Five subplots for Eagles-Cardinals
Kurt Warner and Donovan McNabb have championship game history
Larry Fitzgerald vs. Asante Samuel will be the best matchup to watch
Cardinals have found traction in their ground game in the playoffs
The upstart Cardinals host the surprising Eagles on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium in a game that absolutely no one saw coming. Here are five subplots for the most unlikely NFC championship game ever:
1. So, we meet again. In effect, Donovan McNabb and Kurt Warner began their NFL quarterbacking careers in 1999, even though Warner wasn't technically a rookie that season like McNabb. That's the year, of course, that Warner exploded onto the NFL scene in St. Louis, taking over for an injured Trent Green late in the preseason and going on to earn the league's MVP award and the Super Bowl MVP honor for the ring-winning Rams.
But McNabb and Warner have some shared NFC championship game history together as well, having faced one another in the title game seven years ago, when Warner and the Rams bested McNabb and the Eagles 29-24 in St. Louis. That was the first of four consecutive NFC title game appearances for the on-their-way-up Eagles, and, really, the last big hurrah for Warner's Rams, who were beaten by upstart New England the next week in Super Bowl XXXVI. Both quarterbacks played well in that game, but Warner, once again voted the league's MVP, was better, finishing 22 of 33 for 212 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. McNabb was 18 of 30 for 171 yards, with one touchdown and one interception through the air, and a 3-yard scoring run that pulled the Eagles to within five points in the fourth quarter.
2. The Cardinals are Hawks. Ball hawks, that is. Out of nowhere, seemingly, Arizona's defense has become a takeaway machine in the playoffs, intercepting seven passes and recovering two fumbles against Atlanta and Carolina. That's nine turnovers forced and that's one more than even Baltimore's takeaway-happy defense has accomplished the past two weeks in wins at Miami and Tennessee.
The Cardinals scored 23 of their 33 points at Carolina off of turnovers, and against the Falcons their defense had a fumble recovery/return for a touchdown, a safety, two picks of Matt Ryan and three sacks. McNabb best keep an Eagle eye on Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has an interception in each of Arizona's playoff wins.
While the Cardinals are cruising along with a plus-7 turnover margin in the playoffs, making everything look easy on defense, Philadelphia hasn't been as fortunate in ball protection. The Eagles have two turnovers in each of their playoff wins at Minnesota and New York, with Philly's defense generating five takeaways for a plus-1 turnover margin. McNabb and the Eagles simply can't let the high-flying Cardinals play on a short field and generate the kind of early-game momentum that doomed Atlanta and Carolina.
3. The Star System. There won't be a better matchup to watch Sunday than Cardinals all-world receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who can catch anything close to him, going head-to-head with the Eagles' sticky-fingered cornerback Asante Samuel. Fitzgerald has made these playoffs his big-stage coming out party, with 14 catches for 267 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the first postseason of his five-year NFL career. He has a flair for the spectacular, with those highlight reel jump-ball receptions against the Falcons and Panthers, and I'm not sure how the 5-foot-10 Samuel is expected to compete against the 6-3 Fitzgerald's sizable height advantage. "You've got to be able to jump to the highest point with Fitzgerald,'' said Samuel, in classic easier-said-than-done form.
Samuel's game relies more on his other-worldly sense of anticipation and willingness to take chances with breaks on the ball. He has picked off passes in each of the Eagles' playoff wins, returning one for a touchdown against the Vikings and the other 25 yards to the 2 against the Giants. His 227 yards of interception returns are the most in NFL history, and seven of his nine career playoff picks have come in his most recent 10 playoff games.
4. Gaining their balance. The Cardinals really haven't been very recognizable in the playoffs, mainly because they're running the ball. Successfully. Arizona was the league's worst rushing team in the regular season, averaging just 73.6 yards per game, and 3.5 yards per carry. The Cardinals did their damage through the air, with a passing game that ranked second in the NFL (292.1), trailing only the No. 1 Saints. But in the postseason, Arizona actually has a run game, with 86 yards on the ground against Atlanta and a whopping 145 at Carolina. That's 115.5 per game, and that would have seen them ranked 13th in rushing in the regular season.
The Eagles have to at least take away the Arizona running game and hope to contain the Cardinals passing. But in the playoffs, a pair of top-five rushing teams (the No. 1 Giants and No 5 Vikings) have gouged Philly for an average of 143 running yards per game. The Eagles are better than that; they held teams to just 92.3 rushing yards in the regular season, which was fourth best in the league. If Philadelphia bottles up the re-discovered Edgerrin James and rookie Tim Hightower, the Cardinals should go back to being the one-dimensional offense that was very hit or miss in 2008.
5. McNabb's last laugh. Name me the last time a quarterback went from being benched during the same season in which he led his team to the Super Bowl? Maybe Joe Gilliam winning the Steelers starting job over Terry Bradshaw coming out of the preseason in 1974? That sort of fits, but not exactly. That's what McNabb is playing for Sunday in Glendale, Ariz. The chance to pull off the late-season renaissance of all late-season renaissances. And fittingly, it was against the Cardinals, in Week 13, that McNabb began his comeback, shaking off that mid-game benching in Baltimore four days before to help the Eagles rout visiting Arizona 48-20 on Thanksgiving night.
Philadelphia is 6-1 since McNabb was forced to take a seat for the first time in his 10-year NFL career, and after a Week 16 loss at Washington gave the Eagles a near-death experience, there's nothing they fear at this point. After McNabb was mocked for his lack of NFL tie awareness in Cincinnati, booed at home, and relegated to No. 2 in Baltimore, the Eagles having to only beat the Cardinals for a trip to the Super Bowl might be the most improbable turn of events we've seen yet in the whole wild ride that has been the McNabb era in Philly. And that, as any observer of the NFL or No. 5 knows, is a mouthful.