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.

Advertisements

2008 NFL Playoffs – Conference Championships Round Review

(Philadelphia, Pa) – The 2008 NFL season themed, “Believe In Now”, continued to roll on toward an oh-too-fast ending. But one thing is for certain when the epilogue for this season is written, it will 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, so what do I know ;) — however we are now set to enjoy a rivalry game on February 1st in Tampa, Florida between too coaching staffs that know each other very well. 

To me both Conference Championships games were enjoyable and the interesting part from the games’ results is that the sanity of home field advantage was restored with the Steelers 23-14 win over the Ravens and the Cardinals 32-25 win over the Eagles.   With both home teams winning, the playoff history-defying streak of 5 out of 8 road teams winning thus far in the playoffs was ended.  The NFL’s Final Four round produced two games that definitely had two different NFL flavors.  The Philadelphia Eagles – Arizona Cardinals game featured a pinball machine type offensive explosion in a perfectly conditioned indoor dome environment, while conversely the Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game was an old-fashioned black-and-blue rivalry game that featured several players limping to the sidelines of cold, snowy, and muddy Heinz Field.

In both Conference Championships our keys to success in the playoffs — 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 – were all very prevalent for the winning teams (Cardinals and Steelers).  

  • Super Bowl XLIII will pit two quarterbacks, in the Cardinals Kurt Warner and the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger, that have already won a Super Bowl against each other.  The Conference Championships brought out the best in the two signal callers as Warner was efficient in getting the ball down the field to superstar receiver Larry Fitzgerald (see Game Balls) and in picking up the blitz while Big Ben made a key deep throw to receiver Santonio Holmes and did not turn the ball over.
  • The Steelers (+3) and the Cardinals (+2) both won the turnover battle in their games and it was a huge difference.  The Cardinals produced 3 turnovers by the Eagles while only giving the ball up once (defensive player) and the Steelers were a little better producing four turnovers by the Ravens, including Troy Polamalu’s 40-yard interception return for a touchdown, to only one giveaway.  The Cardinals and the Steelers also got pressure on the quarterback producing three and two sacks respectively.
  • The Steelers and Cardinals both had more rushing attempts than the Ravens and Eagles respectively (PITT 28 to 25) and (ARIZ 29 to 18).  The key was the final four winners never abandoned the run even when they lost their lead or the other team was within a couple of points.
  • An often overlooked factor in games is penalties, but the Steelers and especially the Cardinals made sure they were not hurt too bad by penalties in their wins.  The Cardinals only had three penalties to seven for the Eagles while the Steelers and Ravens were knotted at six apiece.

Game Notes

Arizona Cardinals 32, Philadelphia Eagles 25

This year’s NFC Championship Game, titled the “Why Not Us” Bowl was played out in the cozy confines of University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale, Arizona.  If nothing else, this game between two improbable NFC lower seeded playoff teams was enjoyable.  The Cardinals came out of their locker-room full of emotion as they put their 48-20 Week 13 loss to the Eagles behind them by going on a 80-yard nine play touchdown drive culminated by Fitzgerald bullying his way into the endzone.  From there it was all Cardinals in the first half as they built a 24-6 halftime lead mostly on Warner finding Fitzgerald over and over (finished with 6 receptions for an NFL record 113 first-half yards and 3 TDs) as the Eagles either had to punt or settled for field goal attempts (the Eagles were inside the Cardinals’ 30-yard line three times in the first half and came away with only six points).  The Cardinals even brought out a beautifully crafted flea-flicker 62-yard touchdown pass from Warner to RB J.J Arrington back to Warner then down the field to Fitzgerald.  However the 3rd quarter it was all Eagles as the Cardinals got a good look at why Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is one of the NFL’s best.  McNabb led the offense in scoring 19 unanswered points to erase an 18-point Cardinals lead.  McNabb threw touchdown passes to TE Brent Celek of 31 yards and 6 yards.  But his finest throw was a 62-yard bomb that rookie DeSean Jackson juggled then took to the house giving the Eagles an improbable 25-24 lead.    While the Eagles were scoring in bunches in the 3rd quarter the Cardinals were limited to two three-and-out possessions.  However veteran quarterback Warner and the Cardinals had one more drive left in them.  The former two-time NFL MVP led the Cardinals on 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 rookie from the University of Richmond also had a key play earlier in the drive converting a 4th and 1 play with a tough 2-yard outside run.  For good measure Warner also completed a two-point conversion to backup TE Ben Patrick to make the score 32-25.  Given one more chance, the McNabb and the Eagles moved the ball to the Cardinals 47-yard line.  But on the game’s defining four downs for the Eagles, McNabb could not connect on last four throws (Basket (receiver slipped), Jackson (overthrow), Basket (threw behind receiver), and Curtis (slipped/tripped and dropped pass).  The Eagles defense stopped the Cardinals leading to a poorly executed hook-and-lateral that was intercepted by the Cardinals to end the game.  The Eagles duo of McNabb and head coach Andy Reid are now a disappointing 1-4 in NFC Championship Games leaving many to wonder if this veteran Birds team will get another precious shot in the near future or has their window of opportunity closed. The Cardinals now become the final NFC team to make the Super Bowl in the history of the Big Game and they are the second 9-win regular season team to make the Super Bowl (other team was the 1979 Rams).

Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Baltimore Ravens 14

If you liked a hard-hitting defensive football in bad weather conditions then this was your type of game.  The Steelers, in their NFL leading 14th AFC Championship Game, early on were content to play solid defense and allow their offense to secure three points (two Josh Reed 2 FG’s).  But a 65-yard Roethlisberger to receiver Santonio Holmes touchdown pass broke the game open putting the Steelers ahead 13-0 and sending their home Terrible Towel waving fans into a frenzy.  However the Ravens kept hanging around at the end of the first half as running back Willis McGahee pounded his way to his first touchdown making the score 13-7 at the half.  Even though the Steelers were nursing a 16-7 lead going into the fourth quarter, you never sensed that the veteran team would panic.  The Steelers were never afraid that Ravens rookie quarterback  Joe Flacco (Lloyd’s Lackey) could beat them even when another McGahee touchdown cut the Steelers lead to 16-14.  All of everyone’s apprehensions about Flacco’s ability to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl were confirmed with less than five minutes left in the game.  The Steelers pass rush caused Flacco into an overthrow that safety Troy Polamalu picked off and zigzagged his way 40 yards into the endzone for the game-sealing score for the Steelers.  The game was not without injuries as this was probably the hardest hitting game, I have seen in some time as Steelers WR Hines Ward tweaked his knee missing the 2nd half, Ravens CB Frank Walker left in the 2nd quarter causing him to not return, and in the game’s scariest moment Pittsburgh S Ryan Clark drilled McGahee causing the former Miami Hurricane to be taken off on a stretcher (later had movement in his extremities). The Steelers are the 12th team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to defeat an opponent three times in the same season. And the Black-and-Gold will make their seventh Super Bowl appearance, second most all-time behind the Cowboys’ eight. Kudos should go out to Steelers 36-year old head coach Mike Tomlin, who validated Steelers owner Dan Rooney’s belief in him when the savvy owner handpicked the relatively unknown defensive coordinator as his headman.  Now Tomlin will be able to face the two men, Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who thought they had a leg-up on the competition to replace Bill Cowher back in 2007.

 Game Balls

Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald – The NFL’s best receiver was on display again as Fitzgerald was spectacular against the Eagles.  First he set an NFL record with 113 first-half yards on six catches including 3 TDs.  Then he helped close the game out with two big receptions on the Cardinals game-winning drive.  The former University of Pittsburgh All-American finished with nine receptions for 152 yards and 3 TDs. The Pro Bowl bound receiver also set a single playoff record with 419 receiving yards, surpassing the great Jerry Rice and did I mention that Fitzgerald has one more game left in Super Bowl XLIII.

Honorable Mention

Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb –– 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??

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu — Finished with four tackles and led a Pittsburgh defense that held Baltimore rookie QB Joe Flacco to 141 passing yards.  Put the Steelers win on ice sending them to their 7th Super Bowl with his 40-yard interception touchdown return.

Other Honorees: Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Jeff Reed (Drilled 3 FG’s in tough conditions and finished with 11 points); Arizona Cardinals QB Kurt Warner (In going to his 3rd Super Bowl he was spectacular throwing for numbers 21-28, 279 yds, and 4 TDs); Philadelphia Eagles TE Brent Celek (In a game where franchise TE LJ Smith struggled, Celek had a career-high 10 catches, gaining 83 yards and two touchdowns); Pittsburgh Steelers LB Lamar Woodley (The Steelers “D” was stifling against the Ravens and Woodley was everywhere producing 7 TKLs, and 2 sacks);  Arizona Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson (The perennial Pro Bowl safety was spectacular finishing with 7 TKLs, 2 sacks, and 1 forced fumble); Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley (Kept the Eagles Defense off-balance the whole game mixing the run and pass well and how about the 14-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that was a game closer)

Lloyd’s Lackey

Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco – In the biggest game of his career, “The rookie quarterback, played like a rookie quarterback”.  Flacco entered the game with no interceptions or sacks in 45 postseason pass attempts, but he threw three interceptions and was sacked three times by the Steelers.  Finished with terrible numbers 13-30, 141 yards, 0 TDs, and 3 INTs

Other DishonoreesEagles safety Quintin Demps (The rookie safety, was beaten for a 62-yard touchdown by Larry Fitzgerald and he also cost the Eagles 15 yards on a dumb late hit on Kurt Warner); Eagles kicker David Akers (“Just a Kicker Being a Kicker”… lost his consecutive field goal streak on a missed 47-yarder, missed a point-after and sent a kickoff out of bounds right before halftime); Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson and the Eagles Defense (Too many blitzes with little results and overall the defense got pushed around…so much for this unit being better than Reggie White’s group.  Gave up 24 first-half points and couldn’t prevent a game-winning 14-play scoring drive at the end.  BTW: Why was two-time Pro Bowl player Lito Sheppard barely on the field); Eagles TE LJ Smith (The franchise-tagged tight end produced 1 catch for 5 yards as backup Brent Celek had a great game);  Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin (Played with a hamstring injury producing four catches for 34 yards, but his sulking and arguments with Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley on the sidelines were bush-league.  Yo Q… your team is going to the Super Bowl, so put a smile on your face and grab a NFC Championship t-shirt and hat).

