NFL Coach of the Year breaks down conference championship games
Falcons' Mike Smith has recent history with all four championhip teams
Smith: The Eagles success will be predicated by protection
Smith: The Ravens injury situation is a big reason to worry
Falcons rookie head coach Mike Smith collected the NFL's Coach of the Year award from the Associated Press this season for the remarkable turnaround that he helped author in Atlanta. The Falcons went 11-5 and made the playoffs as an NFC wild-card entry after enduring the misery of 2007's 4-12 finish.
The Falcons this season played both teams that will vie for the NFC title Sunday in Arizona, losing at Philadelphia in the regular season and at the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs. Atlanta this year also faced AFC title game entry Baltimore in the final game of the preseason, and Smith was Jacksonville's defensive coordinator when the Jaguars went into Pittsburgh and upset the Steelers in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. On Friday, Smith agreed to offer his analysis of the NFL's final four with SI.com:
NFC: Eagles at Cardinals
"The theme of this year's playoffs has been turnovers, and once again this weekend the teams that hold onto the football have the best chance to win and get to the Super Bowl. The Cardinals defense has been playing very confidently in their first two games, and they're creating turnovers at an unheard of pace. They weren't a big turnover defense during the season, but they've got nine in two games, and it's really 10 turnovers because of the safety they got against us. Any way you slice it, a safety is like a turnover.
"But they do have some play-makers on that defense. Their rookie cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, is an impressive young man. He's come a long way this season and he's playing really well when the ball's in the air. Adrian Wilson is a Pro Bowl player, and what's really helped them is Antrel Rolle making the switch to that safety spot from cornerback. (Defensive tackle) Darnell Dockett has stepped up his game to a new level, and that whole defensive line is playing with a lot of passion. They're not doing anything exotic, but they're getting it done.
"I know we struggled with the crowd noise against the Cardinals defensive line. They beat us off the ball consistently, and we were shocked at the environment they had going in that stadium for our wild-card game. We played in both the Superdome and the Metrodome this season, and they're known as two of the noisiest places in the NFL. But with that roof closed in Arizona, it wasn't even close. They were rocking from the opening kickoff, and that noise could be a factor in this game as well.
"I'm really impressed with how the Eagles offensive line has been protecting Donovan McNabb. They kept him clean against the Giants, and you know what New York's pass rush can do. But good protection for McNabb is allowing him to really distribute the ball to all of his skill players. DeSean Jackson has really become a home run hitter, and they're creating different ways to get him the ball. But Jason Avant's done a great job, and their second tight end, Brent Celek, has really come on. It's all predicated on protection. McNabb has been able to go through his progression and make his reads, and then he's got a checkdown to go after that. And when your checkdown is Brian Westbrook, that's a great checkdown option.
"Nobody has really been able to cover Larry Fitzgerald yet in the playoffs, and if Anquan Boldin is healthy enough to play well, that makes it even tougher for the Eagles to scheme to stop Fitzgerald. You have to concede that he's going to make a big catch or two a game that leaves you scratching your head saying, 'How did he do that?' They have to scheme somehow to get their hands on him, because he's going to hurt you with free access, like he was doing against Carolina last week with those drag routes across the field. But they move him, it's tough to double him or get some hands on him.
"The strength of Philly's defense is that it has three starting cornerbacks with Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard. That's going to help against Arizona's passing game. I don't see (Eagles defensive coordinator) Jim Johnson blitzing as much this postseason, but they have called some timely blitzes. He'll have a game plan in place that will create some guys running free to the quarterback. And the Eagles are getting good production from their defensive line rotation. They've got a lot of guys up front playing and playing well.''
AFC: Ravens at Steelers
"Just like the Eagles in the NFC, the Ravens are a sixth seed that isn't playing like a sixth seed. But that's where I believe the playoffs are becoming a mirror image of the regular season, where you can line all the teams up, from 1 to 32, and there's really not a lot of difference in ability and talent. It's a fairly even league, and in regular season, you're always seeing results where you wonder 'How did that outcome happen?'
"The playoffs are becoming more and more balanced every year. Everybody has a legitimate shot. That's why it's so important to play your way into the tournament. It doesn't really matter as much any more if you're No. 1 or 2, as long as you're in the field. The teams playing the best are the teams that are going to get the farthest. Seeds don't matter as much any more.
"One thing I'm looking forward to in this game is watching the linebackers on both teams. Both teams really pride themselves on defense and they're all very fast across the board at linebacker. Pittsburgh's got James Harrison, and LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote, and Baltimore matches them with Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott. And then there are the safeties in this game. Ed Reed is arguably the best in the league, by far, but Troy Polamalu is a force on the other side for the Steelers. It's going to be just a great showdown between those two defenses.
"I hadn't really thought about it before this week, but I guess in some ways Joe Flacco really has become kind of like Ben Roethlisberger Jr. He's taking care of the ball, but he can throw it down the field. He has a great deep arm and he can get it there. Neither team is really getting a running game from just one guy, but Baltimore does go with more of a running by committee style, with Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee. And Pittsburgh's Willie Parker looks like he's back to the level he was in recent years. One guy for the Steelers who I think is very underrated is Mewelde Moore. He does a nice job both running and catching the ball. Both these defense thrive on takeaways, so the offenses just can't get started with the turnovers.
"Baltimore's injury situation has to concern them a little. I know the Ravens would enhance their chances of winning if Samari Rolle is out there and Suggs is out there, and Todd Heap's healthy enough to contribute. I did a lot of work scouting Suggs when he came into the league, and he's a tough guy. He'll play if he possibly can. Both teams all year have had a bunch of very resilient, determined guys who have fought through injuries to stay on the field. Baltimore especially had people step up on the offensive line and do a great job when called upon.
"It's never easy going into Heinz Field and getting out of there with a win. We did it with the Jaguars in last year's playoffs, but taking their crowd out of the game is very difficult. The Steelers have the most rabid fans in the league. When I was with Baltimore, their fans would travel well, too. There would be 20,000 of them at their road games. They're knowledgeable fans and they understand the game isn't over until it's over. You have to really work at it and get a pretty good lead to take their fans out of the game.''