NFC Championship Preview
Two nine win teams will be squaring off for the NFC Championship Sunday. The Eagles stats belie their record as they finished as the #1 team in Football Outsiders DVOA rankings (Ravens #2) as the best team in football. They have gone on the road and battled through two tough defenses and now face the best offensive team left in the playoffs. The Cardinals were considered unworthy of a playoff spot by many football fans and writers. While the offense continues to play at a high level, the defense has turned into Mr. Hyde during the playoffs. Arizona is a home dog for this game and has been feeding off the “chip-on-the-shoulder” mantra since season’s end.
The Eagles defense beat the Giants last week. The defensive line stopped the Giant’s short yardage rushing attack at crucial times and their first touch down was set up by Asanate Samuel’s INT return inside the five yard line. The Eagle defense, Samuel especially, will have to continue their high level of play because Kurt Warner is not Eli Manning and he’s definitely not Tarvaris Jackson.
Offense -There hasn’t been much to say about the Eagles offense in the Playoffs. McNabb has been decent, but not outstanding over the last two weeks. DeSean Jackson was okay against the Giants, but nonexistent against Minnesota. The engine that drives the Eagles offense, Brian Westbrook, has been in vapor lock this post season. He has the game clinching screen pass touchdown against the Vikings, and nothing else. Based on the regular season, playing the Cardinals defense should be the equivalent of a slumping hitter going to Coors Field in the middle of summer. The Cardinal defense the last two weeks is not the same one that we saw during the regular season. The Eagles offensive line has been doing a good job protecting McNabb from the rush, but is not doing a good job of creating running lanes for Westbrook.
Defense - The Eagles’ defense is hitting on all cylinders right now. Asante Samuel is playing at his best, as usual, in the post season. Samuel and Sheldon Brown’s ability to cover man to man frees up Jim Johnson to call a variety of blitzes to disrupt the opposition’s offense. Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson lock down the line of scrimmage, allowing Trent Cole and Juqua Parker to aggressively rush the edges while the linebackers are free to chase the ball and make tackles.
The Cardinals went to Carolina and quickly gave up a touchdown to the Panthers and then punted on their first offensive possession. The game looked to be unfolding just as everyone who bet money on the Panthers – 9.5 thought it would. The next drive the Cardinals defense got on track and forced a three and out. Without Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald somehow ran free and the Cardinals tied it up a few plays later. The next play after the kickoff, the Antonio Smith stripped Jake Delhomme inside the 20 and Arizona scored two plays later. Five Jake Delhomme INT’s later, the Cardinals are hosting the NFC Championship.
Offense – You can say all you want about the Cardinals running the ball more and that’s why they are being successful, but it’s still the passing game that is winning the games for them. Larry Ftizgerald was a beast without fellow Pro Bowler Boldin on the field last week. What I will say about the Cardinals rushing attack is that they have been better in the red zone and Hightower had some nice runs last week, but that was after the game was decided. Edgerrin has always been good at pass protecting and I expect him to do a lot of it on Sunday.
Defense – The Cardinals had a turnover margin of zero in the regular season.. During the post season they are +7 and have scored 39 of their 63 post season points off of turnovers. Darnell Docket, Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith have played at a high level on the defensive line and the linebackers and secondary have taken advantage. Rookie cornerback Antonio Rodgers-Cromartie has played especially well given that opposing offenses are targeting him to try an exploit his rookie naiveté. The Cardinals stuffed Michael Turner and jumped on the Panthers early to silence their rushing attack. No doubt that stopping Brian Westbrook will be the focus of the defensive game plan this week.
Eagles on offense – The Eagles will try and test the run early. They didn’t have any success in the first two games of the post season on the ground, but they were also playing two top ten rush defenses. The Cardinals have to prove that they’re performance was for real and not a two game fluke. It’ll be interesting to see the rookie battle between DeSean Jackson, the Eagles most talented receiver, against Rodgers-Cromartie, the Cardinals most talented cornerback. Both have speed and the Eagles will want to stretch the field to open up the field for screens to the running backs and intermediate TE routes. McNabb has to take care of the ball. The Cardinals are in a ball hawking frenzy right now and the way they are scoring points off turnovers has to be a concern for the Philadelphia offense.
Cardinals on offense – Can the Cardinals create enough of a running game to create space for their receivers? Boldin is back and he’ll be all crossing all over the field as Warner’s hot read when the blitzes come. The Cardinals offensive line has played extremely well against the pass rush allowing only one sack in the playoffs. The Cardinal line has also neutralized some pretty good pass rushers in John Abraham and Julius Peppers in back to back weeks. The Cardinals have receiving fire power like no other team in the playoffs, but Philadelphia has the best corners to battle the passing attack. Arizona will run its three wide receiver formations and try and get Fitzgerald, Boldin or Breaston isolated in man to man coverage.
Prediction – This is a tough call because it’s hard to say that the Cardinals defense that we’ve seen the last two weeks will definitely show up this week. Philadelphia’s defense has been playing at a high level the last two weeks on the road. The Cardinals proved they could win on the road last week and now play at home in what will be the most amped stadium they’ve ever played in. I’m going to go with the Cardinals to win this game based on the turnovers they are creating and their ability to convert those turnovers into points. The Eagles offense hasn’t shown a lot this post season and I don’t think the Eagle defense will be able to keep the Cardinals out of the end zone.
Arizona 27 – Philadelphia 20