The cliché “Cinderella team” is used too often in sports to describe a team that surprises many people by their success or come from behind efforts. George Mason during the 2006 Final Four and the Tampa Bay Rays in last October’s World Series are teams that have received this tag in recent years. It is hard to believe that only four weeks the Cardinals were underdogs at home against the Atlanta Falcons going in to Wild Card weekend; they are far from a team that came out of the middle of nowhere and go deep in the playoffs. While their success has been unexpected, it is far from a historic run. After all the Cardinals were 7-3 at one point during the season and were seen as a potential Super Bowl dark horse. They have a high scoring offense lead by MVP candidate Kurt Warner, two Pro Bowl receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, in addition to four time Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James. They won their first division title since 1975, at that time they were playing in St.Louis at Busch Stadium.
Their 9-7 seemed unconvincing after they won 2 of their last 6 regular season games, including a 48-20 loss on Thanksgiving in Philadelphia and a 47-7 beating from the New England Patriots during a snowy Week 16 game in Foxborough. Even after their 30-24 win against the Falcons for only their third playoff win in franchise history, their chances seemed dim at winning again for this season. They won their next game 33-13 in Charlotte against the Panthers, after surrendering a touchdown to Panthers running back Deangelo Williams on the game’s the opening drive. They scored 24 points in the first half of the NFC title game against Philadelphia, including 3 touchdowns from Larry Fitzgerald. While the offense lit up the score board early, they almost blew an 18 point halftime lead to the Eagles in the fourth quarter. Warner was able to lead his team back from 25-24 deficit and in doing so the Cardinals became the first 9-7 team to make the Big Game since the 1979 Los Angeles Rams. Those Rams lost 31-19 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV. That same franchise will be the Cardinal’s opponent this Sunday. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a 7 point favorite and their will likely be more Terrible Towels in Raymond James Stadium than red and white. However, no doubt should be given to the Cardinals based on their success in the last three games. In their three playoff wins the Cardinals showed how potent their offense can be, but they also proved their dense won’t be a hindrance on their Super Bowl chances.
Pittsburgh showed during their first 18 games why their favored by a touchdown. They still have 15 starters from their team that won the Super Bowl three years ago. Their defense led by defensive player of the year James Harrison and All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu led the league in countless defensive categories, and is clearly a level above the Cardinal’s defense. It’s also being raved as possibly the best Pittsburgh defense ever. They will likely give Kurt Warner problems all day, but I have a hard time comparing them to the 1970’s version Steel Curtain that had four Hall of Fame players. However the defense is on par to teams that won recent Super Bowls with strong defenses such as the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A “Cinderella” team gets by on luck, some lackluster play from their favored opponents, and is still viewed as having no chance heading in to their next game. Going in to last year’s Super Bowl the New York Giants were seen as a team that filled that description. The 18-0 New England Patriots were 12 points favorites and there was little doubt they would become the first unbeaten NFL team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. New York upset Tom Brady’s team 17-14, in what may be the biggest upset in Super Bowl history. It completed a run of “Cinderella” proportions because they beat a team that was being hyped as the best ever. That was similar to North Carolina State beating Houston’s Phi Slama Jama team in the 1983 Final Four or the Texas Longhorns beating the USC Trojans in the 2006 Rose Bowl. If the Cardinals win Sunday it will only be an upset from the perspective of the greater Pittsburgh area and the odds makers, not in the context of David vs. Goliath.