Training Camp Questions – NFC West

Arizona Cardinals

Can the Cardinals avoid the Super Bowl loser hangover that has happened consistently this decade? (7 of 8 teams that lost the Super Bowl missed the playoffs the year, except the 2006 Seahawks)

Now that Edgerrin James has left town, will rookie Beanie Wells or 2nd-year player Tim Hightower be the Cardinals featured running back and how many carries a game will they get?

How will new coordinators Russ Grim and Bill Davis do at leading their respective units after both former coordinators left town for Kansas City Chiefs after the Super Bowl?

Will Bill Davis’ defensive unit, particularly his secondary, improve on the 426 points that they allowed in 2008?

After receiving his 2-year, $24 Million contract, does quarterback Kurt Warner have another big season in him at almost age 40?

San Francisco 49ers

Who will the Niners starting quarterback be (Alex Smith, Shaun Hill, or Damon Huard) and are any of them capable of leading the team to the playoffs?

Was last year’s season-ending 5-2 push led by new head coach Mike Singletary proof that the Niners have turned the corner back to respectability?

Given the tough demeanor of head coach Mike Singletary, do you think that his message will sink-in with young players like tight end Vernon Davis, WR Michael Crabtree, and others?

When will WR Michael Crabtree sign with the Niners and will the heralded rookie from Texas Tech have a Marques Colston type rookie year (led team in receptions and had over 1,000 yards receiving)?

Will the addition of players like veteran DB Dre Bly and three new defensive rookies from the draft help defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s unit improve upon their sack (30 in ’08) and points allowed (381) numbers?

Seattle Seahawks

How healthy is quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (back) and will he be able to return to his 2005 Super Bowl form?

What will be the overall impact of new head coach Jim Mora Jr and his staff taking over from Mike Holmgren?

Are the Seahawks really going to spread carries between TJ Duckett, Julius Jones, and Justin Forsett or will one of the backs emerge as the featured ball carrier?

How healthy is DE Patrick Kerney and can the Mora and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley breathe new life into the Seahawks defense?

What will the addition of former Bengals receiver TJ Houshmanzadeh mean to the Seahawks receiving core and are holdovers Nate Burrelson and Deion Branch healthy?

St. Louis Rams

How will the hiring of former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo change the culture of a Rams team that has not had a winning season since 2003?

After not playing to expectations from a huge contract, does quarterback Marc Bulger still have enough to be a quality starting quarterback in the NFL?

After barely gaining 1,000 yards in 2008 is running back Steven Jackson ready for a comeback season?

With receiver Torry Holt moving on to the Jaguars which receiver out of veteran Ronald Curry and youngsters Donald Avery and Laurent will become the Rams featured receiver?

What is going on with the Rams ownership group and is it possible that current owner Chip Rosenbloom will sell and/or relocate the team?

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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The Steelers Win One for Their Second Hand: Pittsburgh defeats Arizona 27-23 in Super Bowl XLIII

(Tampa, FL) – From beginning to end the NFL’s 89th season titled “Believe In Now” has been one big rollercoaster ride where you never knew the next twist or turn and Super Bowl XLIII followed that same pattern.  The Instant Classic game was filled with many high and lows for the Pittsburgh Steelers (15-4) and Arizona Cardinals (12-8), but in the end the Lombardi Trophy returned to a familiar home.  The Steelers led by young upstart head coach Mike Tomlin (Youngest Super Bowl-winning coach at age 36) won 27-23 over the scrappy Cardinals in come-from-behind fashion to take home their NFL record 6th Super Bowl Championship.  The Steelers faithful are calling the championship, “The Six Pack”, and Steelers owner Dan Rooney wrapped a bow on the historic victory by saying about the team’s expanding trophy case, “We will make room (along side their five other Lombardi Trophies)”.

Super Bowl XLIII may have started with the usual NFC winning coin toss — 12th straight season —  but the game’s finish wasn’t ho-hum.  When all is said and done, this year’s Super Bowl will rightfully take it’s place next to other Super Bowl thrillers — Super Bowl XXXVIII (Brady leads the Patriots into field goal position and Vinatieri wins the game 32-29 on a last second field goal) and last year’s Giants’ 17-14 win in Super Bowl XLII.  This year’s version of the biggest game ever — second most watch Super Bowl with 95.4 Million viewers — excitingly came down to the final minutes with the climatic closing events coming to a crescendo as the Steelers had to find a “way” to get it done after the Cardinals, who had trailed for the majority of the game, improbably took a 23-20 lead on a lightning fast 64-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald with 2:37 remaining.  On the play, Warner hit All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald in stride over the middle and the former University of Pittsburgh star raced untouched into the endzone.  When the Pittsburgh Steelers’ backs were against the wall, surprisingly it was’nt their storied No. 1 ranked defense, but the unlikely offensive tandem of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (ride-along-ring in Super Bowl XL after a less than spectacular performance) and receiver Santonio Holmes (had been deactivated earlier in 2008, because he didn’t get it according to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin) who answered the call for one of the NFL’s most proud franchises.  Roethlisberger culminated a 78-yard hurry-up drive by finding Holmes with a 6-yard scoring pass in the right corner of the endzone through a sea of hands of three Cardinals defenders for the game-winner. Holmes punctuated the moment by making an NFL Films highlight worthy catch where the former Ohio State star just got his two feet down before falling out of bounds.  Roethlisberger said of the Steelers magical last drive, “I said it’s now or never, I told the guys all the film study you put in doesn’t matter unless you do it now”. Big Ben added, “I’m really proud of the way they responded.”

For his efforts of 9 catches for 131 yards and the game-winning touchdown catch, Holmes was named the Super Bowl XLIII Most Valuable Player. Holmes said of his MVP performance, “Great players step up in big-time games to make plays”. However the confetti never flew until all 60 minutes were had been played just as Steelers head coach Tomlin had preached all season long.  In the end the Steelers 60-minute family’s defense closed the game when athletic young linebacker Lamarr Woodley forced a Kurt Warner fumble as he was dropping back to attempt a desperation pass and the Steelers defense made the crucial recovery with five seconds to go.  When the game was over, Tomlin in accepting the Lombardi trophy characterized the Steelers hard-fought victory best by saying, “It’s 60 minutes, Steeler football is never going to be pretty.  Throw out the style points.”  The dramatic ending definitely overshadowed a game where the Steelers seemed to be in control for the most part despite settling for field goals.  Tomlin’s team led at the end of the first quarter by a score of 3 to nothing plus they kept the ball for 11:28 in the quarter and outgained the Cardinals 140 yards to 13 yards, increased their lead to (17-7) in the second quarter, and kept rolling over the Cardinals in the 3rd quarter (20-7).  But to the Cardinals credit especially veteran quarterback Warner, they would not go quietly into the dark night.  The Cardinals fought back with a 16-point fourth quarter to take the lead as Warner and Fitzgerald (no catches until the third quarter) woke-up to produce to two touchdowns.  Warner had one of the greatest quarters in Super Bowl history, completing 14 of 19 passes for 224 yards in the frenetic 4th quarter. He also set an NFL record with 1,147 yards passing in this postseason, and his 11 touchdown passes tied the mark set by Joe Montana in 1989.

