One team is feared; the other is doubted.
One champion is respected; the other is ridiculed.
One hopes to become the first team to win six Super Bowls; the other has not won an NFL championship in 61 years.
Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals are heading to Tampa Bay from different directions. And history will probably suggest this matchup is among the most lopsided the Super Bowl has seen.
But history ain't got a perfect track record.
Once, the Patriots looked unbeatable. Until they were beaten. Once, the Rams had the greatest show on turf. Until they didn't. Once, the NFL was far superior to the AFL. Until Joe Namath proved otherwise.
So do not assume you know the score. The Steelers are the early favorite (61/2 points), will be the midweek favorite, and will remain the favorite right through Jennifer Hudson's final note of the national anthem. But something magical has been going on in Arizona this month, and it may just survive the trip across the country.
The obvious, and perfectly legitimate, plot line is the difference in the ways the teams play. The Steelers are a shot-and-a-beer kind of team, just like their town. The Cardinals are more the wine-and-cheese type, not unlike the Valley of the Sun. Pittsburgh had the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL. Arizona had the No. 3 scoring offense.
But if you've been paying attention, there is a little more symmetry to this matchup than the styles on the field.
Two years ago this month, Bill Cowher resigned as Steelers coach, and Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator was considered a front-runner for the job. He was the guy who tutored Ben Roethlisberger when the quarterback got to Pittsburgh, and he won a Super Bowl by Cowher's side in 2005. But when the Steelers did not move quickly to promote him, he accepted another job.
That coach was Ken Whisenhunt, and the job was as Arizona's head coach. When he left, the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin to replace Cowher.
Now, two years after they did battle with their resumes, Tomlin and Whisenhunt will match wits in Super Bowl XLlll.
The Steelers and Cardinals also share more than 70 years of NFL history. Charles Bidwill, a front-office executive with the Chicago Bears, bought the Cardinals franchise in 1932. A year later, Art Rooney Sr. bought the Steelers. Seven decades later, the Bidwill and Rooney families remain in control of the teams.
And for the first time in 25 years, the big game will feature a pair of quarterbacks — Kurt Warner and Roethlisberger — who own Super Bowl rings. The last time that happened was when Jim Plunkett's Raiders defeated Joe Theismann's Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII — the first Super Bowl in Tampa.
The stories are not restricted to the teams' similarities.
There is Warner, perhaps writing his final argument for the Hall of Fame. There is Larry Fitzgerald, a rare superstar receiver who arrives without baggage or ego. There is Edgerrin James, who finally gets his Super Bowl after leaving Indianapolis one season too soon.
There is Tomlin, a one-time Bucs assistant, hoping to replace Jon Gruden as the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. There is Troy Polamalu, a gentle man playing a fierce game. There is Hines Ward, whose talent is exceeded only by his ability to annoy.
Maybe on paper the Cardinals are something of a farce — at least for a team that is playing long after the Giants, Titans and Panthers have cleaned out their lockers. I'm guessing this will not be the first time you hear them compared to the 1979 Rams as the weakest team in a Super Bowl.
Arizona had the sixth-best NFC record in the regular season. Just like Los Angeles in '79. It scored one more point than it surrendered during the regular season. The Rams outscored opponents by 14. It is the first seven-loss team to reach the Super Bowl since … the '79 Rams.
But there are differences between these Cardinals and those Rams. Arizona was on cruise control in the season's second half after wrapping up the NFC West early. Many of their losses were largely inconsequential.
And though the Rams were fairly mediocre on both sides of the ball, the Cardinals have one of the most explosive passing attacks in the NFL this season.
The beauty of the Super Bowl is that numbers do not always translate and story lines are not always followed. In the past seven Super Bowls, the underdog has won three times.
So do not assume you have it all figured out. Sit back and let the Super Bowl come to you.