EAGLES VS. CARDINALS
When Eagles have the ball...
The Eagles beat the Giants, but they didn't turn in an offensive masterpiece. Donovan McNabb took a safety on an end zone intentional grounding (no Eagle running an underneath route?), he got picked on the outskirts of field goal range, one touchdown came at the end of a 2-yard drive and the other one, which turned out the lights, came late in the game with the Giants in desperation mode. The high points came when the Eagles afforded McNabb time to survey coverage or the Giants didn't blitz. Figure the Cardinals will see this as well and turn on their suddenly potent pass rush to get him off his spot.
When the Eagles ripped the Cardinals 48-20 on Thanksgiving, they couldn't deal with Brian Westbrook, who gained 110 yards on 22 carries and had two rushing touchdowns. If Philly wants to play it smart, it will let McNabb ease into his game by relying on Westbrook early. Three runs and out aren't nearly as damaging as a flurry of picks at the start, and that's what Eagles coach Andy Reid has to beware.
These Cardinals are going to gamble. Against Carolina, they jumped routes but Jake Delhomme did not look off receivers. On none of his five picks did Delhomme even attempt to move the defense with his eyes, staring down his intended target. Often, it wasn't the player directly covering his receiver that made the play but a Cardinals secondary player peeling off and knowing Delhomme would throw where he looked. Arizona has nothing to lose. They can play defense with abandon because A) their offense will score and B) McNabb will throw a few their way.
When Cardinals have the ball...
This is going to be an exceedingly hard matchup for the Cards because the Eagles have the best defensive coordinator in the business in Jim Johnson going against a fairly one-dimensional passing offense. Making things harder for the Cards is that Kurt Warner hates contact and will step out of throws and turn away to avoid taking head shots on his tender noggin. And the Eagles are too good in the secondary. Yes, the receiving firm of Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston is as good as it gets, but the Eagles secondary is stocked with playmakers. They aren't going to be daunted by the Cardinals wideouts even though Fitzgerald is playing better than any receiver in the NFL in these playoffs.
Unless the Eagles fall asleep at the switch, they should be able to handle the Cardinals rushing attack. With the Philly pass rush and Warner's fragility, it might not be a bad idea to get Matt Leinart some extra practice reps this week.
Both teams can play with abandon and are playing with the proverbial house money. Arizona should get a bump for home-field advantage. The vocal cords of Cards fans certainly haven't been overused in the past. The experience factor goes to Philly in a landslide. This is their fifth NFC Championship game in eight seasons.
But the pressure lands on the Eagles as well. If they lose to the Cardinals, a team they beat by 28, to blow a chance at the Super Bowl? Yeeesh. That would be Gag-tastic.
Andy Reid and Ken Whisenhunt might want to have their offensive linemen spend some time on tackling drills. This could be Pickfest '09 between two grizzled veterans who should know better but don't. Kurt Warner and Donovan McNabb are going to throw it to the wrong team at least a couple of times each. When will they do it and how far does each pick get taken back? That might be what decides who goes to the Super Bowl.
RAVENS VS. STEELERS
When Ravens have the ball...
How about pray? Love Philip Rivers or hate him, he's pretty good. And although Joe Flacco may one day be every bit the QB Rivers is, he's not there yet. So the Ravens won't be enjoying the same (relative) offensive potency the Chargers did in the divisional playoffs.
In the first meeting between these teams, Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain combined for 29 carries and 105 yards. In the second meeting, they combined for ... 29 carries and 105 yards. McClain was the more potent back in each meeting and figures again to get the bulk of the carries.
Flacco got picked twice in the second meeting of the season between these teams. Points will be at a premium so the further the Ravens get into Steelers territory, the more cautious he needs to be.
When Steelers have the ball...
Run, Willie, run. The Steelers got 146 yards from Willie Parker against the Chargers and that changed everything. And it will change everything in this game as well because Parker's style - speed, jump cuts and getting to the edge - are more effective against the Ravens than a plodding big back or a guy who's nifty but not fast.
Baltimore has to tackle effectively and - brilliant as Ed Reed's been - his sore shoulder is not allowing him to do that. Also, the injury to Terrell Suggs last weekend bears watching as the week wears on.
As long as Ben Roethlisberger doesn't try to play the hero and takes a sack or two instead of trying to turn chicken dung into chicken salad on doomed plays, the Black and Gold should be fine.
Pittsburgh won the previous two matchups this season - 23-20 in overtime at Heinz Field Week 4 and 13-9 in Baltimore in Week 15. This will be close. But the Steelers offense is more explosive than Baltimore's, especially with Parker back in the mix. And the Ravens were blessed with good fortune in getting past the Titans. For Baltimore to get to the Super Bowl, it's going to have to play over its head.
Saturday, Jan. 10
AFC: Baltimore 13, Tennessee OT
NFC: Arizona 33, Carolina 13
Sunday, Jan. 11
NFC: Philadelphia 23, New York Giants 11
AFC: Pittsburgh 35, San Diego 24
Sunday, Jan. 18
NFC: Philadelphia at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET, FOX
AFC: Baltimore at Pittsburgh, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Saturday, Jan. 3
NFC: (4) Arizona 30, (5) Atlanta 24
AFC: (4) San Diego 23, (5) Indianapolis 17, overtime
Sunday, Jan. 4
AFC: (6) Baltimore 27, (3) Miami 9
NFC: (6) Philadelphia 26, (3) Minnesota 14
Sunday, Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla.
AFC vs. NFC, 6 p.m. ET (NBC)