Warner however maybe remembered most in this Super Bowl lore for a score he didn’t get.  In the closing minutes of the second quarter, the Cardinals’ defense came up with a big play as Bryan Robinson tipped a Roethlisberger pass into the air and Karlos Dansby snagged it at the Pittsburgh 34. From there, Warner methodically moved the Cardinals to the Steelers’ 1-yard line, but with the score at 10-7 and the Cardinals threatening, the Steelers’ Steel Curtain reemerged just in time.  In a play that will be right up there next to the David Tyree miracle catch from Super Bowl XLII, Steelers linebacker James Harrison, the defensive player of the year, stepped in front of Anquan Boldin at the goal line and picked off a Warner’s pass.  The catch was good, but Harrison’s runback will live in Super Bowl replays forever as the Pro Bowl linebacker went down the right sideline behind a convoy of Steelers blockers to run 100 yards including bulling passed Fitzgerald into the endzone as the first half expired.  The play was reviewed for several minutes as Harrison and several other exhausted players needed oxygen.  But Super Bowl history had been made as Harrison moved passed Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return for Green Bay in 1997 as the historic game’s longest play.

The longest play in Super Bowl history and the many other magical moments from Super Bowl XLIII surely would have brought a tear to Steelers’ patriarch the late Art Rooney.  “The Chief” would have loved that his team stuck together through a season where they played the toughest schedule in football and came out with the Lombardi Trophy.  Tomlin said of the gut-wrenching momentum shifts, “There’s going to be ebb and flow. Let’s face it, Arizona is a great team. I take my hat off to those guys, players and coaches, administrators. This is what the Super Bowl is supposed to be about. It was, and hopefully the fans of football enjoyed it.”  Raymond James Stadium was a Steelers’ Terrible Towel paradise as Big Ben and Holmes came of age in a must-see moment.  The Steelers, founded in 1933, once again represented their blue collar City of Steel with honor and now they stand alone with their “Six Pack” of Super Bowl Championships.  The black-and-gold’s sixth title took the full 60 minutes of the game to secure, but “The Chief” and Steelers’ nation would not have it any other way.  Steelers defensive leader linebacker James Farrior said of the Super Bowl victory, “Number one, baby, in the world – [there isn’t a] better feeling. We were out here all day, 60 minutes. We were out there 60 minutes.” Offensive leader receiver Hines Ward added, “We never doubted ourselves, not for a second. We stayed the course. We knew we needed a field goal. Santonio Holmes really made a name for himself today. This is all what we were preaching about today. All in all, we are the Super Bowl champions for the second time in four years.” Enjoy your championship Pittsburgh, your classy organization deserves it as your team as been run the right way for over 75 years.

Definitely congratulations are in order to the Steelers players, coaches, front office, and staff.  Special kudos must also go to the architects of this team, head coach Mike Tomlin, Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, Pro Personnel Coordinator Doug Whaley and their staffs.  Lastly to the Rooney family (owners since the early years of the NFL in the 1930’s), you and your team did the NFL proud by winning the Steelers’ way with persistence, grit, and determination.

 Lloyd’s Leftovers

  • I thought the pre-game tribute to the “Miracle on the Hudson” crew from US Airways Flight 1549 that crashed into the Hudson River Jan. 15 in New York was extremely classy.
  • You have to hand it to singer Jennifer Hudson for doing a great job with the national anthem – made her first public appearance since the shooting tragedy that killed her mother, brother and nephew. Hudson’s rendition was strong and not overly drawn out like some past artists – BTW: Hudson went over the 2-minute pro bet length (2:15). Also kudos need to go to Faith Hill for rendition of America the Beautiful.
  • Everyone always wants to know the commercials that I liked and didn’t like. I just found it amazing that in our tough economy, about 28 advertisers bought a record $206 million dollars’ worth of commercial time at a record $3 million per 30-second spot. My number one has to be the “Free Doritos” ad (I would love to have a crystal ball like that) followed closely by the Bridgestone Tires’ “Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head” spot. Some stinkers I thought were the Conan O’Brien “Swedish Bud Light” commercial and Go Daddy’s “Nerds wishing to see Danica Patrick in the shower”.
  • The game was the third most-watched program in American television history, after the 106 million people who watched the M*A*S*H series finale in 1983 and the 97.4 million who watched the New York Giants end the New England Patriots’ bid for an undefeated 19-0 season last year.
  • I thought the officiating crew was a bit too whistle-happy with 18 penalties for 162 yards called in the game. The most egregious call being the phantom “Roughing the Passer” penalty call on Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby in the 3rd quarter.
  • 12 minutes of baby boomer Bruce Springsteen and his E-Street band at halftime was more than enough. If anything, I would have rather seen more of Matt Lauer’s interview with President Obama. In the interview President Obama gave out mutual love to Steelers owner Dan Rooney for his support and appealed for a college football playoff again.

Now that Super Bowl XLIII is over, I can take a quick break.  Like most people my NFL season ends with the Super Bowl, because I don’t pay much attention to the Pro Bowl.  But the NFL Combine (later in February) and the NFL Draft (in April — only 82 days away with the Detroit Lions currently on the clock) will be he before we know it.

 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

Super Bowl XLIII Preview

(Tampa, FL) – – The 2008 NFL season themed, “Believe In Now”, will finish it’s oh-too-fast season with Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals take center stage in the biggest game in sports. It will be interesting to see if Super Bowl XLIII ends the ’08 season with a bang or a blowout, which seems to have happened way too much in Super Bowl history.  No matter how the Super Bowl ends, the 2008 NFL Season should be titled, “One Crazy Season”.  I don’t think anyone’s crystal ball registered the Cardinals against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII way back in September — remember I picked the Colts over the Saints. But this is the match-up that the parity-laden National Football League has handed us for February 1st and I for one am excited to see this improbable match-up even if the time-honored tradition of Super Bowl hype is not overly surrounding this game. 

Once the Conference Championships games were completed with the Steelers 23-14 win over the Baltimore Ravens and the Cardinals 32-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, everyone through their disappointment of a non-marquee match-up tried to come up with a catchy Don King-esque box office selling theme for Super Bowl XLIII.  Some slogans that I have heard bantered about have been “Tradition vs. New Kid on the Block”, “Model NFL Franchise vs. A Glorified Arena Football Team”, “The Haves vs. The Have Nots”, “Stability vs. Nomads”, “History Book vs. Storybook”, “Rich Man-Poor Man”, and the very harsh “Perennial Winners vs. Perennial Losers” — BTW: Whatever happened to great titles like the “Thrilla in Manila” and the “Rumble in the Jungle”.   All of the current themes that I have pointed out all touch on the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the NFL’s most revered and respected franchises and the lowly Cardinals are not.  The Steelers going back to their inception in 1933 were built by the late Art Rooney, one of the original patriarchs of the NFL, to be franchise as tough as the blue collar City of Steel that they represent and now they are aiming to become the first NFL team in history to win six Super Bowl titles, which the Steelers’ Black-and-Gold nation is already calling “The Six Pack”.  The Steelers all-time record is 520-488-20 with a postseason record 30-19 in forty-nine games and they will be making their seventh Super Bowl appearance, second most all-time behind the Cowboys’ eight.

While Steelers’ are draped in tradition, the poor Cardinals have notoriously been a punch-line to many NFL jokes going back to their days in Chicago when they played second-fiddle to George Halas’ Chicago Bears.  The Cardinals, established in 1920 as one of the NFL’s first teams, have a forgettable all-time record of 473-674-39 with a 5-5 playoff record and two distant NFL Championships in 1925 and 1947.  But the times have changed, just ask big Cardinals fan John McCain who lost to upstart newly sworn-in President Barack Obama.  The new young upstart Arizona Cardinals, who are on their third franchise home, have an NFL-high 674 franchise losses — if you can believe it the Cardinals have 105 more losses than the lowly Detroit Lions — and have not won a championship in over 60 years (never been to a Super Bowl or Conference Championship until now) are in the Super Bowl. Ironically the Cardinals will be led in Super Bowl XLIII by former Steelers’ Super Bowl XL offensive coordinator turned Cardinals’ head coach Ken Whisenhunt and bunch of players and coaches with Pittsburgh roots (former University of Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald, stellar Pittsburgh high school star receiver Steve Breaston, O-line coach and former Steelers assistant Russ Grimm, special teams ace Sean Morey and others).  The Cardinals will be looking to start a new franchise chapter by putting their tradition-less rancid days– remember players like quarterback Stoney Case and defensive stalwart Eric Swann playing games at half-empty Sun Devil Stadium — behind them by kicking the storied Steelers’ butts.  I know a lot of people are already counting the seven-point underdog Cardinals out, but redemption maybe theirs as their Bible-toting quarterback Kurt Warner would say.  Speaking of Warner, with his third Super Bowl his chances of going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame have been bolstered.

