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Original Issue

XLIII Forecast: Card Party!

Believe it—Arizona's football fantasy will culminate in a Super Bowl championship

WHILE THE partying in the Valley of the Sun lasted into the wee hours of Monday morning, Larry Fitzgerald was kicking back at home in suburban Phoenix and sidestepping questions about his nine-catch, 152-yard, three-touchdown performance. "It's not the time to reflect," said the fifth-year pro from Pitt, who has turned this season's playoffs into a personal showcase. "The time to reflect is after the season is over, and I've still got one game left, against the Steelers. The Cardinals signed me [four-year, $40 million deal last March] to play well, and I just feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."

Fitzgerald opened the playoffs with six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons, then had eight receptions for 166 yards and a TD against the Panthers. In the NFC Championship Game he shredded the Eagles' secondary as few receivers have, setting an NFL playoff record with three TD catches in a half before finishing with nine catches for 152 yards. His 419 total receiving yards are already 11 more than the previous postseason record, set by the 49ers' Jerry Rice in 1989, but Fitzgerald will look to advance that mark against a Pittsburgh defense that ranked No. 1 in total defense, pass defense and fewest points allowed.

Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley's play-calling the last three games has been shrewd. He's mixed formations, changed the tempo and put Fitzgerald out wide, in the slot and in motion. The Cardinals are averaging nearly 32 points a game in the playoffs, up from 26.7 in the regular season; the Steelers are allowing 19.

The Pittsburgh defense held the Ravens to 141 passing yards in the AFC title game and the Chargers' Philip Rivers to 136 through three quarters the week before. Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau doesn't rely on press coverage in his 3--4 zone blitz scheme, but allowing Fitzgerald to release off the line without a defender in his face is a prescription for defeat. Fitzgerald is aware of that, which is why he wanted to get his rest on Sunday night. There were tapes to break down the following morning. "My work," Fitzgerald said, "is not done."

The Steelers will be seeking a record sixth Super Bowl title in seven tries when they take the field in Tampa on Feb. 1. The Cardinals entered the season with two playoff wins in franchise history. Riding the red-hot Fitzgerald, they'll get their fourth of this postseason alone when they pull off their biggest shocker yet.




FINALLY In Tampa, Fitzgerald & Co. will finish the job.