 

 

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 Conference Championships Round: Ravens at Steelers

AFC Championship Game Preview

Baltimore Ravens (13-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4), Sunday, Jan. 18th, 6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

Broadcast Team: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Next up for the Steelers in their NFL record tying 14th AFC Championship game is their hated AFC North rival the Baltimore Ravens.  For the 13th time since 1990 when the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format, teams that played at least once during the regular season will meet in the AFC Championship Game. If Pittsburgh defeats Baltimore, it will mark the ninth time in 13 opportunities that the team that won the regular-season meeting(s) won the AFC Championship.

These teams are the NFL’s version of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s (allegations of bounties) and it will real be interesting to see if the Steelers can beat the tough Ray Lewis led Ravens three times in one season.  There is a lot of history between these two teams – met 26 times including twice this year (both Steelers wins) with the Steelers holding a 16-10 edge including a 2-1 record in the playoffs.  In their prior games in Weeks 4 and 15, the Ravens hung around, but the Steelers always found a way to make a play when needed to produce a victory.

The game will be a battle to two defenses that love to get after the passer looking for sacks and turnovers.  The Ravens were the NFL’s leader in takeaways with 34 and the Steelers were ranked #1 in every category except for the run where they finished second.  Both teams are led by young charismatic head coaches with the title of  the “NFL’s rising new young head coach” at stake — the two coaches have only led their teams for a  combined 48 regular-season games (the second fewest such games by opposing coaches in a conference championship game in the Super Bowl era since 1966).   Though John Harbaugh’s Ravens are a mix of older and younger players, they are perceived as upstarts Ravens compared to Mike Tomlin’s veteran Steelers team.

On offense the Steelers will need to continue to play with balance after a 2008 regular season, where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (281-469, 3301 yards, and  17 TDs) threw the ball entirely too much – usually over 25 times a game.  With Roethlisberger recovering from a concussion and a minor spine injury from the regular season, last week the Steelers and their offensive coordinator Bruce Arians went back to Steelers’ black-and-blue offense.  Roethlisberger was efficient throwing for numbers of 17-26, 181 yards, 1TD, and 0 INTs in a solid win over the Chargers and veteran running back Willie Parker was the teams catalyst (career postseason high of 146 rushing yards).  The Steelers will need to continue to protect Big Ben, who was one of the NFL’s most it passers in 2008, from the Ravens’ “Organized Chaos” defense led by Pro Bowl players LB Ray Lewis, NT Haloti Ngata, and safety Ed Reed.  The Ravens defense, who have some injury problems (Rolle – groin and Suggs – Shoulder) will need to keep an eye on Steelers third-down chain moving receiver Hines Ward, who is on the verge of passing 1,000 yards in receptions in his postseason career.  Also another huge factor offensively for the Steelers maybe receiver Santonio Holmes, who turned last week’s Chargers game around with a huge punt return for a touchdown.

Plain and simple I believe this game will come down to the Steelers pass rush led by Defensive MVP James Harrison (2nd in the AFC in Sacks with 16) getting pressure on Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco (257-428, 2971 yards, 14 TDs and 12 INTs) to force turnovers by their back four — safety Troy Polamalu (7 INTs).  Flacco, a former 1-AA player from Delaware, has been as cool as a cucumber throughout the playoffs winning an NFL rookie record two postseason games.  However the stakes are higher than ever and the former University of Pittsburgh transfer will need to show the country something in terms of that he is more than just a “Game Manager” – only had numbers 11-22, 161 yards and 1 TD in last week’s 13-10 win over the Titans. 

In the postseason the Ravens have lived on the edge producing turnovers that have helped their offense, but the Steelers are a veteran team and the Ravens offense will need to put some drives together.  The Ravens have to get the ball down the field to WR Mark Clayton and WR Derrick Mason (80-receptions for 1,037 yards and 5 TDs), because their running backs LeRon McClain (ankle) and Willis McGahee are very banged up going into this game.

LV‘s Pick: After 18 straight weeks of play without a bye, the Ravens have seemed to have hit a wall.  They were outgained in every category in last week’s win over the Titans, but they will need more in cold snowy Pittsburgh.  The Ravens’ magic run of winning 11 of their last 13 comes to an end at the hands of the Steelers.  Mike Tomlin’s group will make Flacco beat them and I don’t see that happening.  I expect the rookie quarterback to play like a “rookie quarterback” with at least two turnovers.  It will be a “Keystone State” Super Bowl in Tampa as the Steelers and Eagles square off in Super Bowl XLIII. Steelers 24, Ravens 10

 

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 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)