Warner said of his possible Hall of Fame legacy being cemented with a win in Super Bowl XLIII, “My approach is hoping that every player that I’ve played with, every place that I’ve been, that in some way, shape or form, I leave my stamp on those people and those places, that’s what I want my legacy to be. The football stuff, that’s all gravy.”

So enough already with the continually beaten same-old-tired story that many are selling that one team belongs here and the other is just lucky.  I believe like many Steelers players, who vividly remember last season’s Week 4 loss to the Cardinals by the score 21-14, that Whisenhunt’s team is a hungry bunch and that should be respected.  Cardinals cornerback Ralph Brown said, “We’re trying to start our tradition with one Lombardi Trophy, the Steelers are trying to add to their legacy, it’s exciting, two different organizational histories – what they have accomplished and what we haven’t – and where we’re at now.” Remember that anything that could happen has happened in this crazy 2008 season where “Any Given Sunday” has rung true week in and week out.  Forget franchise histories, Super Bowl XLIII should have the moniker, “The Battle of Pittsburgh vs. Pittsburgh West”.  Plain and simple it is a match-up of one team that has studied the success model of one of the NFL’s all-time best and borrowed some of it’s pieces in an attempt to beat them.  Cardinals Pro Bowl special teamer Sean Morey, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers in 2005, said of the teams similar identities, “The identity of the Pittsburgh Steelers over the past few decades has been blue-collar, smashmouth, hit-you-in-the-mouth and a really tough, physical, disciplined and smart-situational football team. They’re well-coached, and I think the identity of the Arizona Cardinals is following suit”.  The special teamer who beat the Cowboys with a blocked punt in overtime added, “The mentality and approach that Coach Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm have contributed to that”. There is also a huge revenge factor in this game as Steelers 36-year old upstart head coach Mike Tomlin was hired by Steelers owner Dan Rooney over Whisenhunt and Grimm (perceived to be the first two choices) to replace Bill Cowher back in 2007.  Make no bones about it, the upstart Arizona Cardinals should be fighting mad by virtue of people questioning their place on the NFL’s biggest stage.  If I were the Steelers, I would do as Chuck D used to rap “Don’t Believe the Hype”, because the former 9-7 Cardinals have been one of the NFL’s hottest teams since the playoffs started — since their 47-7 massacre by the Patriots in Week 16, the Cardinals have won four straight games include three in the playoffs by a score of 129 to 83. The key for both remaining teams is focusing on their precious opportunity to win a Super Bowl and forgetting everything else that has transpired in the past 20 weeks leading up to the big game.  

Lloyd’s Leftovers for Super Bowl XLIII

Being #1 Seed is not what it used to be – Remember when attaining the No. 1 seed in your conference and home field advantage used to mean something back in the day.  But in today’s parity-laden NFL there are no guarantees to Super Bowl entry and this year is no different as the Giants and Titans were out in the divisional round.  Since 1990 only 17 of 36 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl with only 8 of those teams winning it all.  The last time two No. 1 seeds faced off was in Super Bowl XXVIII (1993) with Buffalo vs. Dallas.

Not much Trash Talking at this Super Bowl – With the mutual respect between the Steelers and Cardinals there has not been the obligatory player trash talking. Remember in Super Bowl XL how then Seattle Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens made some comments about Steelers that got the dander up of then Steelers linebacker Joey Porter.  This time both teams were complimentary at media and guarded during media day interviews.  Too bad Porter is no longer on the Steelers, because he is always a good for a rousing soundbite.  Steelers’ linebacker James Farrior said of Porter’s absence, “We always loved him for that. He’s still doing it today for the Miami Dolphins, and he hasn’t changed one bit. I kind of wish we had him here to stir things up a little bit today, but we’ll do without him.”

Still watch for everyone’s favorite Super Bowl Ads – Every year one of the bigger events of the Super Bowl is watching the ads.  It was feared with the economy going south that not many companies would be buying time.  But NBC had the novel idea of selling a lot of their ads early last year. NBC sold 85% of their 30-second commercials for a record $3 million.  NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol recently said about the sold ads being sold before the economy slowed,  “That’s our saving grace right now”.  It was reported that twelve commercial spots sold for $3 million and NBC held all buyers except Budweiser, which purchases in bulk, to a price of at least $2.6 million.

Collinsworth next in line for SNF gig?? — With rumors circulating that Sunday’s broadcast could be one of John Madden’s last, NBC has already has decided if the Hall of Famer leaves that former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth would be his replacement.  Collinsworth replaced Madden for one week this season and NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol was impressed saying, “I wish I could clone Cris, I told Cris if John ever decided to retire he would be the first guy.”  Ebersol is even think of asking Madden, age 72, to take one week off each season so he can recharge.  However Ebersol indicated that there are not plans to push Madden out by saying, “I’d be devastated if (Madden) decided to stop doing (NBC Sunday Night Football”.

Steelers (14-4) Vs. Cardinals (12-7), Sunday 6:30 PM, NBC

Broadcasting Team: John Madden, Al Michaels, and Andrea Kremer (Field Reporter)

The AFC #2 seeded Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFC #4 seeded Arizona Cardinals will square off in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida and though this may have not been the match-up that everyone had hoped for, I fully expect a good game.  The big story going into Super Bowl XLIII has been two former Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks squaring off with the Cardinals led by former Rams Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner and the Steelers going with Super Bowl XL winner Ben Roethlisberger.  But the story of the game to me is a classic match-up of the Steelers NFL top-ranked defense (allowed 237.2 yards per game in the regular season) versus the Cardinals high-powered offense (scored 427 points in the regular season ranking 2nd in the NFL).   Though the usual line is “Defense Wins Championships”, you definitely have to go deeper in this match-up than to immediately dismiss the Cardinals and had the Lombardi Trophy to the Steelers.  Like any playoff game, the Super Bowl will be won or lost with keys — Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, and Limiting Penalties.  So far in the playoffs the Steelers and Cardinals have lived by the keys mentioned especially running the football with the Cardinals rediscovering Edgerrin James (NFL’s 11th All-time rusher) to go along with rookie sensation Tim Hightower (Ran the ball 29 times to only 18 for the Eagles in the NFC Championship) and the Steelers finally getting some quality running from a healthy Willie Parker (career high 146 rushing yards against the Chargers).  The two teams have also lived off turnovers, which we know are instant game turners — turnover margin has been good to the Steelers (+5) and the Cardinals (+9) in the playoffs. 

The last time the Cardinals suited it up for the NFL’s championship was December 19, 1948 in the NFL Championship Game (Eagles won 7-0 in the snow), but they are a “hot” team that has been very dangerous in the playoffs.  The Cardinals story has been unfathomable — only the second 9-win regular season team to make the Super Bowl (other team was the 1979 Rams) — as they have overcome a 3-5 road record including five blowout losses on the East Coast to win their first division title since 1975.  Led by veteran former 2-time MVP quarterback Kurt Warner, the playoffs have been a different story.   As a home underdog the Cardinals beat the Falcons 30-24 and then in probably the biggest shocker of the 2008 NFL playoffs, the Cards demoralized the No. #2 seeded Panthers 33-13 in their own stadium and they punched their Super Bowl ticket with a tough 32-25 win over the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.  In their NFC Championship game over the Eagles, the Cardinals cemented their place in Tampa with a chain-moving 72-yard, 14 play drive that took 7:52 minutes off the clock and culminated with a perfectly executed Warner 8-yard screen pass to rookie RB Tim Hightower.  The Cardinals are always looking for the big down-the-field play, so the Steelers must stay with their coverage assignments and get pressure on Warner. Conversely the Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley will need to continue to mix the run and pass to keep the Steelers attacking defense off-balance. 

