NFC Championship Game
The line: Eagles by 3½
The story: Seven weeks ago the buzz on Philly talk-radio was that Andy Reid had lost his mind, and Donovan McNabb should lose his job. Trust me, I know. I was on one station where the hosts skewered Reid and his quarterback and wondered when change was going to come.
Patience, people. You'll have to wait.
For the fifth time in the past eight years, Reid and McNabb are in the NFC Championship Game -- a record that would satisfy most customers outside the 215 area code. So they got here through an improbable route. They got here, and that's all that matters. Now, all they have to do is beat an opponent they hammered by 28 points on Thanksgiving, and they reach the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons.
Only it won't be easy.
First of all, Arizona is a different team at home. The Cardinals have won 10 of their past 12 there and are 7-2 this season. Second, their quarterback is different there, too. Kurt Warner has 19 touchdown passes and six interceptions at home this season. Third, they're not making a cross-country trip on a short week as they did in November. Fourth, and most important, they believe in themselves.
It took six decades, but the Cardinals are back. And they're dangerous. And they're dangerous because they have their defense playing almost as well as the league's fourth-ranked offense. In defeats of Carolina and Atlanta, the Cardinals forced nine turnovers -- one more than Baltimore -- and allowed an average of 259.5 yards per game, a figure that bettered their regular-season mark by 72 yards.
If Arizona bottles up Brian Westbrook -- who is injured and hasn't run for more than 38 yards in either of the Eagles' playoff wins -- the Cardinals put the pressure on McNabb, and that's to their advantage. He doesn't have the greatest road record, though he has won three of his past four away from Philadelphia.
But remember what happened the last time these two teams met: McNabb threw for four scores and Westbrook produced four touchdowns. So maybe the Cards can't do to them what they did to Atlanta and Carolina. No problem, there's always Warner and the NFL's second-ranked pass attack.
Arizona might have Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin back, and that is good. Only I can't believe he'll be much of a factor -- not with a sore hamstring. That means the Eagles must blanket Larry Fitzgerald, and somehow I think defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has a plan to make sure Fitzgerald doesn't beat them as he did Carolina.
The way I see it, the key here is Philadelphia's offense. It doesn't have to produce the numbers it did against Arizona in November, but it does have to produce. It can't afford a first-half fizzle like last weekend because the Cards will score ... and they can score in bunches. Over the past two seasons they are averaging 28.9 points at home in regular-season games, the third-highest total in the league. Only New England and San Diego are better.
Something to consider: Here's hoping the Eagles practiced protection drills this week, and I'm not talking about their offensive line; I'm talking about the football. Arizona had 17 fumble recoveries this year, tops in the NFL.
AFC Championship Game
The line: Steelers by 5½
The story: Defense, defense, defense. First one to 13 wins. The league's top two defenses meet for the third time, and I've heard a lot of talk lately about how difficult it is to beat someone three times in a season -- with last year's New York Giants held up as Exhibit A. They lost to Dallas twice during the season, then knocked off the Cowboys in the playoffs.
So it's hard to sweep someone three times in one year, right? Well, duh. If you meet three times it means you play in the playoffs, and teams that make the playoffs generally are tough to beat once, let alone three times. Only this team is Baltimore, and the Ravens aren't just tough to overcome; they're so difficult they have lost only once in the past eight games.
It was to Pittsburgh. And it was on a controversial call.
So now the Ravens try to do what they did in 2000, which is to lap the field and win a championship game on the road. This team closely resembles that club, with linebacker Ray Lewis making tackles and a quarterback who doesn't make mistakes handling the offense.
Only this is not veteran Trent Dilfer; this is rookie Joe Flacco, and he's no ordinary Joe. He hasn't committed a turnover or taken a sack in the playoffs. Which means, yes, he has become Dilfer. But at some point he will have to make a play, and that won't be easy against a defense that shut him down the last time these two met -- with Flacco producing a season-low 22.2 passer rating.
But Flacco isn't Baltimore's worry. Injuries are. Linebacker Terrell Suggs has a bum shoulder; corner Samari Rolle has a sore groin; and running back Le'Ron McClain has a bad ankle. I have to believe it's those injuries that conspired to drive the point spread up; there is no other explanation, especially with Baltimore losing by a combined seven points, once in overtime, to these guys.
The question for Pittsburgh is twofold: Can the Steelers protect Ben Roethlisberger and can they avoid the turnovers that doomed Miami and Tennessee? Big Ben took a ton of hits this season, but he didn't last week -- so optimists think maybe the offensive line is fixed. I don't. San Diego hasn't had much of a pass rush all year, and it didn't have much of one last weekend. Believe me, this will be different.
