NFC Championship Breakdown: Eagles-Cardinals
Who Has the Edge At...
So says the guy -- me -- who preferred Donovan McNabb over Eli Manning last week. (Well, I was right, wasn't I?) This pick is completely situational. On one hand you have McNabb, who played just well enough to get by last week and whose hot streak seems to have come to a sudden halt. Against the Giants he was just 22 of 40 for 217 yards with one passing score and two interceptions. And those incompletions had nothing to do with the setting; the wind at Giants Stadium was negligible. His passer rating of 58? It was the lowest for a winning quarterback in these playoffs. McNabb can't afford to play like that again; especially against a team that's putting up 27.2 points per game. I imagine a high-scoring shootout where Andy Reid asks too much of him, and that's when McNabb can get into trouble.
On the other hand you have Kurt Warner, who's 7-2 in the playoffs with a Super Bowl MVP under his belt. (Those two losses? Both by three points; one of them in the Super Bowl against New England.) He has a 92.6 rating in the playoffs. Oh, and he's playing at home, where he's 7-2 this season with a 19:6 touchdown to interception ratio. In those nine games he has six multi-touchdown efforts, and not once did he throw more than one pick. What can you say, the guy plays well when he sleeps in his own bed. (One of these days he's going to open up a press conference after a home win: "Well, I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night...")
Warner's downside is his propensity to get rattled, but we haven't seen that happen yet in the playoffs largely because his line has kept him on his feet. In two games Warner's been sacked just once. In turn, he's thrown just two interceptions and he hasn't fumbled at all.
Running Back: Cardinals
The Eagles run the ball perfectly well when they commit to it, but commitment hasn't always been the case this year. Brian Westbrook, their go-to guy, carried the ball fewer than 20 times in 11 of his 16 starts so far, including during all five Philadelphia losses that he played in. (Part of that can be attributed to injury.) He's been a bigger threat catching the ball out of the backfield where he has four touchdowns and three plays of more than 40 yards in the last seven games. Bottom line: He's pretty banged up and he's not a sure-thing to deliver the long first down carries Reid needs to sustain drives and keep Arizona's offense off the field. Westbrook's season average of 4 yards per carry tied a career low and in the playoffs he's been even worse: 1.95 yards a pop.
The Cardinals are almost impossible to understand at this point. Through 16 regular season games they ran the ball less often and for fewer yards than every other NFL team. Their longest run was for 35 yards, right near the bottom of the league. Same thing with their running first down figures: 70 first downs for a 19.9 percent success rate.
But they're a different beast in the playoffs. Among teams that have played two games, they've run the most often (35.5 times per game) for the most yards (231) and for the most first downs (13). What's changed? Part if it is the commitment. Any team that sticks to the run will gain some confidence in it. But a larger part of it is Edgerrin James' newfound passion. The guy's moving piles, running through people where I used to see him lay down or step out of bounds. He's playing like a guy who wants a new deal -- which he does. Edge's contract is about to expire and he's essentially auditioning for the rest of the league on national television. In his past three games, including the year-end game at Seattle, James has rushed for 230 yards. That's more than he'd gained in the previous nine games combined, large chunks of which were spent on the bench. James is motivated and healthy; Westbrook is maybe one of those, hence the pick.
The Cardinals have three guys -- Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston -- with at least 1,000 receiving yards and 77 catches. Two of them, Boldin and Fitzgerald, have at least 11 touchdowns. Of course, there's a chance they play again without Boldin, who's got a groin injury, but that won't cause much alarm in the locker room. The Cardinals are 5-0 without him in the game.
The Eagles? They haven't had a guy who could crack this Arizona starting lineup since Terrell Owens left. DeSean Jackson remains their biggest threat, but he's a one-dimensional guy who still struggles day-in and day-out to run crisp routes. Beyond him Philadelphia has no wide receiver who's caught more than 33 balls or accumulated more than 440 yards. McNabb makes the best of this unit with short precision passes, and he uses his backs as receivers, but overall they pale in comparison to Arizona's guys.
Offensive Line: Eagles
The Eagles' unit made it through playoff tussles with Minnesota and New York while sustaining minimal amounts of damage so Arizona should be a relative cakewalk in pass protection. They'll be counted on heavily to help create holes for Westbrook in the running game, too.
The Cardinals line is up for a bigger challenge. They're a relatively young bunch and they'll get blitzed from every direction, as is Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson's habit. They haven't seen anything like Philadelphia's blitz in the playoffs so far, save for a few times against Carolina. In those cases it was all that Warner (who had trouble getting out from under center, lest his center and guards backpedal into him) could do to dump the ball. Johnson's guys will be licking their chops.