The Steelers have done a great job on defense so far in the playoffs forcing six turnovers while allowing only 449 passing yards and only 38 points in two playoff games.   But Warner (401-598, 4583 yards, and 30 TDs) when given time has weapons in receivers Larry Fitzgerald (An NFL record of 419 yards receiving in the playoffs and 4 touchdowns), Anquan Boldin (Pro Bowl – hamstring), and Steve Breaston (1,000 receiving yards in ’08).  Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of covering former PITT All-American receiver Fitzgerald down the field, “Larry Fitzgerald is quite simply the best in the world down the field in one-on-one situations, if we’re going to be successful in Tampa, we need to limit the number of times we’re downfield with him one-on-one because invariably he’s going to come up with the football.”  The Steelers front seven led by Defensive MVP James Harrison (2nd in the AFC in Sacks with 16), stout nose tackle Casey Hampton, and probably the NFL’s most athletic linebacking crew (James Farrior, Larry Foote, Lamarr Woodley, and Harrison) will need to get pressure so that big play safety Troy Polamulu — against the Ravens, he had four tackles and put the Steelers in their 7th Super Bowl with his 40-yard interception touchdown return — can make another game changing play.  Pressure is everything to the Steelers and recently Woodley said about Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s attacking system, “You don’t know at the snap whether they’re rushing or not rushing. And that adds a whole other dimension to playing against a 3-4 defense. You don’t know at the snap whether that guy is rushing”. Way back in Week 4 of the 2007 season, the Steelers held the Cardinals to 225 passing yards and 1 touchdown, but Fitzgerald had a huge day catching 11 passes for 123 yards so the Steelers will need 22 eyes on him at all times.   Watch for veteran cornerbacks Ike Taylor and DeShea Townsend plus unsung free safety Ryan Clark to help Polamulu in coverage.   The one thing LeBeau (king of the zone blitz) will need to guard against is getting too blitz happy against Warner.  The 37-year old former Super Bowl MVP triggerman is very dangerous from his years with the Rams at recognizing defensive schemes and audibling when needed.  

Watch for an improving Cardinals’ “D”, who were 19th in total defense during the regular season (331.5), but have picked it up in the playoffs limiting their opponents to an average of 259.5 yards before the Eagles exploded for 454 total yards. The Cardinal defense led by perennial unknown Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson has thrived on forcing pressure and creating turnovers. The Cardinals defense has forced 12 turnovers in postseason wins against Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia, so it will imperative that they continue that trend.  The Cardinals will need to get to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been sacked an NFL high 51 times including five times in the playoffs, so that the he can’t get the ball to Hines Ward and game-changer Santonio Holmes (Punt return for a touchdown against the Chargers and a 65-yard touchdown catch against the Ravens). Wilson said of the tough task of taking on Roethlisberger, “It’s hard for us, or any defender, to bring him down, he does a great job of looking off the safety. … He’s been in that offense for quite a long time now, so we’re going to have our hands full”.  The Cardinals will also need to keep an eye on my X-factor, Steelers tight end Heath Miller, as Eagles TE Brent Celek had a career-high 10 catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC Championship against the Cardinals.

Both teams have solid special teams with the Cardinals being led by former Pro Bowl kicker Neil Rackers and their ace on all ST units Sean Morey, who is known for blocking and recovering an overtime punt against the Cowboys back in Week 6.  The Steelers will look for explosive returner Santonio Holmes to break one and for continued strong kicking by kicker Jeff Reed.

LV’s Pick: Now that all of the hype and talk around Super Bowl XLIII is almost finished our attentions can turn to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.  The Steelers have been installed as a 7-point favorite, but I truly believe that the “disrespected” Cardinals will make this a game.  I expect the Steelers to dictate the pace of the game early with efficient passing by Big Ben, hard running by Willie Parker, and their attacking defense.  But Warner and Fitzgerald will hook-up for a Super Bowl moment and they may even temporarily throw a scare into the Steelers.  But in the end, the Steelers Black-and-Gold nation will leave Tampa happy as the Steelers veterans from Super Bowl XL will step up.  The Steelers add one for their second hand and watch for Hines Ward, Heath Miller, and Troy Polamulu as the difference makers for P-Burgh. — Steelers 23, Cardinals 17 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2008 NFC Championship Game Brings Another Sad Ending for Eagles Fans

After another disappointing end to another Philadelphia Eagles season in an NFC Championship Game, I have been deluged with questions and comments from Birds fans asking, “Where Did the Eagles Go Wrong in this NFC Championship Game?”

I have broken my response to this question into sections:

1) Head Coach Andy Reid – These guys must like Hawaii in February (coaching the Pro Bowl), because once again Reid and his staff were out-coached in their biggest game of the season.  Sure the offense had a miraculous 19-point third quarter erasing an 18-point lead that they spotted the Cardinals, but the coaching staff failed to make the necessary adjustments after the half that could have helped particularly on defense.  

  • Reid continued his “Bombs Away” throw-it at all costs mentality on offense and the Eagles were never to achieve balance or sustain long drives because of this.
  • The Eagles were inside the Cardinals’ 30-yard line three times in the first half and came away with only six points
  • The Eagles were out-rushed by the Cardinals (29 rushes for 102 yards to 18 rushes for 97 yards) and the Cardinals showed how the run still means something in their game-closing 14 play, 72-yard touchdown drive where they called 9 runs and only 5 passes.
  • The Eagles passed the ball 47 times putting the ball in harm’s way too much, which led to 3 turnovers and quarterback Donovan McNabb being sacked 2 times by safety Adrian Wilson with one sack causing a fumble.
  • Not enough touches for Correll Buckhalter.  I know Buck is not the next coming of NFL legend Walter Payton, but the NFL is built around two-backs sharing the load.  Buckhalter was the forgotten man for the second week in a row in the playoffs as he only had 4 rushing opportunities gaining 21 yards.  You would think with an ailing Brian Westbrook (2 rec 26 yds, 12 rushes for 45 yds, and 1 fumble) being game-planned out of action by the Cardinals that Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mohrningwig should have called Buckhalter’s number more.  I guess you can’t blame Buckhalter, a potential free agent, looking other places for more touches.
  • Reid the “personnel evaluator”, if allowed to continue in that role, has some hard decisions to make this off-season (Buckhalter, Tra Thomas, Jon Runyan, Reggie Brown, and others).  The hope among many Eagles faithful is that Reid and the upper brass final decide to bring in a fresh face to handle talent procurement.

2) Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson and the Eagles Defense

  • The main reason that the 9-6-1 Eagles (ranked #1 in the NFC) made some noise with two playoffs wins, were not at their best in the Desert against the Cardinals (allowed 32 points and 369 yards). 
  • Johnson needed to look at how his defense demolished former Giants starter Kurt Warner and the G-Men 31-17 in the 2004 opening game to help in setting up his game plan.  In that game, the Eagles sacked old Kurt five times and produced three fumbles (recovering one) mostly from pressure from their front four.  However in this year’s NFC Championship, the Eagles blitzed too often with little results.  I guess the coaching staff and defensive members were too busy reading their press clippings, comparing them to if not saying that they were better than the 1991 Number-one-across-the-board Reggie White led defense, to make the necessary adjustments to get after Warner.  The two-time MVP quarterback and Cardinals young offensive coordinator Todd Haley were able to diagnose most of the Eagles blitzes and neutralize them by going to crossing patterns and 3-step drops.
  • In 10 offensive possession, the Cardinals scored points on half of their drives (5), were 3 for 3 in the Redzone, were a solid 6 of 13 on 3rd and 4th down plays, and had no turnovers. 
  • The quickness of the Cardinals 24 first-half points was maddening as Warner led drives with an average starting spot of the ARIZ 25 to the following results Touchdown-Punt-Touchdown-Touchdown-Field Goal.
  • The Eagles defense only had four 3-and-outs and no turnovers for the entire game as they could not get off the field, especially during the Cardinals game-closing 14-play, 72-yard, 7:52 minute scoring drive. 
  • Speaking of the Cardinals game-closing drive, it was groundhog day for the Eagles as their group looked oh too much like their 2001 version against the St. Louis Rams in the NFC Championship.  In that game too, their smallish defense wore down at the end as the Rams behind Warner and Marshall Faulk dominated the second half.  The Rams similarly closed the game mixing in runs and screens that kept the chains moving…remember the Rams 12-minute drive at the beginning of the 3rd quarter.
  • With the Cardinals going to three and four receiver sets along with Larry Fitzgerald dominating, can someone please tell me why former two-time Pro Bowl player Lito Sheppard was barely on the field.  To answer my own question, the Eagles decided that an unhappy player sulking about his contract was no longer “Good” enough to even play for them (see Jeremiah Trotter circa the 2001 NFC Championship Game or Michael Lewis circa the 2006 NFC Divisional Round loss to the Saints).  I guess Sheppard is on the fast train out of town and the team is starting their spin before the off-season hits…can someone please tell me how Barry Gardner and Mark Simoneau did at replacing Trotter.

3) The Eagles Receiving Core

  • The Eagles no-Number 1 receiving core only had 15 catches, which was only 2 more than the 13 catches that the Cardinals starting duo of Fitzgerald and Boldin put up. BTW: How great was it to watch Fitzgerald performing as a Number one (nine receptions for 152 yards and 3 TDs), making you wish the Eagles had tried harder to trade for the game-breaker last off-season.
  • The Eagles receivers had at least 4 drops that I counted.  The biggest one of course being the Kevin Curtis’ 4th down play to basically end the game, but I also have to point out Greg Lewis’ huge drop in the first half.  Can you please tell me how in the world has G-Lou – since when does he merit a nickname – hung around on the Birds roster for 6 years.  I wonder if Patriots receiver Jabar Gaffney (38 catches for 468 yards and 2 TDs in 2008) would have caught that ball as Lewis made the Eagles roster instead of him in ’07.
  • Franchise TE LJ Smith, the team’s franchise player, who Reid said was just as good as future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez on trading deadline day, had one measly catch for 5 yards.  I know it had to have burned LJ’s britches that backup Brent Celek had a career day of 10 receptions for 83 yards and 2 TDs.  I don’t know if you knew this or not, but the Eagles personnel department (i.e. Reid) decided that LJ Smith was a better pro prospect than current Cowboys four-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten in the 2003 NFL Draft.  The Birds selected their “franchise” tight end with the 61st pick (2nd round) and Witten went at pick #69 (third round).

4) Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb

  • With the game on the line and given the weapons or lack there of that McNabb had to work with, did anyone think he could tie the game with the Eagles two-minute drill.  In a microcosm of his 10-year career, McNabb’s last four throws [Basket (receiver slipped), Jackson (overthrow), Basket (threw behind receiver), and Curtis (slipped/tripped and dropped pass)] were erratic, but he also needed someone else to make a play on the receiving end.
  • Overall in his fifth NFC Championship Game (1-4 record), I don’t care what the McNabb bashers will say (missed some early throws, an interception, fumbled by getting sacked by Adrian Wilson and could not lead the Birds back in the 4th quarter), this man had a great game in the NFC Championship.  McNabb led his team back from an 18-point deficit to take the lead when it mattered and lets face it the defense let him down.  He set a career-high with 375 passing yards and was an incredible in the second-half completing 17 of 28 passes for 266-yards and 3 TDs.
  • His final numbers were 28-47, 375 yards, 3 TDs, and 31 rushing, but I guess that will not be enough for the “Haters” who want the Kevin Kolb era to begin.  To everyone yearning for another quarterback than McNabb, you better take a good look around the NFL because there are not many quarterbacks better than Big 5.  Just image what McNabb could do with some real weapons — Did you see Greg Lewis drop that potential bomb??  Hopefully in the off-season Reid will look to add someone else to compliment scrappy Kevin Curtis and improving rookie DeSean Jackson.  Whomever the team is looking to improve their receiving core, it sure will not be former 2nd round bust Reggie Brown who was in sweats in the Eagles most important game of the season.

5a) Too Many Penalties – Quality teams in the NFL usually execute well causing penalties to drop.  The Eagles definitely struggled with penalties committing 7 for 64 yards as opposed to only 3 for 15 yards for the victorious Cardinals.

5b) Eagles kicker David Akers – As like to always say, “Just a Kicker, Being a Kicker”.  I know Akers was a little snippy after the loss saying don’t blame him for the loss, but the little guy with only one job to do had a big hand in the Birds loss.  He lost his consecutive post-season field goal streak on a missed 47-yarder (dome conditions) then sent a kickoff out of bounds right before halftime setting up Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers for 3 points and his exclamation point moment was inexcusably missing a point-after, which caused the Eagles to chase a two-point conversion.

2008 Conference Championships Round: Eagles at Cardinals

NFC Championship Game Preview

Philadelphia Eagles (11-6-1) at Arizona Cardinals (11-7), Sunday, Jan. 18th, 3 p.m. ET (FOX)

Broadcast Team: Troy Aikman, Joe Buck, Pam Oliver (Sideline Reporter), and Chris Myers (Sideline Reporter)

I am dubbing this year’s NFC Championship Game, the “Why Not Us” Bowl.  If you told me back in August that the Eagles and Cardinals would be playing for the right to represent the NFC at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, I would have told you that you were nuts.  But you can stop rubbing your eyes, because indeed the improbable match-up of the 6th seeded Eagles and the 4th seeded Cardinals will take place Sunday afternoon in Glendale, Arizona for the NFC’s biggest prize — first time two teams that didn’t have double-digit wins in the regular season will face each in the Conference Championship.

Although the Eagles and Cardinals have met 103 times over the past 60 years, this will be their first playoff meeting since December 19, 1948 in the NFL Championship Game (Eagles won 7-0 in the snow).  The 60-year playoff meeting gap – longest in NFL history – is almost as incredible as these two teams meeting in an NFC Championship Game that will be the return match of their one-sided Thanksgiving night game way back in Week 13.  In that game, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb (4 touchdowns in Week 13 against the Cards) answered his critics after his benching just 4 days earlier against the Ravens by fueling a 14-point first quarter explosion that led to the Birds cruising to a 48-20 victory over the Cardinals.  I know that score was very lopsided in the Eagles’ favor leading many Philly fans to already book their Super Bowl trips to Tampa. But be cautious Birds fans as the Eagles and Cardinals are not the same teams that many (including yours truly) left for dead several times during the 2008 season. They are prime examples that anything can happen in the parity-filled NFL, especially when playoff seedings have meant zilch.

