By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
The Good, Bad and the Ugly: Conference Championships
NORTH CAROLINA — Well, we are down to two teams and the Super Bowl is set. In the conference championships, the Cardinals proved “Yes we can!” While the Steelers grounded the Ravens thanks to their stingy defense.
Let’s break down both games and look at each team in this week’s good, bad and ugly.
Cardinals: As much as the so called “experts” (myself included) said Arizona couldn’t win, they won and won convincingly on their way to their first Super Bowl appearance after beating the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25. Once again Larry Fitzgerald was a man among boys, running through the Eagles secondary, while the Cardinals’ defense were physical with the Eagles’ wide receivers and kept constant pressure on Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb the entire game. The Cardinals are playing with “house money”, they have nothing to lose and that’s why they are playing loose and confident football. The Cardinals will be a tough out for Pittsburgh because of their high-powered offense, opportunistic defense and head coach who knows the Steelers quite well, after working for them as the offensive coordinator.
Steelers: Pittsburgh used their tough defense and big plays by their quarterback to pull away late from the Ravens and won the game 23-14. The Steelers struggled to run the ball and convert on third downs, which put more pressure on their defense to stop the Ravens and come up with a big turnover to score or put their offensive in good positions to score. Lucky for the Steelers’ offense, the defense did come up big thanks to Troy Palamalu, and the Steelers are on their way to their 7th Super Bowl in franchise history. With the score 16-14 and the Ravens seemingly driving for the game-winning field goal or score, Palamalu intercepted Joe Flacco and ran the ball back for the game-clinching touchdown, sealing the deal for the black gold to move on to the big game against the Cardinals. Like most of the year, the number one defense in the league came through, but there were two bright spots in the Steelers’ offense that came through too and that was Ben Roethlisberger and Willie Parker. With pressure in his face most of the game, “Big Ben” made a few big plays in the passing game down the field to keep drives alive by scrambling and improvising in and outside the pocket, finding receivers down the field to give their defense a rest and at the same time making the Ravens’ defense tired by keeping them on the field. Willie Parker didn’t rush for 146 yards like he did against the Chargers the previous week, but he looked fresh and quick, bouncing to the outside while also trying to run the ball in between the tackles.
The biggest credit, in my opinion, for the Steelers’ victory, should go to their young, but talented Mike Tomlin. With the Steelers leading by only two points (16-14) in the fourth quarter, if you looked over at the Steelers’ sidelines, you would have seen a head coach with a calm yet confident look on his face. Tomlin always seems to give you the sense that he doesn’t panic, no matter what the situation, which is totally different from Bill Cowher. If the Ravens scored to cut the Steelers’ lead down to two points, Cowher would abandoned the game plan, which would let the players know he is worried the te am couldn’t win the game unless they tried something extremely different from what they did all season, but Tomlin has shown the ability to stay with the game plan in the belief that somehow, some way, one of his guys or a group of guys would make a big play to change the momentum back in the Steelers’ favor. That guy in this game was Troy Palmalu. Whether a coach shows panic or confidence, the mood of the players is always reflected through the coach and the Steelers are lucky that coach is Tomlin.
Ravens: B altimore’s”bend but don’t break defense” and philosophy of having their rookie quarterback manage the game and play mistake-free football, came to a crashing halt in Pittsburgh as the Steelers’ offense made enough plays on offense and forced Joe Flacco to make some huge mistakes late in the game in losing to the Steelers 23-14 in the AFC Championship game. It’s tough to put the Ravens in the “bad” category, because they played a solid game until the fourth quarter, but it was that quarter that turned out to be the crucial one in the game. The Ravens did a good enough job keeping the Steelers’ offense in check and Joe Flacco played smart football for three quarters, with the exception of the early interception he threw in the first half. Then there was the fourth quarter. The defense continued to play well, but couldn’t do what they did in their previous playoff victories against the Dolphins and Titans, forced turnovers. With the exception of a Willie Parker fumble in the first half, the Ravens’ defense was unable to force anymore turnovers, especially in the crucial fourth quarter, while the Steelers forced three, including two interceptions thrown by Flacco and a fumble. The Ravens played well, but fell short, but the future is bright for this team. If they can get more weapons on offense, get a little younger on defense and continue to develop Flacco, the Ravens could and should be contenders for the Super Bowl next year.
Eagles: What the hell happen to the Philly’s defense? The proud defense that shut down the Cowboys, Vikings and Giants over the last three weeks, forgot how to tackle and cover, in losing 32-25 to the Cardinals in the NFC Championship game. The Eagles’ defense that put lots of pressure on quarterbacks, punished receivers when they caught the ball and made big plays in the secondary got beaten by Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald who in fairness, has destroyed every defense in the playoffs so far. No Eagle fans you can’t blame this one on your quarterback Donovan McNabb, despite what you heard from the game announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman or anyone else in the media. McNabb threw for a career high 375 yards and three touchdowns and put the team on his back and led them all the way back from a 18-point deficit to a one-point lead, a lead that could have been four if they had converted the two-point conversion and the usually reliable David Aikers wouldn’t have missed an extra point. No, the blame goes to the defense and Andy Reid. The Eagles continued to struggle early in the game scoring in the red zone and that set the table for the early deficit they faced, especially since the defense couldn’t stop Warner and the Cardinals’ offense. Reid stubbornness to run the ball in the game and his refusal to draft or sign a bonified stud running back to give the offense some legitimate balance, is the reason the Eagles struggle to score touchdowns, which puts more pressure on McNabb to play “Superman” every game, which turned out to be the story of this game. McNabb isn’t always accurate but he is consistently great. He works his ass off in football games to try to lead his team to victories, but like any other great quarterback, he needs help whether it’s a great running game, stud receiver or a great defense, and in the game against the Cardinals like most of this season and most of his career, he had neither.
