Friday, January 9, 2009

NFC Playoff Preview (The Fat Guy)

# Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles defense beat the Vikings last week. While the Eagles only sacked Tarvaris Jackson once, he felt the pressure. Jackson completed just 43% of his passes for a pitiful 4.7 yards per attempt. The Eagles also played the run extremely well. Sure they gave up a 40 yard run to AP, but he only had 43 yards on his other 19 carries. The Eagles will need a similar defensive performance to succeed against the Giants this week.

Offense – The Eagles struggled to run the ball last week, but should be marginally more successful this week versus the Giants top ten rush defense. The Eagles did a good job of finding an open Brent Celek, who was the leading receiver against Minnesota. I expect more of the same this week because the Giants pass defense is weakest against defending the TE. Brian Westbrook is the game changer on offense, despite the publicity McNabb receives for his performance. Westbrook was targeted five times in the passing game last week, catching three passes for 83 yards including the 71 yard game clinching screen pass. Look for the Eagles to send Jackson deep, throw the ball to Celek in the middle, and give the ball to Westbrook early and often.

Defense – The Eagles stopped the Viking rushing attack, for the most part, last week. They’ll have an even greater challenge this week versus the number one rush offense in the league. Saying Eli Manning is less mobile than Tarvaris Jackson is an understatement to be sure, so I expect more sacks this week for the Eagles. Brian Dawkins is the Ed Reed of the NFC. He won’t have to worry about Plaxico Burress and will focus on stopping the run, blitzing Manning and creating turnovers.

#1 New York Giants

The Giants earned the number one seed and home field advantage with the best running game in the NFL and a top ten defense. Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward provided an excellent one-two punch behind the best offensive line in football. The Giants defensive line has played extremely well and has put a good deal on opposing quarterbacks despite losing Michael Strahan to retirement and Osi Umenyiora to injury all season. Establishing a consistent rushing attack and containing Brian Westbrook will be the keys to victory.

Offense – Brandon Jacobs got nicked up at the end of the season, but has been able to rest for a couple weeks and should be ready to roll all over the Eagles. Derrick Ward comes in on passing downs and does his best Brian Westbrook impression when he gets the ball. The loss of Plaxico Burress severely hurts the offense in the playoffs. Burress provided a deep threat that required safety help. Domenik Hixon has had good games here and there, but has struggled to be consistent and will have a tough time against the Philly corners. TE Kevin Boss started the season slow, but has become more involved in the game plan during the second half of the season.

Defense – Justin Tuck leads the defensive attack from defensive end and he’s been aided by Mathias Kiwanuka and the improved play of Jay Alford and Fred Robbins. Corey Webster has proven to be an effective corner while Aaron Ross has been the corner that the opposition has chosen to attack. The Giants have problems covering the TE, but are still top ten in defending the pass.

Eagles on offense – The Eagles will have the same attack plan as they did versus the Vikings. They will try and get Westbrook matched up with the Giants linebackers in the passing game. The Giants linebackers are good, but they aren’t fast enough to keep up with Westbrook. I expect another 20+ touches for Westbrook and probably 10+ for Buckhalter, who is as healthy as he has been all season. The Eagles will feed Westbrook to draw the Giants safeties up before throwing the ball down the field to DeSean Jackson. The Eagles bring in Buckhalter a lot on passing downs because he’s a good pass blocker, but he’s also effective on draws and screens. McNabb will be under fire for a lot of the game and he’ll need to move around and keep plays alive while Tra Thomas and John Runyan try and block Justin Tuck. Like last week, I predict a “big” game for TE Brent Celek as the Giants defense has a lot of other responsibilities to worry about.

Giants on Offense- The battle in the trenches will be the key to victory. The Giants line will need to move the Eagles defensive tackles and slow the end rushers. The Giants want to use Jacobs pounding running style to challenge the Philly linebackers to tackle him all game. After the linebackers get tired of Jacobs, Ward comes in and uses his quickness to evade tacklers and break long runs. The Giants will want to stay away from obvious passing situations where Jim Johnson can go blitz happy without worrying about safety help deep. I expect a trick play or two from the Giants as they try and take advantage of the aggressive Philly defense. TE Kevin Boss should play an integral part in the passing game as Manning’s safety valve and should see some targets in the red zone.

Prediction- I really like how the Eagles are playing right now. They only lost by five at home when the Giants had Burress and beat the Giants at the Meadowlands a mere five weeks ago. Playing Minnesota was a nice tune up for the Giants as both teams have similar rushing attacks and defensive pressure. The Giants will need to win by getting pressure on McNabb and using the running game to control the pace of the game. The Eagles are playing real well. McNabb is playing well. Westbrook is always a play away from breaking the game open and the defense is in lock down mode. Eagles upset the Super Bowl champs.

