TAMPA, Fla. - Dynasty vs. doormat.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have signified success in the Super Bowl era with their stable ownership, brilliant coaching and throwback style. A victory Sunday will give them a record sixth Super Bowl title, and they are 6 1/2-point favorites to get it against the Arizona Cardinals.
Yes, those Cardinals - a franchise that has defined dysfunction since the 1950s.
If it's easy to believe the Steelers are back in the big game three years after winning one for the thumb against Seattle, it's just as difficult - nearly impossible, actually - to believe the Cardinals are providing the opposition. This is a classic yin and yang setup: the defensively miserly AFC champs against the offensively potent NFC winners. The team with the proud history against the club with the forgettable past.
As if any of that matters now.
"Legacies are something you kind of worry about after the season," Steelers All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu said.
When that season ends Sunday night, the Steelers will be judged by a commitment to excellence - sorry, Al Davis - established by the Steel Curtain teams of Chuck Noll in the 1970s and carried on through the Bill Cowher years. It is not something they can ignore, even if their coach, Mike Tomlin, has been on the job only two years and has few ties to Noll or Cowher.
Indeed, when they look around Raymond James Stadium and see all those fans waving Terrible Towels, the players will readily accept that extra burden every Steeler has carried for decades.
"Well, there are really a lot of reasons. Success has had something to do with it," Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "The fact that they have had difficult times ... in Pittsburgh and we sort of filled the void - they could have something for their pride."
The Steelers could have something for the ring finger on the other hand after filling up five fingers following the 1974, '75, '78, '79 and 2005 seasons. They currently are tied with Dallas and San Francisco at five Super Bowl titles, but unlike the Cowboys and 49ers of late, the Steelers (14-4) have been regulars in the postseason.
Which is something the Cardinals could only have dreamed of. Since moving to Arizona in 1988, they've had two winning seasons. In 1997, they were a wild-card qualifier and beat Dallas in the playoffs, which merely was the franchise's second postseason victory. Ever.
The other came in the 1947 NFL championship game, and the Cardinals didn't even host a playoff contest again until last month's wild-card win over Atlanta.
They followed with victories over Carolina and Philadelphia, all as underdogs, to surpass their all-time postseason victory total - and shockingly get into the Super Bowl.
A wonderful story, with only one acceptable ending for the Cardinals (12-7).
"Nobody remembers the Super Bowl loser," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "I don't believe in losing.
"We are definitely the underdogs. We all play with the underdog mentality. Once we got in the playoffs and we realized were going to be the underdogs no matter what or who we played, we thought we would shock the world.
"One more step."
But any steps forward against Pittsburgh's league-leading defense come with a price. The Steelers allowed the fewest points (223) and ranked first in nearly every defensive category, led by Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and James Farrior at linebacker, Polamalu in the secondary, and the brilliant coordinating of Dick LeBeau. When Tomlin, steeped in the 4-3 defensive alignment, was hired, he wisely didn't toy with Pittsburgh's 3-4 setup, and he gave LeBeau all kinds of leeway.
The result is a unit as fearsome as any previous Steel Curtain, even if LeBeau downplays the dominance.
"We try to level the field a little bit for your guys, that's all," he said. "We're always going to be a stimulus-response type of situation, but hopefully by moving and bringing some different people in different combinations, we can deter some of the things they want to do."
They've done it to everyone else this season; the Cardinals certainly can expect a dose of that punishing D.
"I think the biggest thing about the Steelers that you're concerned with, especially from a defensive standpoint, is just all the different looks that they give you," said quarterback Kurt Warner, whose reclamation story - from two-time league MVP and 2000 Super Bowl champion to retread to star - is unique for the Cardinals. "It's going to be key for us to understand, to watch film, and to be able to recognize.
"They're going to throw things at us that we've never seen before with all their playmakers and all the different guys they can move around. Our recognition of what they're doing, where they're coming from, who we're blocking, who are the free guys, I think that's going to be a huge key come Sunday evening on how much success we have."
Of course, Warner isn't exactly operating without support. All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald already has a postseason-record 419 yards receiving and five TDs. He has been uncoverable throughout the playoffs.
If Warner gets time, he and Fitzgerald could swing matters in Arizona's favor.
The Cardinal most responsible for getting that duo to click is coach Ken Whisenhunt, who was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers during their last Super Bowl run. He was passed over for Tomlin two years ago, making for yet another juicy story line.
"I'm sure coach Whis will have some insight into what we do," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
And some extra motivation to beat his old team?
"I had a great mentor in coach Cowher as far as how you handle a team and how you deal with a lot of the things that go with it," Whisenhunt acknowledged this week.
Hey, if you're going to start building a new dynasty, if doesn't hurt to learn lessons from the old one.