I was reading on ESPN.com and saw a headline in which Jeffri Chadiha wrote that Larry Fitzgerald was an 11 on a 10-point scale. First of all, he might be right; second of all; that means that we need to play relativity with Super Bowl 43’s best playmakers. Per Carl’s suggestion, we rated the skill-position players against their peers across the NFL as the Super Bowl gets closer, but for now we’re comparing only Steelers and Cardinals. As always, we’re on a 10-point scale (no Spinal Tap or Chadiha exceptions) where 10 points is, well, Fitzgeraldian and 1 point is someone who is a possible playmaker in a remote situation. We’ve left out offensive linemen, because it’s so hard to distinguish them individually because they are meant to function as a unit.
10- Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals – No player has polished his star more in the playoffs than Fitzgerald. He was the best player on the field by two country miles in the first half of the NFC championship game, and he was nearly as good in the first two rounds. If the Cardinals are going to win the Super Bowl, Fitzgerald will have to be the guy. And if Fitzgerald has another monster game (like his 152-yard, 3 TD showstopper vs. Philly or his 166-yard masterpiece vs. Carolina), the Cardinals have a shot. He’s the ultimate gamebreaker, and I can’t wait to see what he does in the ultimate game.
9 – Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona – Warner has been outstanding in the playoffs – 66 percent completions, 257 yards passing per game, and 8 TD vs. two interceptions. If he can hold onto the ball – and that means fumbles as well as interceptions – he’ll make his share of plays against Pittsburgh. He’ll have to get rid of the ball quickly to avoid the quick and deadly Steelers rush. But Warner has proven this year and especially this postseason that he’s capable. One more big game and he becomes the only quarterback to start and win Super Bowls with two different teams.
8 – Santonio Holmes, WR, Pittsburgh – Holmes is the guy who can take the Steelers offense from good to great. He’s made big-time plays in both of the first two playoff games (the punt return vs. San Diego and the 65-yard touchdown with 40 yards of run after the catch vs. Baltimore), and had one overturned by replay. In a game where Pittsburgh may need to score some points, Holmes is their best chance for a big play.
8 (con’t) – Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh – Polamalu is the ultimate gambler on defense. He’s liable to give up a big play every once in a while, but far more often his instincts pay off. He’s tough, and he showed with his pick and score against Baltimore that he can make huge plays. The question is whether Polamalu’s swashbuckling style will pay off against the Cardinals’ high-flying offense. If the Cardinals play a lot of three-WR sets, then Polamalu will have to play a lot of coverage, and that’s not really his strength. It’ll be interested to watch and see if he can be disciplined enough to put his team in position to win.
7- Lamarr Woodley, LB, Pittsburgh – Quick quiz: What Steeler has the most sacks in the postseason? It’s Woodley, who has had two sacks in each of the last 2 games. That’s no fluke – he had 11 1/2 in the regular season. With teams focusing more on defensive player of the year James Harrison, it opens a lane for someone, and Woodley has been the guy in that lane more often than not. If he gets two more sacks, it’s a sign that the Steelers are dominating defensively.
6- Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh – It’s funny, but most of the time the Steelers can win without a big game from Roethlisberger. Even in their Super Bowl win three years ago, Big Ben wasn’t great (9-of-21, 123 yards, no TDs, 2 picks; 7 rushes for 25 yards and a touchdown). But Roethlisberger will be more important in this game, because it’s hard to see the Cardinals being held below three touchdowns. That means the Steelers will need a few big plays in the passing game to win. Roethlisberger will likely have to double his passing output in this Super Bowl if he’s going to get a second ring.
6 (con’t)- Adrian Wilson, S, Arizona – Wilson is an 8-year Cardinal and their emotional leader on defense. But even more, he’s a crushing force on D. He had two sacks vs. Philly, one of which forced a fumble. If you had to choose one guy on the Cards D to make a big play, Wilson’s the odds-on favorite.