Super Bowl breakdowns
Looking at the matchups and figuring out who has the advantage):
Kurt Warner vs. Ben Roethlisberger
Let’s see, both quarterbacks won a Super Bowl, Warner is making his third appearance in a Super Bowl and is leading his second team to the big game, while “Big Ben” is making his second Super Bowl appearance and is looking to redeem himself from an awful performance in his first game in a win against the Seattle Seahawks. Kurt Warner had an MVP-like season compiling huge numbers in the air and playing with poise and confidence in leading the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl appearance, while Roethlisberger was battered and bruised most of the year but managed to stay upright long enough to lead his team back to the big game. When you look at the quarterback play of both, along with the talent that surround them, I give the slight edge to Roethlisberger, because he managed to play exceptionally well under constant pressure in almost every game. Roethlisberger was sacked 45 times this season. Only the Raiders and 49ers allowed more sacks. Who had the better statistical season, Warner by a land slide. Who do I think will play better in the Super Bowl, Roethlisberger, based on the fact he is battle-tested and has something to prove in his second appearance in the big game.
The Cardinals’ offensive line vs. The Steelers’ offensive line
This Matchup is not close. Although the Cardinals’ offensive line struggled to run block this season, they stepped up their play in the playoffs increasing their yards on the ground per game from 85 to over 110 during the playoffs. Meanwhile, the much maligned Steelers’ offensive line improved as the season progressed; they still have 3 or 4 breakdowns during games that could prove costly in the Super Bowl, unless they get it together over the next 7 days. I don’t think they can.
The Cardinals’ running game vs. The Steelers’ running game
This is a tough one because both teams finished the regular season as a middle-of-the-road rushing team, yet they improved their rushing stats during the playoffs. The Cardinals have a rejuvenated Edgerin James, who is running hard to prove to the Cardinals and other teams, that he still can play at a high level, while Steelers’ running back Willie Parker is finally healthy and has that bounce in his legs and speed to the outside once again. The Cardinals prefer to pass first and run second, while the Steelers want to establish the ground game to set up play action and keep pressure off Roethlisberger. I think it will be tougher for the Cardinals to run the ball against the Steelers’ defense than the Steelers’ running the ball against the Cardinals’ defense, although the Cardinals from seven have played incredibly in the playoffs.
The Cardinals’ wide receivers vs. The Steelers’ wide receivers
Again this one is not close in my opinion. The Cardinals’ wide receivers have come up big in the post season and all season led by arguably the best receiver in the game, Larry Fitzgerald. What’s scary is Fitzgerald has put up video game numbers despite being double t eamed, being the primary receiver defenses in the playoffs have focused on, and without his friend and bookend receiver, Anquan Boldin. Heinz Ward is a gamer and a hard-nose receiver, who will play in the Super Bowl despite spraining his MCL against the Ravens in the AFC Championship game, so he will not be 100 percent, which means the pressure will be on guys like Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller to make big catches down the field for the Steelers. This will be a tough task for the Steelers’ secondary trying to stop Fitzgerald, Boldin and guys like Hightower out of the backfield.
The Cardinals’ special teams vs. The Steelers’ special teams.
Both teams have explosive players that can make plays and take it to the house and the team that makes the biggest plays in the special teams could very well make the difference in the game.
Next week we will breakdown: The Cardinals’ defensive line vs. the Steelers’ defensive line, the Cardinals’ secondary vs. the Steelers’ secon dary, the Cardinals’ kickers vs. the Steelers’ kickers, the Cardinals’ o-coordinator vs. the Steelers’ o-coordinator, the Cardinals’ d-coordinator vs. the Steelers’ d-coordinator, Ken Wisenhunt vs. Mike Tomlin, and for the first time this year, I will give you a prediction on who will win the game.
My top 15 teams after week 19:
1. Pittsburgh 2. Arizona 3. Baltimore 4. Philadelphia 5. Tennessee 6. New York(Giants) 7. San Diego 8. Carolina 9. Indianapolis 10. Atlanta 11. Miami 12. Minnesota
13. New England 14. Chicago 15. Dallas
Don’t forget to check out my show on blogtalkradio.com called “The Batchelor Pad” that airs Monday through Friday 6 pm-8pm EST. We discuss the world of sports from a social, economic and racial standpoint. Just go to the site and type “batchelor” in the search section.
Until next week…….Stay positive, be safe and enjoy the games!