Beating the Book
By Christopher Liss
RotoWire Managing Editor
We had a good conference title week, picking the Cardinals outright in a high-scoring contest and getting pretty close on the exact score of the Steelers-Ravens (We had 23-10, the actual score was 23-14). But while some of you bet the league championship games, everyone bets the Super Bowl, so the pick below probably carries more weight (in dollars wagered) than the rest of the playoffs combined.
Super Bowl XLIII
Cardinals +7 vs. Steelers
The Cardinals were the longest of long shots even to be here, clocking in at 40 to 1 before the start of the playoffs. That was hardly better than the 45 to 1 they rated before the start of the season! But like the New York Giants last year, the Cardinals playoff performance matters far more than what they did in September through December. And it was impressive as they handled a game Falcons team in the Wild Card round, then absolutely pounded the second-seeded Panthers in Carolina before outlasing a sound Eagles team at home two weeks ago. We wouldn't say it was quite the degree of difficulty the Giants had last year with three road games, including two against 13-3 teams, but it was far harder than Pittsburgh's road which consisted in rematches against the only two playoff teams they beat. In fact, Pittsburgh was 5-0 against the Ravens and Chargers this season and 0-4 against the other playoff teams they faced (Giants, Eagles, Colts and Titans).
But just as you can't fault the Cardinals for the good fortune of playing in the NFC West, you can't fault the Steelers for the luck of the draw. And the Ravens were still a pretty tough team, arguably on par with any of those the Cardinals faced even if they were beaten up after the war with Tennessee. So what we're left with in this year of great parity is one team that peaked at the right time versus a consistently good (but not great) one for which things fell perfectly into place.
By this point, the matchup has been broken down just about everywhere - for two good examples, go here and also here. What's not in dispute is that Pittsburgh's defense was statistically one of the better ones of all time, allowing just 5.4 yards per passing attempt and 13.9 points per game. Perhaps I'm oversimplying here, but I cannot ever recall an elite defensive team not covering the spread in the Super Bowl - at least since I was following football in the mid-to-late '70s.
The last elite defense (I consider last year's Giants elite from the start of the playoffs on, but let's not use that as an example because it's controversial and wasn't the case during the regular season) to play in the Super Bowl was the 2002 Bucs, and despite being underdogs, they covered and won easily. We backed the Bucs that year using the same rationale.
Before that, it was the 2000 Ravens, who regrettably did the same to the Giants, and prior to that, the 1990 Giants beat a ridiculously stacked Bills' team that had beaten the 12-4 Raiders in the AFC title game 51-3. In fact, going back to the 1980s, the better defensive team almost always won and covered from the 1986 Giants, to the 1985 Bears, to the 1984 49ers who smoked one of the greatest offensive teams in league history, the Dan Marino-led 1984 Dolphins.
So we'll leave it to others to break down the finer points and the individual matchups - we're going to back the team with the first-rate defense and not look back. It's too bad because Kurt Warner and the Cardinals are a far more compelling story. But we expect Pittsburgh to roll. Lay the wood.
Steelers 31 - 14
We were 2-0 in the Conference Championship games to put us at 5-5 for the playoffs. We were 124-122-10 on the regular season. From 1999-2007, we were 1184-1018 - not including ties - (53.8 percent).
Article first appeared 1/28/09