoffs began, deserved some respect.  Their record was only 8-8, but the 8 losses were by a combined 34 points, little more than 4 points per game.  Their 8 wins were by a combined 126 points.  Had the Chargers not won their final 4 regular season games to nose out the collapsing Denver Broncos for the AFC West title, Coach Norv Turner might have been fired for his team's seeming unique ability to lose close games.  Baseball sabermetricans often attempt to project a team's wins in a season from their runs scored, and runs allowed differential.   Arizona's season stats projected to an 8-8 season.  San Diego, with the 7th highest point differential, should have been about an 11-5 team, based on how other teams with big positive differentials performed. 

With Pittsburgh  # 1 on defense in the NFL, and  5th in point differential, the Super Bowl match-up seems a test of the football equivalent of good pitching meeting (and stopping) good hitting.  The game will also feel like a home game for Pittsburgh. Steeler fans travel. In 2006, Steeler fans were more than 80% of the crowd in Detroit for Super Bowl XL, as white bread Seattle fans, terrified at the prospect of navigating through a largely black city, avoided following their team to the Super Bowl.  Arizona has been slow to warm to the Cardinals. This is, after all, the team with the worst lifetime record of any of the franchises that preceded the AFL-NFL merger (473-674-39).  One of their recent losses -- a Monday night collapse against  the Chicago Bears in 2006, led to a unique Rod Blaogjevich-like expletive deleted post game press conference by then-coach Dennis Green 

The Cardinals play better at home, and in warm weather.  They will get one of the two in the Super Bowl. In their embarrassing loss to New England in the snow in December (47-7), the Cardinals played like they could not wait to get off the field. It is inconceivable to think the Cardinals could have won in Pittsburgh in January, in front of that rabid towel waving crowd in frigid temperatures.

Pittsburgh has performed in the playoffs so far like a true smash mouth team. The game with the Ravens for the AFC title was one of the most brutal games for hard hits I have seen in years. The Ravens gave as good as they got,  but their rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, not unsurprisingly, had a very bad game.

If Arizona can put points on the board, and Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald make that a possibility, the Cardinals could keep it close (the spread is 7). Turnovers (lots of them) can allow a weaker team to win a playoff game. Evidence for this is Arizona's win over Carolina as Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme found Arizona's secondary indistinguishable from his own receivers.  I will root for the Cardinals (though I am not optimistic about their chances) since I was trained at a very young age to always root for the underdog (at least in sports). Of course, home team favorites trump this rule.

In any case, come April, we will be back to baseball. This year the Cubs are due. After all, every team is entitled to a bad century. For the football Cardinals, the misery has only been 60 years.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.