Which game are you most looking forward to?
Eagles at Cardinals
Ravens at Steelers
Total Votes: 28,136
Protecting Roethlisberger will be key because we know Pittsburgh will have trouble running. Everyone does against Baltimore, and, yeah, so Willie Parker had 146 yards last weekend; he averages 43.7 per game against the Ravens, never running for more than 63. The pressure here will be on Roethlisberger, not Parker, to make plays, which means the pressure will be on the Steelers' offensive line to keep him clean.
There's the added burden of not making mistakes, and while that's a concern every week, it's underscored in blood-red ink this time around. I know the Steelers didn't make an abundance of them during the season. Neither did Miami. In fact the Dolphins led the league (along with the Giants) in fewest turnovers. Then they met Baltimore, and quarterback Chad Pennington threw four interceptions.
If the Steelers can avoid the land mines that blew Tennessee apart last weekend, they should make it. They're home. They don't have the injuries Baltimore does. And they beat these guys twice already. Yes, the Giants bucked the trend a year ago. In 2004 the St. Louis Rams beat Seattle three times -- including the third time in Seattle. Give it a rest.
Something to consider: In 10 playoff games the Ravens defense has surrendered an average of 10.7 points per game, the lowest total for opponents since 1970. Philadelphia is second at 17.6 and Washington third at 17.7. The Ravens have allowed only 19 points in two playoff games this season.
Games within the games
Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan vs. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau: This might be the last job audition for Ryan, who soon could be coming to neighborhood near you as a head coach. LeBeau's defense ranked first overall; Ryan's defense ranked second. The Steelers were second against the run; Baltimore was third. The Steelers were first against the pass; the Ravens were second. The Steelers allowed the fewest points; the Ravens were third. I think you get the idea. It's all about defense, with two of the best assistants anywhere pulling the levers.
|Kurt Warner gets another chance against the Philly D. (Getty Images)|
Baltimore left tackle Jared Gaither vs. Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison: Gaither is huge; Harrison is quick. Gaither hasn't allowed a sack in the playoffs; Harrison, the league's Defensive Player of the Year, set a Steelers record with 16. Something has to give, and good luck, Jared. In the past two home games against the Ravens, Harrison has six sacks, 17 tackles, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception. Harrison always seems to be up for Baltimore, and maybe it's because the Ravens cut him early in his career.
Arizona cornerback Rod Hood vs. his ex-teammates: Hood has been in this situation before ... but as a member of the Eagles. He was there from 2003 through 2006, then left for the Cards. He has championship-game experience and has been to one Super Bowl. He'd like to go to another, only this time without the Eagles.
Baltimore linebacker Bart Scott vs. Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward: Bounty? What bounty? The Ravens insist they were talking about paper towels, but Ward knows better. Watch what happens when he has the ball.
Five guys I'd like to be
|Joe Flacco will feel heat vs. the Steelers. (US Presswire)|
Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb: He is 5-2 against the Cardinals in his career, with 16 touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 103.4. In each of his past two appearances against them he threw for four touchdowns.
Philadelphia cornerback Asante Samuel: This is his time of the year. In the playoffs the guy always seems to produce interceptions, and this season is no different. He has one in each of the Eagles' first two games.
Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald: I can't imagine Edgerrin James runs on the Eagles; so they pass. And pass. And pass. Fitzgerald holds an enormous size advantage over the Eagles cornerbacks and is the first read for any quarterback.
Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt: He has done the improbable by getting the Cards this far. Now he can achieve the unimaginable. If he puts the Cards in the Super Bowl look for his face on the next series of U.S. stamps.
Arizona's Anquan Boldin says he'll be ready for Sunday's game, but if he's not that puts the heat squarely on Larry Fitzgerald again. No problem. He's prepared. That's because Fitzgerald has already played five games already without Boldin, and the results are revealing. In his past three starts without him, Fitzgerald produced at least 100 yards in catches in each game -- including 166 last weekend against Carolina. More significant, he scored at least once in each start and twice produced two touchdowns -- including the divisional playoff game against the Panthers.
Yes, the Cardinals are better off with Fitzgerald and Boldin in the lineup. But if Boldin's sore hamstring sidelines him again, send the welcome wagon to the end zone for his partner. Sooner or later, he'll be there.
• Glendale, Ariz.: Sunny, high of 76.
• Pittsburgh: Snow showers, high of 27.
Where we will be
• Pete and Mike Freeman will be in Glendale, Ariz., to tell us where the Fickle Finger of Fate points next in Philadelphia.
• Gregg Doyel and I will be in Pittsburgh to debate the difference between Steelerstahl and Ravenstahl.