The Eagles are no strangers to playing in the NFC Championship Game — five appearances in eight seasons — but they should feel fortunate after needing several miracles to fall their way including the Oakland Raiders, yes Tom Cable’s rag-tag group, beating the favored home team Buccaneers in Week 17 just to get in the playoffs.  However since the Eagles got their new playoff lives, they have been dominant especially on defense.  Eagles’ sackman Trent Cole said of his team’s new life in the playoffs, “We had some tough times this year, but we were given new hope.”  The Birds beat the pesky Vikings 26-14 on the road and then silenced all of their naysayers by defeating the defending Super Bowl champion Giants 23-11 in the Meadowlands.  The Cardinals story is just as unfathomable as they overcame a 3-5 road record including five blowout losses on the East Coast to win their first division title since 1975.  However the Cardinals were still viewed by many as “the same old Cardinals” going into the postseason — franchise record of 473-674-39 and since the 1970 merger they were the only NFC team, until now, to not have appeared in the Championship Game.  It got so bad for the Cardinals in terms of apathy that they had trouble selling out University of Phoenix Stadium for their first home playoff game since 1947, needing two extensions to avoid NFL mandated blackout rules.  But led veteran former 2-time MVP quarterback Kurt Warner, the playoffs have been a different story.  As a home underdog the Cardinals beat the Falcons 30-24 and then in probably the biggest shocker of the 2008 NFL playoffs, the Cards demoralized the No. #2 seeded Panthers 33-13 in their own stadium.  All these playoff wins have even caused a ticket frenzy in Arizona where tickets for this weekend’s game were sold out in six minutes.

The key match-up to me is the Eagles NFC top-ranked defense (allowed 274.3 yards per game in the regular season) versus the Cardinals high-powered offense (scored 427 points in the regular season ranking 2nd in the NFL).  The Cardinals are always looking for the big down-the-field play, so the Eagles must stay with their coverage assignments and get pressure on Warner.  The Eagles have done a great job on defense so far in the playoffs forcing five turnovers while allowing only 322 passing yards and only two overall touchdowns in two playoff games.  But Warner (401-598, 4583 yards, and 30 TDs) when given time has weapons in receivers Larry Fitzgerald (166 yards and 1 TD last week versus the Panthers), Anquan Boldin (Pro Bowl – hamstring), and Steve Breaston (1,000 receiving yards in ’08). The Eagles D-line led by their stout pocket-crushing defensive tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley will need to get pressure so that sticky-fingered cornerback Asante Samuel (two picks in the playoffs) can make another game changing play.  Way back in Week 13, the Birds held Fitzgerald to only five catches for 65 yards, though he scored twice, so they will need 22 eyes on him at all times.  Watch for veteran Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins (10 tackles against the Giants) and unsung strong safety Quintin Mikell helping Samuel and Sheldon Brown over the top. 

The one thing Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will need to guard against is getting too blitz happy against Warner.   The 37-year old former Super Bowl MVP triggerman is very dangerous from his years with the Rams at recognizing defensive schemes and audibling when needed.  In Week 13, he was 11 for 19 with three touchdowns when the Eagles blitzed him.  Cole, Darren Howard, and the rest of the D-line rotation will need to threaten Warner’s ball security in the pocket at all times — Warner is ranked 19th all-time with 91 career fumbles.  I am sure the Cardinals will leave a tight end and/or a running back in to max-protect against the Eagles sack happy bunch, but the Eagles must find a way to hit the veteran signal caller multiple times.  Speaking of running backs, the Eagles will also need to account for a rejuvenated Edgerrin James.  The NFL’s 11th ranked all-time leading rusher has resurfaced in the last 3 games and has been a very important piece to Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt having balance in his offensive attack.

On offense, the Eagles need to get running back Brian Westbrook going early and often.  B-West had a career day versus the Cardinals in Week 13 rushing for 110 yards on 22 carries and scoring a career-high four touchdowns — two rushing and two receiving.  Luckily for the Birds they have gotten the ball in great field position the last couple of weeks especially against the Giants, but don’t expect them to have so many short-field situations.  It will be up to the Eagles O-line to improve upon Westbrook’s low numbers of 74 yards on 38 carries so far in the playoffs including a 18 rushes for 36 yards last week against the G-Men.  I am sure after a week where he didn’t practice much, Westbrook (knee) will be ready to have a huge impact in this must-win game — there has even been whispers that Pro Bowl road-grader Shawn “Big Kid” Andrews (back) maybe activated for the game.  If the Eagles can get Westbrook going (25 touches) then the other pieces on offense (WR Kevin Curtis, TE Brent Celek, RB Correll Buckhalter, and WR DeSean Jackson) will be able to help out McNabb.  To say the least this is a career moment for McNabb (345-571, 3916 yards, and 23 TDs).  McNabb has been in Philly for 10 years and his fifth NFC Championship Game will provide an opportunity for him to cement his legacy in Philadelphia.  Though a perennial winning quarterback (respectable 9-5 playoff record and with a win can become the eighth QB to record 10 playoff wins), McNabb has been a huge lightning rod through the years and this game can either silence is critics for good or give them more ammunition to run him out of town.

Early on the match-up between the Eagles offense — scored 45 touchdowns in the regular season — against Cardinals defense looked like a mismatch.  But the Cardinals, who were 19th in total defense during the regular season (331.5 yards per game), have picked it up in the playoffs limiting their opponents to an average of 259.5 yards.  Each week in the playoffs the Cardinals defensive unit led by Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson, speedy linebacker Karlos Dansby, and veteran D-lineman Bertrand Berry has stepped.  Arizona held Atlanta’s Michael Turner, the No. 2 rusher during the regular season, to 42 yards and Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams, the league’s No. 3 rusher, to 63 yards. Plus they forced Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme into six turnovers last week (5 INTs and 1 fumble) and Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s unit has forced nine turnovers overall in the playoffs.  The Eagles will need to keep an eye on Cardinals speedy high-energy defensive end Travis LaBoy.

I am sure special teams will also factor in the game, but with the ideal conditions at University of Phoenix stadium expect another strong day by Rory Segrest’s unit.  Last week kicker David Akers came through with three field goals and a huge tackle on a key kickoff, so you know he is ready again.  The confident kicker is on a roll and has made an NFL record 18 straight postseason field goals.  The Birds also need rookie DeSean Jackson to break one like he did in the Vikings game.

LV‘s Pick: I know several Eagles fans may have already chalked this one up given the Birds success against the Cards in Week 13.  But I am sure the home underdog Cardinals (4 points), who are 7-2 at home this season, will be fighting mad as they attempt to wipe away many years of futility.  However the Eagles’ veteran nucleus of Reid, McNabb, Westbrook, Akers, Dawkins, and others will not let maybe their last opportunity at an elusive Super Bowl ring slip away.  The game will be close, but in the end the Eagles go to their third Super Bowl fueled by their defense continuing to get turnovers at key moments in the game and David Akers supplying the game-winning field goal.  Eagles 27, Cardinals 24

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2008 NFL Playoffs: Conference Championships Round

(Philadelphia, Pa) — The Conference Championships of the 89th NFL Season, titled “Believe In Now”, are upon us and for the final four teams (Steelers, Ravens, Eagles, and Cardinals) it is now or never in order to achieve their goal of playing in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, FL.  The 2008 NFL Season has truly been a wild rollercoaster type affair, where not even the best prognosticators could have seen the many ups, downs, and strange twists that have flipped the script on NFL history.  But the key for the four remaining teams is focusing on their precious opportunity to move-on to the Super Bowl and everything else that has transpired in the past 18 weeks doesn’t matter anymore.  As Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb recently said about his team trying to achieve their goal of making the Super Bowl, “We’ve got another week of work”.

