- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Face facts, football fans. How often do you ever get the Super Bowl you really want? A year ago, a lot of folks were rooting for a Patriots-Cowboys rematch, but they wound up with Pats-Giants instead. A couple of years earlier, the prospect of a Colts-Seahawks matchup had people smacking their lips - especially when Indianapolis was 13-0 and flirting with perfection - but we had to settle for half a loaf again (Seattle vs. wild-card Pittsburgh).

The longer the season - and longer the postseason - the more chance parity has to rear its ugly head. Get hot in December or in the playoffs and you’ve got as good a chance to go to the Super Bowl as any top seed. Sometimes the regular season seems like a warmup exercise instead of a 17-week bloodletting - particularly this year, what with the 9-7 Cardinals brushing aside the rest of the NFC field en route to Tampa.

The Cardinals reaching the Super Bowl is like Colorado reaching the World Series in ‘07. Remember? On Sept. 15, the Rockies were 76-72, barely above .500; then they won 21 of their next 22 to earn a rendezvous with the Red Sox (who flattened them like a runaway Coors truck).

So let’s not be calling Kurt Warner and his mates Cinder Fellas - or anything of the sort. George Mason making the Final Four is Cinderella. The Cards are more like Cinderella’s not-nearly-as-hot stepsisters. After all, they suffered losses this season by scores of 56-35, 48-20 and 47-7, the last in their next-to-last scrimmage. They made the playoffs only because, like George Mason, they played in a mid-major conference (the NFC West, which had only one winning team).

Sorry if I’m not all swept up in the romance of the Cardinals. Getting to host the NFC title game because you were the strongest of the weakest - that is, the strongest club in the weakest division in the league - is just another example of NFL socialism run amok. The only way it could be worse is if the Cards had done this last year, when the Super Bowl was played in their own stadium. (Then they would have had to name Karl Marx the referee - or at least let him toss the coin.)

OK, enough goofing around because the Super Bowl is really what you make of it. Besides, how often do we truly get a Match Made In Heaven? The last one was probably six seasons ago, when Jon Gruden’s new team (the Bucs) played his old team (the Raiders). And that game, of course, which featured as many touchdowns by the Tampa Bay defense as by the Oakland offense (three), was a snooze by halftime.

What usually happens is what happened in the 1998 season, when we were deprived of a Super Bowl between Denver (14-2 in the regular season) and Minnesota (15-1) because the Vikings’ Gary Anderson chose the NFC championship game to miss his only field goal attempt of the year.

Not that there aren’t plenty of things to look forward to in this Super Bowl. America is going to love getting to know Mike Tomlin - the Steelers’ thoughtful, straight-talking coach - a little better. How many coaches have ever mentioned Robert Frost in their postgame remarks after winning a conference championship? Tomlin did Sunday, saying he had just told his team not to get too satisfied with itself because “we’ve got miles to go before we sleep.”

The Steelers’ defense, meanwhile, is frighteningly good. The Cardinals’ receivers would be wise not to linger in the middle of the field, lest Ryan Clark do to them what he did to the Ravens’ Willis McGahee (or earlier in the season to the Patriots’ Wes Welker). Pittsburgh, as Michael Irvin might say, is No. 1 in the AFC and No. 1 in the UFC.

Then there’s Larry Fitzgerald, who’s ahead of Jerry Rice’s pace at this age (25) by a mere 201 catches, 1,811 yards and two touchdowns. Now that Fitzgerald is finally getting to play in games of consequence, he’s looking like an amalgam of Rice, Paul Warfield and John Stallworth. (He could also turn out to be the most famous No. 11 since Norm Van Brocklin - not that there’s much competition for that distinction.)

Lastly, what better story is there in the NFL this year than Kurt Warner? Throwing to Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston has made Kurt young again. It still doesn’t seem possible that a quarterback could go to two Super Bowls in three seasons, lose 30 of his next 43 starts (starting with the loss to the Patriots in SB XXXVI), ride three different benches and wind up in the Roman Numeral Game again at 37. Hopefully he can explain it to us next week.

It’s the Super Bowl, for goodness sakes. There’s always something to get excited about. As Max Starks, the Steelers’ meat-freezer-sized offensive tackle, put it: “I’m glad we’re playing [the Cardinals] in Tampa and not in Pittsburgh… because it’s getting a little bit cold up here.”

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