In 2004, the good folks of the Keystone State dreamt of an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl, only to have New England foil the scenario with a win at Pittsburgh in the AFC championship.
Four seasons later, Pennsylvanians can dream about a Pittsburgh Steelers-Philadelphia Eagles matchup in Super Bowl XLIII after each team's divisional playoff win Sunday put them in next weekend's conference title games. Both teams are early betting favorites, but before the mayors of those cities can bet a case of Iron City against a box of cheese steaks, here are some issues to consider as the Steelers play host to the Ravens and the Eagles travel to Arizona to decide who will play for the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 1.
Can the Steelers pull off the three-peat?
How many times will somebody stupidly say, "It's hard for one team to beat another three times in one season?" That's one of the most roundly held, yet mistaken, clichés in the history of the league. There have been 18 situations since 1970 in which a team has attempted to complete a three-game season sweep, 11 resulting in three-peats. Why the high success rate? As former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe once said, "It usually means that team is better."
Will Baltimore's health issues finally become too much to overcome?
Baltimore's defense started to show some holes in the game against Tennessee, allowing the Titans to roll up 391 yards. Some of the problem was field position, but the Titans hurt the Ravens with a combination of crossing routes and outsides runs, even by anti-speedster LenDale White. A big problem for the Ravens is cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Fabian Washington were both hurt during the game. Rolle barely finished the game and barely could walk afterward because of groin and ankle injuries.
Can Flacco solve the Steelers defense?
Although the Ravens lost the first two games by a combined seven points, it was the performance of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco which held them back most. Flacco was a combined 27-of-59 for 307 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He was also sacked seven times, fumbled three times and lost one of those. His turnovers proved costly in both games. While the Ravens have nothing to complain about considering that Flacco is a rookie, he's the one guy who hasn't been ready for this matchup.
Is the Pittsburgh offense for real?
The Steelers' victory over San Diego on Sunday was a blueprint of how they play at their best. They had the running game going (165 total yards, including 146 by Willie Parker) and they used the deep-passing game effectively. As impressive as that was, however, it's the most points they have scored in a game since Oct. 19 against Cincinnati and the Steelers were pretty much awful with the running game (ranking 23rd) during the regular season. If Parker is as healthy as he looked Sunday, the Steelers could roll.
Is this game really the de facto Super Bowl
Can the winner start designing their Super Bowl rings right away? That was the popular sentiment last season when New England beat San Diego to set up the game against the Giants and we all saw how that turned out. Expect that the winner of this game will be the favorite and expect that the Steelers will have a lot of money riding on them if they get to the Super Bowl. But all you have to do is look back at Philadelphia's 15-6 win over the Steelers on Sept. 21 to realize this could be an interesting Super Bowl. The Eagles finished with nine sacks (including one of Byron Leftwich) and simply punished Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that day.
Pick: Pittsburgh 20, Baltimore 10
Will location make a difference?
On Thanksgiving night in Philadelphia, the Eagles hammered Arizona 48-20 in a game that was essentially over by halftime. This game will be in Arizona, where the Cardinals have gone 7-2 this season. However, Arizona has allowed 20 or more points in six of their past seven home games. The Cardinals committed four turnovers in that game, including three interceptions by Kurt Warner. The switch west should help Warner.
Will the Eagles blitz Warner or sit in coverage?
Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is one of the most aggressive men in his profession. He loves to blitz and he has an undersized defense that's built to do just that. However, he also has the type of coverage unit that can hang with the talented Cardinals receiving corps. Plus, blitzing Warner can be dangerous because of his quick release.
Who's the biggest impact player left in the playoffs?
Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook and Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald are clearly the best players left at their respective position. Westbrook must be accounted for by any opposing defense, but Fitzgerald basically carried the Cardinals in their win at Carolina. Fitzgerald's ability to run routes, make tough catches and run after the catch is amazing. The only receiver left in this who can give him a run for his money at receiver is teammate Anquan Boldin, who's nursing a hamstring injury and sat out against Carolina.
Will the Arizona defense show up again?
The Cardinals have forced nine turnovers in their two postseason victories. That's a stark contrast to the defense's performances in embarrassing losses to four playoff-caliber teams during the regular season – including the contest at Philly. Arizona allowed four scoring drives of 10 plays or longer in the first three quarters and allowed the Eagles to convert 10 of 15 third downs. That contributed heavily to the Eagles running 80 plays compared to the Cardinals' 49.
Who deserves this victory more?
Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb and Arizona owner Bill Bidwill have suffered through plenty of scrutiny and/or misfortune. Few quarterbacks have been criticized as heavily as McNabb, who is arguably the best player in Eagles history as he leads the team to his fifth NFC championship game appearance. Likewise, the 77-year-old Bidwill is the face of inept ownership and the main reason why the Cardinals haven't won a title since 1947. A victory next Sunday will give both guys a chance to rewrite some significant franchise history Feb. 1.
Pick: Philadelphia 31, Arizona 21
- the Steelers
- Super Bowl