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)

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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)

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)

2008 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round: Chargers at Steelers

San Diego Chargers (9-8) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4), Sunday 4:45 p.m. ET (CBS) 

LV‘s Pick: Last week running back Darren Sproles (328 all-purpose yards in win over the Colts) had the game of his life.  But this week he is facing the Steelers defense which was almost Number 1 across the board.  Led by Defensive MVP linebacker James Harrison, the Steelers will close all of the gapping holes from the wildcard round.  The Steelers defeated the Chargers, 11-10 in Pittsburgh in Week 11.  But expect a larger margin this time as a healthy Ben Roethlisberger (concussion) leads the Steelers over the formerly surging Chargers 24-17.

2008 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round: Eagles at Giants

Philadelphia Eagles (10-6-1) at NY Giants (12-4), Saturday 1 p.m. ET (Fox) Broadcasting Team: Troy Aikman, Joe Buck, and Pam Oliver (Field Reporter)

The Birds will head 90 miles up the New Jersey Turnpike to face the NFC #1 seed Giants in the highlight game of the four divisional round games.  Since a 5-5-1 start, the Eagles have rattled off 5 wins out of 6 games including a solid win over the Vikings in the wildcard round.  The Eagles are the hottest team in the NFL playoffs that everyone is trying to avoid them, so naturally in the eyes of some they can easily draw comparison to the “2007 Giants”. But the comparison to last season’s wildcard to Super Bowl champion Giants has rankled some like linebacker Antonio Pierce as he basically said “prove it” to the Eagles with some recent quotes.  Pierce said of Eagles comparisons to last season’s Giants, “I won’t know anything about any team until February 1st or 2nd, so you can’t call any team the NY Giants of 2007, because that team won the Super Bowl.”  The loquacious linebacker added, “The psyche of the team this year is a group that understands what it takes to win the championship”.

These two bitter NFC East rivals and their neighboring fans are ready for the “rubber match” of this highly entertaining three-game set.  So far each team has taken home a victory with the road team winning each game — the Giants won 36-31 in Philadelphia in Week 10, and the Eagles won 20-14 at Giants Stadium in Week 14.  This will be the eighth meeting between the longtime foes in three years, so expect this game to come down to game planning, execution, turnovers and special teams.  Both earlier games were slugfests that featured typical NFC East black-and-blue action with the team that ran the ball for the most yards in each meeting winning.  The Giants had 217 rushing yards in Week 10 and the Eagles in Week 14 turned the tables running for a season-high 141 yards on 41 carries.  With both teams looking to stop the run their highly ranked defenses (Eagles NFC leading 274.3 yards allowed and Giants 292 yards).

The talk on the radio always seems to be, “Can Donovan McNabb lead the Eagles to victory?”  But the Eagles offensive game plan should be to get the ball in the hands of playmaker Brian Westbrook (121 total yards in last week’s win over the Vikings).  B-West always seems to save his best efforts for the Giants, but the Eagles need balance to help him so running mate Correll Buckhalter (only 2 carries for 27 yards vs. Vikings) must also get the ball into his hands early and often.  Westbrook showed his explosiveness last week in taking a short screen pass 71 yards to the ‘House as the Eagles sealed the deal against the Vikings.  However I know Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (former Eagles LB’s coach) is probably studying right not trying how to limit Westbrook.  If Spags is smart he will look to have someone else shadow Westbrook other than overmatched linebacker Antonio Pierce – beat for two touchdowns in the last time in the Meadowlands.

The Eagles may go about running the ball with the speedy Westbrook, but the Giants choose to go at defenses with “Earth, Wind, and Fire” 1-2-3 punch of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw.  The Giants’ three-headed monster is only as good as their cohesive offensive line, which has over 25 consecutive starts together.  Led by Pro Bowl O-lineman Shaun O’Hara and Chris Snee, the Giants’ Jacobs (rushed 22 times for 126 yards in the Giants’ win) and the rest of EWF are ready to pound on the Eagles again.  The scary thing is that the Giants behind 217 combined rushing yards from their backfield trio held the ball for 39:10 in winning the first regular-season meeting. However lately the Eagles defense has been stifling.  The quick undersized unit finished the regular season with the league’s No. 4 run defense (92.2 yards) and they basically kept Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in check (83 yards, but 40 yards came on one run).

The Philadelphia Eagles will aim to qualify for the NFC Championship Game for the fifth time in the past 10 seasons, since Andy Reid became head coach in 1999.

Other Keys to watch

— A rejuvenated Brian Dawkins in the box against Jacobs, Ward, and Bradshaw

— Receivers Dommanick Hixon (dropped a potential 80-yard bomb last time in Week 14 against the Birds) and Amani Toomer trying to replace Plaxico Burress against an Eagles’ secondary that doesn’t respect them

— Special Teams should be huge in this game so watch to see if David Akers () can come through in the windy Meadowlands and rookie DeSean Jackson can hit a big one on a punt return.  The Giants greybeard Pro Bowl crew of K John Carney and P Jeff Feagles will also be a factor.

— QB Donovan McNabb will need to avoid Justin Tuck (GMen are 13-3 when he gets a sack) and the Giants pass rush.  McNabb has avoided sacks this year in his two prior games against the Giants after the Birds laughingstock 12 sack game last year.

— QB Eli Manning will need to make some more timely throws after only managing only 123 passing yards in the Eagles earlier win.  Manning will have to keep an eye on Pro Bowl corner Asante Samuel (NFL record 4 career touchdown interception returns) and the blitzing schemes of Eagles mad scientist defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

LV‘s Pick:  I have wrestled back and forth on making this pick, but in the end I just can’t see the Giants losing twice at home to the same team.  Remember the Giants were 7-1 at home and they are the defending Super Bowl champs.  Giants win 20-17 over the Eagles in a very close game.