After a divisional round where both #1 Seeds (Giants and Titans) were easily vanquished, the Conference Championships have been left with a #2 Seed (Pittsburgh), #4 Seed (Cardinals), and two #6 Seeds (Eagles and Ravens) to fight it out for a ticket to Tampa.  For the first time since 1997 there will be no #1 Seeds in the Super Bowl additionally two number six seeds playing in this round is NFL history.  I have heard arguments on both sides regarding whether “parity” is helping or hurting the NFL.  Of course I grew-up on perennial Super Bowl contenders like the Steelers, Dolphins, Niners, Cowboys, and Raiders bullying the rest of the teams with road to the Super Bowl running through these prestigious franchises.  But I have to admit I am a fan of the kinder “Anything Can Happen” version of the NFL rather than the ’70s and ’80s Super Team model.  C’mon you have to admit that it is pretty cool that the Cardinals and Eagles, two teams that were left for dead entering the playoffs, will play for the coveted NFC crown. 

BTW: Both championship games (Ravens at Steelers and Eagles at Cardinals) are rematches, so you know familiarity may lead to most important game-changer turnovers.

Some Lloyd’s Leftovers from Championship Sunday include:

Several Hot Teams are left – Over and over we say that it does matter how you start in the NFL, but how you finish.  This has never been more prevalent than this season as since the midseason, Arizona has won six of their last 10; Baltimore has won 8 of 10; Philadelphia has won 6 and tied one in their last 10; and the Steelers have won 7 of 10. 

Good Quarterback Play is the key this time of the year – We know that quarterbacks get too much praise for wins and too much blame for losses.  But this time of the year, the quarterbacks have to protect the football and be efficient. I hate to pile on Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, but his six turnovers were the major reason the Panthers had significant trouble in the divisional round.  This year’s final four QB’s includes 3 former Super Bowl participants (Kurt Warner, Donovan McNabb, and Ben Roethlisberger) and rookie Joe Flacco (first rookie to win two playoff games).  The four quarterbacks remaining have been very good at not turning the ball over (only 3 INTs by the group last week) and they will need to continue that trend against a several tough defenses.

Road Warrior Teams in the playoffs – For years, teams fought to get home-field advantage in hopes that they would have an easier road to the Super Bowl.  However the 2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants showed that teams can get it done in hostile environments on the road to Super Bowl titles.  This year is following the aforementioned model as through the first two rounds, road teams have won 5 of 8 games tying 2005 for most road wins since the NFL went to 12 playoff teams in 1990.

Instant Replay for University of Phoenix Stadium – Sunday will mark the second time in NFL history that a stadium – Arizona’s University of Phoenix Stadium – has hosted a conference championship game the year after hosting a Super Bowl (Miami’s Orange Bowl did with the 1971 AFC Championship after Super Bowl V).

Defenses coming to play – It has been said through out NFL history that defense wins championships and this year is no different.  The conference championship round will feature the Top 3 ranked defenses – Steelers (237.2 yards per game), Ravens (261.1), and Eagles (274.3).  The Cardinals, who were 19th in total defense during the regular season (331.5), have picked it up in the playoffs limiting their opponents to an average of 259.5 yards.

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2008 NFL Playoffs – Divisional Round Review

(Philadelphia, Pa) — The second leg of the long treacherous road to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa is in the books and this year’s divisional playoff games delivered high drama along with continuing the trend that the 2008 NFL Season has indeed been one wacky season.  The 2008 Divisional round’s theme may have been “Let’s Do It Again” as there were four rematches, but the results from the exciting games were nowhere near a re-run.  The Cardinals and Ravens turned the tables on their foes after regular season losses and the Eagles proved that every season is different as they vanquished the defending Super Bowl champion Giants into the off-season with a strong road victory — three out of last four years the Super Bowl champ was sent home in the divisional round.

Given that all four home teams were favored in the divisional playoffs, after a crazy wildcard round where are all four road teams were given the edge, you figured sanity would reappear – going into this divisional weekend, above 75% of teams with a bye in the wildcard round won in the NFL Divisional Playoffs since 1990.  However holding to form that anything is possible in this topsy-turvy parity filled league, three road teams walked into hostile environments and gained victories (Cardinals over Panthers, Eagles over Giants, and Ravens over Titans).  I guess the only real non-surprise is that the Pittsburgh Steelers continued to dominate in the divisional round of the playoffs by beating the Chargers — entering the game, the Steelers were 10-2 at home in the divisional playoffs.  But given the NFL’s uncertain environment where being a high playoff seed doesn’t seem to mean much lately, you have to commend the Steelers organization for defeating a dangerous repeat opponent in Heinz Field.

I must admit that I was glued to my television on Saturday and Sunday as the divisional round was very enjoyable — even if I went 2-2 on my picks (had the AFC side correct).  The games showed that persistence, defense, and protecting the ball are the football keys to moving on in the playoffs.  The operative phrase is “Moving On”, because winning the battle on the stat sheet means nothing as getting “W’s” is all that matters in the NFL playoffs.  Surprising all four teams that scored first this weekend lost, showing that the good teams like a good boxer shake off early blows to deliver knockout punches later on in victorious bouts.  The winning teams in the divisional round persistence was led by their defenses as pressure limited scoring opportunities and caused turnovers.  The Cardinals formerly lowly defense joined he high-ranking Steelers, Ravens, and Eagles in capitalizing on turnovers and limiting their opponent’s scoring opportunities in wins — all of the winning teams caused at least 2 turnovers including the Cardinals forcing an amazing six against the Panthers.

What will happen next in the Conference Round???? Who knows as the NFL continues one wacky season.  Early on I thought that I had a clue who was playoff ready by subscribing to the old-school philosophy that home-field advantage still meant something — think Super Teams like the ’70s Steelers, ’80s Niners, ’90s Cowboys, and ’00s Patriots winning at home during their Super Bowl-winning runs.  However with several top seeds falling by the wayside, including both #1 seeds this weekend — No number #1’s in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1997 — times have changed.  This year’s teams are following the “Road Warrior” mentality of recent past Super Bowl champions (2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants) as their blueprint for success.  The script has been flipped as the lower seeded playoffs teams have turned their “Us Against the World” lockerrooms into thought to be unfathomable wins. Next up is the Conference Round with the unlikely pairing of the NFC’s Number #4 seeded Arizona Cardinals hosting the #6 Philadelphia Eagles (first time ever two non double digit win teams will oppose each other in the conference round) and the AFC’s Number #2 seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, the lone remaining high-seed, hosting the #6 seeded Baltimore Ravens.  So right now going into next week’s games, expect the unexpected as teams try to continue to buck the odds in hopes of joining the ’05 Steelers and ’07 Giants, going from an unlikely Wildcard team to holding the Lombardi Trophy.

Game Notes

Baltimore Ravens 13, Tennessee Titans 10

Going into this game you knew it would be black-and-blue affair and the action on the field disappoint.  The weather was cold and windy, but it didn’t stop two of the NFL’s best defenses from teeing off on the other teams’ offense.  The game was low-scoring and both teams made it a point to stop the run (Ravens only had 50 yards rushing and the Titans dynamic duo Johnson and White were both well under 100 yards).  The story of the game for me was how the Titans never capitalized on scoring chances.  The Titans had the advantage in first downs (21 to 9), yardage (391 to 211) and clock (34:07 to 25:53).  But the home team Titans turned the ball over three times in Ravens’ territory including two fumbles inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line.  Ravens veteran kicker Matt Stover (2/2 FGs, 1/1 XP for 7 Pts) nailed a 43-yard field goal with 57 seconds remaining to put the Ravens up, 13-10.  Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was efficient throwing for numbers 11-22, 161 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT as he became the first rookie quarterback to win his first two starts.  You have to wonder if the stifling defense and efficient offense Ravens are feeling like their Super Bowl champion 2000 selves. Next up is a trip to Pittsburgh for a “rubber match” with the Steelers.

