Sunday NFL Preview: Conference Championships

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: January 17, 2009

NFL PHILADELPHIA – 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.

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.

NFC Championship Game Preview

Eagles (11-6-1) at Cardinals (11-7), 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 2ndin 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

AFC Championship Game Preview

Ravens (13-5) at Steelers (14-4), 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