Defensive Line: Eagles
Guys like Trent Cole, Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson deserve much of the credit for a win last week against the Giants. They effectively shut down one of the league's best running offenses and came through big time on a series of third- and fourth-and-short situations. Year-long they were one of the best run-stopping units (allowing just 92.3 yards per game) and they trailed only the Cowboys and Steelers in sacks.
The Cardinals' line made a statement in the wild-card round against Atlanta, bottling up Michael Turner for 42 yards on 18 carries; and they managed to get to Matt Ryan thrice as well. But you can credit most of that to their ability to time Ryan's cadence and get a good jump on the snap. There's little chance they get away with it again. (They didn't against Carolina and there was little to speak of in terms of pass rushing.) Year-long, this was a lower-tier run-stopping group. They yielded 36 rushing scores, more than any other team.
Philadelphia's Stewart Bradley and Chris Gocong are the guys to watch. They continue to make their marks in the playoffs, busting up Adrian Peterson and Brandon Jacobs in the backfield. The run will be less of a worry in this game so they'll be fixated on Warner, hoping to rattle the quarterback before he can dump off to the flats, where they otherwise would be. In blitzing they'll find their hands full with Arizona fullback Terrelle Smith, who prides himself on blowing up backers and ends.
On the other side, Karlos Dansby's the key to a defense that has five sacks and has allowed only 135 total rushing yards through two playoff games.
Defensive Backs: Eagles
The Eagles' Asante Samuel is on fire. He provided momentum-changing interceptions in each of Philadelphia's wins so far. Safeties Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell were the heat-seaking missiles that sank the Giants' and Vikings' rushing attacks. Last week, Larry Fitzgerald continually found gaps in the Panthers' secondary, but I can't imagine it happens too often against this incredibly cohesive unit.
The Cardinals have had strong performances from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Antrell Rolle, but I don't give them full credit for the Carolina win. Most of that falls on Jake Delhomme, who gift-wrapped most of his picks.
Special Teams: Eagles
David Akers has been huge in getting early points on the board for the Eagles. He's seven-for-seven, including a 51-yarder and two others from outside the 40. The Cardinals' Neil Rackers is right behind him in playoff points, but he's missed twice from beyond 50. Those misses equate to solid field position for an opponent, which an offense like Philly's needs.
Andy Reid has lead his Eagles' to a remarkable five NFC Championship games over the last eight years. Of course, he's only won one of those games. He's 10-6 in the playoffs but he's never won three in a row.
Ken Whisenhunt has never been here as a head coach but he was a huge part of the Steelers' Super Bowl run three seasons ago. In that year Pittsburgh marched through four games as a sixth seed to take the Lombardi Trophy. He's got a ring on his finger and he's convinced the current Cardinals that they can be winners, too, hence playoff wins over the top two teams in arguably the NFC's toughest division, the South.
How The Eagles Will Win
It starts on defense where Philly's front four absolutely has to get to Warner right off the bat. The Cardinals lose when Warner puts the ball on the ground and the Eagles have guys, like Samuel, who thrive on loose or errant balls. If the Eagles can turn an early mistake or two into quick points -- I'm talking the seven-point variety, not the field goals they've been settling for -- then Whisenhunt might abandon the run, which has been setting up Warner's pass so well lately. When the Cardinals become one-dimensional, they're the same team that went 2-4 down the stretch in then regular season.
How The Cardinals Will Win
Defensively, they simply need to play with the fire they've routinely shown at home and in these playoffs. When guys like Dansby and Darnell Dockett get motivated, the rest of the troops follow. Responsibility will fall largely on Dansby and middle linebacker Gerald Hayes to contain Westbrook. If they can't, they're toast.
On offense, getting Boldin back would be huge. Elsewhere, they need to show the same resiliency they did last week. The Panthers scored on then first drive of that game, yet Whisenhunt called for runs on over a third of the Cardinals' next 11 plays. Those plays didn't go for big gains, but they sold the Panthers on the idea that the Cardinals weren't afraid to run, which opened some things up in the passing game.
How many times have you heard it this week: the Eagles are "playing with house money"? To continue the analogy, What happens when you play with house money, kids? You eventually lose.
I don't fully buy that either of these teams belongs here, but the Cardinals are the more legit team when they're on their A game. Whisenhunt got his guys to overcome the long trip to Carolina, and he'll have them all revved up for the conference championship. I like the Cardinals, 30-14, in their biggest win of the playoffs, setting up an irresistible force meets immovable object Super Bowl against either of the AFC's defensive stalwarts.