5- Willie Parker, RB, Pittsburgh – Parker hasn’t had a great season because of assorted injuries, but Fast Willie still has some ability to change a game. (You might not remember, but he has the longest TD run in Super Bowl history, a 75-yarder against the Seahawks three years ago.) Parker ran for 146 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers in the playoffs but couldn’t get going against the Ravens. Still, it wouldn’t be a shock if he broke free for a long run or two against the Cardinals.
5 (con’t) – Anquan Boldin, WR, Arizona – Boldin’s sore hamstring pulls him down this list, but we saw against Atlanta how devastating he can be. He’s a dependable move-the-chains guy who has good run-after-the-catch ability. But will the YAC come with his hamstring hurting? It’s hard to predict this. But the guy who came back from a broken face after just three weeks is impossible to count out. My hunch says he’ll be an important part of Arizona’s Super Bowl plan, hurting hammy or not.
5 (con’t) – James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh – Harrison earned defensive player of the year hardware with his 16-sack regular season, and he’s added one more in the postseason. Woodley has been the hotter linebacker lately, but in Dick LeBeau’s defense it’s more about your opportunities than about your totals. If Harrison gets free, then he’ll be dangerous. But the guess here is that the Cardinals, who had a good plan against the Eagles’ blitz, will have a plan at least for Harrison in this game.
4- Edgerrin James, RB, Arizona – James got just 18 carries between weeks 8 and 16, but he has had at least 16 rushing attempts in all three playoff games. He’s averaging 3.9 yards per carry and has put a spark back in the Cardinals rushing game. If he gets 16 carries for 73 yards in the Super Bowl like he did against Atlanta and Philadelphia, it’ll mean the Cardinals are in the game. He’s more of a barometer in this game than a determinant, but if James can run effectively, it will be a huge boon for the Cardinals.
4 (con’t) – Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Arizona – The rookie from Tennessee State had four interceptions in the second half of the season, and he’s had two more in the playoffs. Plus, DRC is superfast and dangerous with the ball in his hands. If he can get his hands on the ball, he could change field position or even put points on the board for Arizona.
4 (con’t) – Darnell Dockett, DT, Arizona – Dockett is the most talented guy on Arizona’s front 7. If he can create havoc, the Steelers offense could sputter. Remember that Ravens DT Haloti Ngata tore up the interior of Pittsburgh’s line last week; that means Dockett has an opportunity. He’s not the force that Ngata is – at least not consistently – but if you hear Dockett’s name often, it’s a really good harbinger for the Cardinals.
3- Tim Hightower, RB, Arizona – Hightower started out his rookie season strongly, but his performance dropped off pretty significantly later in the season. (He had 35 rushing yards or less in the last 8 games of the regular season.) But he has picked it up in the playoffs, scoring three touchdowns, and his bull-rush touchdown at the end of the Eagles game was a play no one else on the Cardinals could have made. He might have one of those kinds of plays left in him for the Super Bowl.
3 (con’t) – Antonio Smith, DE, Arizona – Smith is the one guy on Arizona’s defense whose name I’ve had to learn this postseason. He’s had 2 sacks and seems to be, along with Darnell Dockett, the most consistent source of pressure. The Steelers’ offensive line isn’t that sturdy against the pass, so Smith is a guy to watch.
3 (con’t) – Aaron Smith, DE, Pittsburgh – Smith, along with NT Casey Hampton, is the anchor of Pittsburgh’s defense. If he can have a top-notch game, the Steelers can snuff out the Cardinals’ running game. And if that happens, the Steelers will be in good position to pin back their ears, blitz, and create havoc (and turnovers). Smith’s numbers won’t be huge, but he could play a huge role.
2- Karlos Dansby, LB, Arizona – Dansby is the Cardinals’s leading tackler, but he’s not that likely to make a game-changing play. Still, with the Steelers’ rushing emphasis, Dansby will have to be filling the hole all game long if the Cardinals are to have the ball enough to have a chance.
1- Neil Rackers, PK, Arizona – He’s on here for one reason: He has a big leg. He had a long field goal of 54 yards this year and has made 16 from 50-plus over the last five years. If a long field goal is necessary, Rackers is far more likely to provide it than Pittsburgh’s Jeff Reed.