Sunday, 3 p.m. ET
Philadelphia @ Arizona
This matchup seems impossible and improbable. If you would have looked at it before the season and for years when asked who your sleeper team was this year that didn't make it last year, the answer to that was Arizona for the last 3-4 years. And then they didn't do it so you would say they are the same old Arizona. And the year you say they're the same old Arizona it won't be them... they win their division. Then being in the playoffs is one thing but how about having home field for the NFC Championship Game, who would have thought that one?
For Arizona I think you have to go back to Kurt Warner. There was a time where he was the best and then it looked like he slipped. Then it looked like maybe he lost it and it looked like maybe he was just going to be a back-up down there in Arizona until his career just finished. Then he comes and starts to play and then he is playing competitively and then he is playing very well and he looks like he is playing championship football again. That along with getting a little running game going and the defense playing a little better. And Larry Fitzgerald is something special, whatever Kurt Warner throws him he seems to catch. Those are a whole lot of parts coming together but the biggest one of those parts has to be Kurt Warner.
I know what Jim Johnson is going to do. He is going to rush Kurt Warner and make him throw the ball before he is really ready to and not let him get comfortable back there. Some of those passes that Larry Fitzgerald was catching back there were deep crosses and that takes a lot of time to develop. He'd start on the left side of the field and run all the way across and 15 yards deep and catch it on the right side of the field. I know when Jim Johnson sees that he says to press Kurt Warner, blitz him, get to him and again it's not always sacking the quarterback but it's not giving him time to let all those deeper pass patterns develop.
The biggest improvement on the Eagles defense is that group of linebackers and they can rush the passer, play the run, they can control the line of scrimmage. And that's been a big addition. I think Arizona has to be able to run just for that whole thing where you're not one-dimensional because if you become one-dimensional then it's going to be tough against these guys. They'll give you coverage and show you one thing and blitz from the other side. They are just going to confuse you and make it hard so the Cardinals have to be able to run and I think sometimes run on second down and maybe throw a little more on first down. And if it's incomplete come back and run on second down. That's the type of running I think they have to have. I don't know that Arizona will run well enough that Philadelphia would have to commit that eighth man to the box to stop the run.
The big thing for the Arizona defense is to play very aggressively and get the turnovers. You look and Carolina was the better team, but they weren't last week and they weren't because they had so many turnovers and once that avalanche starts you just can't stop it. If they do the same thing and their defense plays the same way and they get the same number of turnovers they are going to beat the Eagles too. That was the big thing about their defense is that when they were playing well, playing aggressively, they were ball hawks and they were getting the ball.
If you ask what I expect to see out of Donovan McNabb this week, I see a couple of things. Any time you get to a championship game you want to name the quarterback and his favorite receiver and the greatest thing about Donovan McNabb is that he spreads the ball around. You say who is his number one guy? He doesn't have one and it really is and it's been this way for a long time. His number one receiver is the guy that is open on that play and if you get open on a play he will find you and if you are not open when he is ready to throw he will buy a little time and he'll find you later. That is the thing that they do so well that they spread the ball around. They will have five or six guys that will catch passes and that's tough to defend too. Another big thing that I always expect Donovan McNabb to do in big games, playoff games, championship games and if they get to the Super Bowl, he'll run with the ball and that's an added dimension and he could be the toughest quarterback in the NFL to get to the ground.
The Brian Westbrook factor in a game is always big and the Giants were going to have 22 eyes on him and all that stuff and I think sometimes people overreact to that which becomes an advantage to the Eagles. Like I said they spread the ball around, they throw it to a lot of guys and obviously Westbrook is one of those guys and not only out of the backfield, they'll line him up in the slot. They'll line him up outside and he's as good as their wide receivers and I think if you really overcompensate and maybe the Giants did that last week, if you overcompensate to Westbrook there's quite a few other guys that McNabb can hit.
Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET
Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
If you want to learn how to tackle or watch the way tackling used to be done or the way it should be done, watch this game because these two teams are very, very good tacklers. You may say this is the AFC Championship Game so what are you still talking about tackling for? That is the biggest thing that got them there and I think that's an art that has really diminished over the years, but these two teams are the best at it.
This Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is a better run-blocking line than a pass protection line and that's what they have to do against the Ravens. The Ravens are so good that you have to mix it up and I think one of the keys for that Pittsburgh offense could be that you pass the ball when they expect you to run and you run it when they expect you to pass because if you run when you are suppose to run. I know Rex Ryan and the Ravens defense will really gang up on the run and if you pass when you are suppose to pass they are going to have some kind of pass rush or blitz or bait you into something you don't want to do. So if you fall into that type of pattern it will just be tough for you. You can't do it on every play but you have to somehow go against that pattern.
When you look at the Steelers offense I think they have some really good matchups against this Ravens defense and the big thing is going to be getting the time to do it. Their receivers, especially on that one side, are better than the corner and they can win those matchups if they can get the time and the time isn't always going to be just the four-man rush or three-man rush. They have to get Suggs blocked obviously, but the Ravens bring those blitzes and they can't get fooled by them and they can't get a free rusher on Ben Roethlisberger. Although I was talking about McNabb being tough to get to the ground, but Big Ben is too. He just doesn't give up on plays.
For the Ravens' offense, Joe Flacco is not a rookie any more and we did a game with them earlier and just watching him you could tell after just watching for 10 minutes you were watching something special and he is and he has proven it and they are a team now. They are not just the offense, defense and the special teams, they are one now and I think that is probably the biggest thing that John Harbaugh did. Having said that I think these are the two best defenses in football and now you got a young quarterback who's done very well, a young quarterback who is really not a rookie any more going up against the best defense that he is going to see all year and that can be tough.
The challenges are kind of the same for the Ravens' offensive line. Dick LeBeau is so good at showing you one thing and doing something else. You have to be able to identify the mike linebacker, you have to be able to slide your pass protections and you have to make those decisions before the ball is snapped and then you have to get it blocked and after you make the decisions. You have to hope they are right because if you are sliding left and they are coming overload right you are going to be dead there. Those four linebackers for the Steelers are just great and they can all rush and you don't know if it's going to come from Harrison, it may come from him out there, it may come from Woodley on the left. It may come from both sides and you may think that is where it's going to come and it comes inside with Farrior or Foote so that's a very, very tough defense because of the personnel and the things that they can do plus the scheme that they use.
- John Madden, NBCSports.com