In looking at the current match-up, you have essentially great offense (Cardinals) against great defense (Steelers). I will analyze both teams and then give my prediction.
The Cardinals (9-7) may be proof that a good running game is overrated. They finished dead least in the NFL in rushing yards, but more than made up for it in their passing game. They averaged over 292 yards per game, ranking second in the league. They ranked fourth in overall yardage, which means they passed way more than they ran, and it worked. A resurgent quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 4583 yards, including 1000 yards to three different receivers. And as for their much-aligned running game, they have averaged over 100 yards rushing over their three playoff games.
Another thing to keep in mind with the Cardinals is that they may have outscored their opponents by only one point during the regular season, but a closer look at the games reveals that they lost their second-to-last game of the season, which meant nothing as they had clinched their division, by 40 points to the Patriots, and got blown out two other times by a combined total of 49 points, so once we remove the outliers we see that they were a better team than their point differential indicates.
Defensively the Cardinals gave up a lot of points, 28th in the league in that category, but again, we have to consider the throwaway games mentioned above. I prefer to look at individual matchups to see how they did against strong offensive teams. Other than allowing 10 points to the 11-5 Dolphins and 13 to the Panthers two weeks ago, they have trouble against good offenses. They allowed 20 points or more in 11 of their 16 games, and were generous against the Eagles and Falcons in the playoffs as well. The Steelers are not very good offensively, ranking middle-of-the-pack or lower in all major offensive categories, which bodes well for the Cardinals, who do not stop the run or the pass particularly effectively.
The Steelers are the opposite. They are very stingy offensively. The Steel Curtain ranked first in passing yards allowed, and second in rushing yards allowed. Offensively, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a mediocre 17-15 touchdown to interception ratio. They have no running backs with 1000 yards, although to be fair, Willie Parker did rush for 146 yards against the Chargers in their previous playoff game. The team did not score a ton of points, but did not have to given that the defense allowed 13.9 points per game. Besides, they showed that when needed, they could score, getting 35 against the Chargers.
Defensively the Steelers are a force to be reckoned with. They allowed fewer than 20 points ten times this season. Having series of threes-and-out can discourage a team, and if the Cardinals get stuffed, things could get ugly fast.
This looks to be a great game because of the contrast in the teams’ styles. Although good defense usually beats good offense, the Cardinals will prevail because they have an explosive passing game that even the Steelers will have trouble keeping up with. Normally I would predict that because the Steelers know to expect the pass, they will prepare accordingly. But the Cardinals have stepped up their running game during the playoffs, and the lack of pressure will help. Pressure is what did in the Patriots (the idea that they HAD to win that game) in last year’s Super Bowl, and with Pittsburgh the favorites going for their unprecedented sixth Super Bowl win, they will fall apart, handing the Cardinals their first Super Bowl victory ever.
CARDINALS 31, STEELERS 21.
Stats info: http://www.nfl.com/teams/arizonacardinals/profile?team=ARI; http://www.nfl.com/teams/arizonacardinals/profile?team=PIT