Philadelphia 20 Giants 17

#4 Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals scored on a long flea flicker pass, a disrupted handoff fumble return and a short crossing pass to Boldin who somehow managed to stay inbounds as he sprinted down the sideline and they only won by six points. The Cardinals defensive line played outstanding, Betrand Berry in particular, and we’ll see if they can repeat the performance on the road where the Cardinals have been horrendous. Arizona’s only road victories came against the three NFC West teams and lost at Carolina earlier this season. To add insult to injury, Anquan Boldin may not play due to a sore hamstring and the Cardinals will need him to beat the Panthers.

Offense- Larry Fitzgerald is the best receiver in the NFC and it’s a virtual draw between him and Andre Johnson for best wide receiver in the NFL. When Boldin is playing, the Cardinals like to work him underneath with Breaston and Fitzgerald working the deeper routes. This worked to perfection against the Falcons when Boldin caught a short pass and took it 71 yards for a score and Fitzgerald caught a 42 yard toss up over two Falcons in the end zone. Edgerrin James was surprisingly effective against a bad Falcons defense, but how will he do versus a better Panther defense? Arizona needs James to play up to his contract this game to have a shot.

Defense- The Cardinals defense turned up the pressure against Atlanta and got three sacks and two interceptions plus a fumbled handoff return for a touch down. Bertrand Berry anchors the mediocre at best defensive line. Berry’s line mate Darnell Dockett was M.I.A. last game and Arizona needs him to be a presence in this game. Adrian Wilson is a strong hitting safety who should see a lot of action this weekend. Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes are effective ILBs that will be kept busy all day with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the rookie corner who has shown tremendous potential, but is still a rookie whom Carolina will likely test. If anybody’s got the speed to keep up with Steve Smith, it’s Rodgers-Cromartie.

#2 Carolina Panthers

Carolina had a shot at home field throughout the playoffs, but fell six points short in New York in week 15. The Panthers were 8-0 at home this season and have been remarkably consistent all year. Carolina has a power running game with the highest percentage of runs of more than 10 yards in the league. The Panthers had the second least amount of “stuffs” (define stuffs for those of us who are unclear on what he is talking about) and converted 80% of 3rd or 4th downs with two yards or less. In the playoffs, those are the types of plays that need to be made and Carolina will have plenty of confidence coming into this game.

Offense – I covered the rushing stats above, but DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were both excellent running backs this year. Williams had an unbelievable year with 18 rushing touchdowns including two games with four a piece. Stewart was no slouch either, rushing for 10 touchdowns himself, more than Portis, Chris Johnson or Brian Westbrook. Steve Smith might have topped both backs by having the third most receiving yards in the NFL (only ten behind Fitzgerald) despite playing in only 14 games! Smith has a knack for catching deep passes in clutch situations. Pick your poison Cardinals, who will you try to stop?

Defense – The defense was not as good as you’d think for such a highly touted team. Carolina was in the bottom half in Yards per Game, Passing Yards per Game and Rushing Yards per Game. They can get after the quarterback, however and the main man is Julius Peppers. The Panthers also have a beast in the middle in Jon Beason, the east coast version of Patrick Willis - a tackling machine. Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble are solid cornerbacks who will have their hands full, especially if Boldin plays. Unfortunately, Carolina may be missing both its starting nose tackles to injury. Fortunately, the Cardinals are not a running team, even if they wanted to be.

Cardinals on offense – The Cardinals don’t have much choice. They are a passing team and that’s all they are. Even if Boldin is out they will bring in Jerheme Urban and keep throwing. Frankly, it’s for the best. It’s the playoffs so don’t waste your time trying to be something you are not. Put Warner back in the shotgun and spread the offense. Levi Brown will have his hands full with Julius Peppers and his results will be a referendum on his high draft status.

Carolina on offense – Carolina is going to run the ball, with several Steve Smith targets mixed in. Williams and Stewart will put pressure on the Cardinals linebackers and Adrian Wilson to come up and make tackles. DeAngelo Williams was tied with Steve Slaton for most 40+ yard runs this season and second behind AP for most 20+ yard runs. Williams was 4th in the NFL in first down runs with 24% of his runs reaching a first down. Bryan Robinson and Darnell Dockett will have their hands full trying to stop the Williams and Stewart combo. Once Carolina has established that they are going to pound the rock, Steve Smith will work some magic on the rookie corner and get behind the defense.

Prediction – Magic Eightball, will the Panthers obliterate the Cardinals this weekend? “All signs point to Yes.” I don’t see any way the Cardinals can win this game. They only lost by four in October, but Carolina has hit its stride the last few weeks, especially in the running game. Plus, the Cardinals haven’t shown they can win on the road. Boldin is a must play for the Cardinals to have a chance. Big day for Williams. Big day for Steve Smith.

Carolina 34- Arizona 17

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