Arizona 33 Cardinals, Carolina Panthers 13

Do you remember about a month ago when the Cardinals clinched the pathetic NFC West with a weak 9-7 record.  Everyone thought the Cards would just be happy to be in the playoffs and have their first home playoff game since 1947.  Well everyone welcome to the new Arizona Cardinals as head coach Ken Whisenhunt has his team in position to go to the Super Bowl for the first time ever.  One of the NFL’s longest running punchlines — have never been to a Super Bowl and are in the NFC title game for the first time ever — showed the entire country that they are no longer a joke as they dominated the NFC #1 seeded Panthers.  The Cardinals ran the ball well (135 yards) and stopped the run (only 78 rushing yards for the Panthers).  But the story of the game was the awful play of Carolina Panthers QB Jake Delhomme (see Lloyd’s Lackey) as opposed to the veteran leadership of Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner (21-32, 220 yards, 2 TD, and 1 INT).  Warner and receiver Larry Fitzgerald (see Game Balls) were on the right page from the beginning of the game as the Cardinals built a 27-7 halftime lead.  Also did you notice how up-and-coming rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie held Carolina receiver Steve Smith without a catch for until the fourth quarter.   Last year the Super Bowl was in Arizona’s home stadium, but this year the Cardinals will surprising host the NFC Championship against the equally surprising Eagles.  Fans were so excited the NFC title game sold out in six minutes.

Philadelphia Eagles 23, New York Giants 11

I have to admit that I didn’t think my hometown team could get it done against the Giants on the road for the second time, but they did (Thanks for all the calls and Emails friends and family).  Early on it looked to be all Giants as the G-Men won the coin toss, decided to receive, and backup running back Ahmad Bradshaw ran the opening kickoff deep into Eagles territory.  However kick David Akers stopped Bradshaw from scoring and the Giants started their theme of kicking field goals by converting on a short kick by John Carney.  After the fireworks  of the Giants’ opening drive, it was all Eagles as their defense harassed Giants quarterback Eli Manning all day.  Manning never looked comfortable in pocket as he threw wobbler after wobbler in the windy Meadowlands.  The game seemed to be over when Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel intercepted Manning’s first pass on the Giants’ second drive and returned it to the Giants’ 2-yard line. After a quick dive-in touchdown by efficient Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb (22-40, 217 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, and 16 rushing yards w/ 1 TD – now 9-5 in the playoffs) making the score 7-3, the G-Men had little fight.  The Giants had the ball five times inside the Eagles’ 50-yard line and had only 5 field goal attempts to show for it (Carney made three field goals and missed two).  The Eagles were outrushed (138 to 59), but on two key 4th downs they were up to the task. Eagles DT Brodrick Bunkley made two crucial fourth down stops to preserve the Birds’ win including stuffing Manning on a fourth-and-1 play and running back Brandon Jacobs on fourth-and-2.  Who would have thought it when the Eagles were 5-5-1 after a horrible beating at the hands of the Ravens that they would be going to their unprecedented 5th NFC Championship in 10 years (won 6 of their last 7 including two in the playoffs).  The New England Patriots (five) and Pittsburgh Steelers (three) are the only other NFL teams with more than two conference championship game appearances in that span.  Next up for the Eagles is tough game against a Cardinals team that they already beat on Thanksgiving 48-20.  The Birds cannot have a letdown as they are still the same team that lost to the Redskins twice this year including in Week 16 when their season was supposed to be on the line.  With the Cardinals and Eagles making it the to the NFL Final 4, combined 2007 record of four teams is 31-33.  It will be fun to see which team left for dead, the Eagles or Cardinals, represents the NFC in the Super Bowl XLIII.

Pittsburgh Steelers 35, San Diego Chargers 24

The Steelers were all business as they knew what was at stake in the last divisional game.  All three other home teams lost to lower seeds and the Steelers didn’t want to make it four.  On a snowy and muddy Steelers type track, P-Burgh’s boys dusted off veteran running back Willie Parker (see Game Balls) and rode the Super Bowl XL star to victory.  The game looked to be evenly matched until the Steelers needing a big play (down 7-0 at the time) got one from receiver Santonio Holmes.  The speedy former Ohio State product set a Steelers’ playoff record with a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown that knotted the score.  After winning only by a score of 14-10 at the half, a fully healed efficient Ben Roethlisberger (17-26, 181 yards, 1TD, 0 INTs) and the Steelers came out with smoke in their eyes running 13-play touchdown drive that took 7:56 off the clock. From there the Chargers tried in vane to come back, but the Steelers were too much.  The game was basically over in the  4th quarter when Parker carried the ball five times for 53 yards and scored the Steelers final touchdown to put them up 35-17.  Next up for the Steelers is their hated AFC North rival the Baltimore Ravens.  These teams are the NFL’s version of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s and it will be interesting to see if the Steelers can beat the tough Ray Lewis led Ravens three times in one season.

Game Balls

Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald — With fellow star 1,000-yard receiver Anquan Boldin sidelined with a hamstring injury, the tall Pro Bowl receiver from the University of Pittsburgh was incredible.  Fitzgerald picked up the slack with 8 catches for 166 yards and 1 touchdown as veteran quarterback Kurt Warner couldn’t help but smile.  To get things started in the Cardinals rather easy 33-13 victory over the Panthers, Fitzgerald made a circus catch over double-coverage on his first grab.  He went on to surpass 100 yards with five minutes left in the second quarter and to no one’s surprise Fitzgerald recovered the Panthers desperation onside kick in the final minutes of the Cardinals’ win.

Other Honorees: Pittsburgh Steelers RB Willie Parker (Had his most carries since week 2 with 27 rushes for 146 yards and 2 TDs. Had his first postseason 100-yard game); Pittsburgh Steelers LB Lamar Woodley (The Steelers “D” was stifling against the Chargers and Woodley was everywhere producing 5 TKLs and 2 sacks); Philadelphia Eagles kicker David Akers (Was huge in beating the G-Men connecting on 3 for 3 FGs and 2 XP’s for  11 points plus tackling Bradshaw on the opening kickoff.  Also set an NFL record with 18 straight made field goals in the playoffs); Philadelphia Eagles S Brian Dawkins (helped stuff the Giants on two 4th down attempts finishing with 10 TKls); Baltimore Ravens S Jim Leonhard (Stopped two huge Titans drives. Before halftime he recovered a fumble and in the fourth quarter the small former Wisconsin star forced a fumble at the Baltimore 9).

Lloyd’s Lackey

Carolina Panthers QB Jake Delhomme – The former NFL Europe quarterback looked like he belonged back in the minor leagues.  Delhomme (17-34, 205 yards, 1 TD, 5 INT and 1 fumble) accounted for six turnovers by himself and the Cardinals scored 23 of their 33 points off of those takeaways. Also only got the ball to All-World receiver Steve Smith only twice including a garbage touchdown. It will be interesting to see if on the hot-seat head coach John Fox brings Delhomme back for a salary of $11 Million dollars next year after such a disastrous game

Other Dishonorees — NY Giants QB Eli Manning (The deer-in-the-headlights look was back as Manning struggle against the Eagles throwing wobbly pass after wobbly pass.  The former first overall pick finished with numbers 15-29, 169 yards, 0 TD, and 2 INTs as his playoffs record fell to 8-7 for his career); Carolina Panthers DE Julius Peppers (After a bust out season producing 14.5 sacks, the former UNC star got no pressure on Warner finishing with only 2 TKLs); Tennessee Titans QB Kerry Collins (I had a feeling that playing the Ravens again was not going to be good for the former Giants Super Bowl quarterback.  Collins looked a little frazzled at times finishing with numbers 26-42, 281 yards, 0 TD, and 1 INT); NY Giants receivers (Anyone wondering if the G-Men would miss Plaxico Burress got their answer as Hixon, Smith, and Toomer only had 6 receptions for 80 yards)

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)