Sixth sense: Two bottom seeds find way to championship games
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Finally healthy, Willie Parker and the Steelers are rolling along
What Vince Young's body language says, 10 Things I Think and more
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- We all could have envisioned a Baltimore-Pittsburgh championship game materializing. But Philadelphia-Arizona? With the Cardinals hosting? Not quite the Rays making the World Series, but the way Arizona was playing in December, it's close.
Eli Manning had just been intercepted again by the Eagles with three minutes left in New Jersey late Sunday afternoon, and Philadelphia's 23-11 upset of the Giants was sealed. Right about then, Ken Whisenhunt's cell phone rang in his living room in Arizona.
"You are not only playing in the NFC Championship game next Sunday,'' I said. "You are hosting the NFC Championship game next Sunday.''
"Isn't that great?'' he said. "Fantastic. Four, five weeks ago, who would have believed it?''
Think of the headlines from the weekend. That's the biggest one. A team with 28-, 21- and 40-point losses since Thanksgiving hosting a league championship game. But the other headlines are pretty strong too:
McNabb, yanked in November, leads Eagles to fifth title game this decade.
Flacco, no Fluke-o, the rookie QB wins his first two playoff games.
Will third Steelers-Ravens meeting of year be another Texas Steel Cage Match?
Eagles, Steelers in a possible Keystone State Super Bowl.
Two top seeds combine for 21 points, go down with a whimper.
Giants, winners of 4 of last 5 last year, lose 4 of last 5 this year.
Did Eli Manning's easy-to-decipher cadence cost the G-Men their season?
Sixth seeds 4-0 after two playoff weekends... all, of course, on the road.
Kurt Warner bids to be second QB to pilot different teams in Super Bowl.
It's weird, it's odd, it's what happens in the NFL every January. Flacco and Derrick Mason and Santonio Holmes and Larry Fitzgerald and Darnell Dockett and LaMarr Woodley and Brodrick Bunkley are bursting into our living rooms, and we don't know them, but we really like the stories they're writing.
The Arizona bounceback started in a stone-cold sober locker room in Foxboro three weeks ago.
Whisenhunt, searching for the right thing to say after being pulverized 47-7 by the Patriots, knew his team was on the verge of erasing all the goodwill and good feeling that winning the division championship of a weak division had created. He told me he said to his team, "Anybody who wants to play in the playoffs better show up in practice this week.'' And he formulated plans to put his players in pads for training camp-like practices. It's a Steeler thing to do, and Whisenhunt learned the Steeler way well as the offensive coordinator there before taking the Cardinal job.
Remember the day of that Cardinals-Patriots game? A snowy, windswept day in Massachusetts, and it took three hours for the de-iced Cardinal charter to get off the ground in nearby Providence after the game because of weather. The team sat on the plane, stewing in its juices. Then, because of severe headwinds, the plane had to stop in Minneapolis in the middle of the night to refuel. A trip of five-and-a-half hours took 11. The Cards landed in Phoenix at 5 a.m. Mountain Time.
"Miserable,'' said Whisenhunt, describing the trip. "Stuck on a plane, living with that horrible performance, digesting it for that long. But I think it actually helped from the standpoint of getting everyone to think about it and understand what a sense of urgency we needed to have. As I look back, it was a blessing in disguise.''
The players understood why they had to put the pads back on; it was part penalty and part back-to-basics. Most teams go padless late in the season, and some very rarely wear them once camp breaks, in an effort to keep players fresh in a long season. Whether it was the pads or the sense of desperation or the public humiliation the team took for getting taken to the woodshed three times, something worked.
Arizona beat Seattle in the suddenly not-so-meaningless season finale, and in the two playoff games, the defense has come alive. The same D that allowed 27 points a game during the season stoned Atlanta and Carolina and helped create a plus-seven turnover ratio. "The mental part of it has worked for us,'' Whisenhunt said. "When everybody's telling you you're the worst team ever to make the playoffs, it should make you angry. And our guys were angry.''
I was one of those ripping the Cards. I said they were the worst division winner since the league went to 12 playoff teams in 1990. And they were. They're not now. They've woken up and their wounded pride has taken over. Plus, Jake Delhomme was their best friend Saturday night.
"Keep picking against us,'' Whisenhunt said.
I might. But I have eyes. I might not.
The Eagles just physically handled the Giants when it counted.
Not the most amazing thing of the weekend: Jake Delhomme did throw to two Cardinals for every Panther.
Philadelphia led 20-11 when the three game-clinching stops happened in the fourth quarter:
1. 12:39 left, fourth-and-six inches, Giants' 44: Eli Manning sneaks up the gut, but never makes an inch. Tackles Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson submarine the line. Loss of six inches.
2. 7:24 left, third-and-two, Giants' 47: Ward takes a direct snap and sprints around right end. There's Juqua Parker to flatten him. Gain of zero.
3. 6:40 left, fourth-and-two, Giants' 47. Jacobs burrows into the gap between center and right guard. Bunkley fills the hole and can't be moved back. Stewart Bradley cleans up. Gain of one, though it looked like no gain from the replay.
David Akers' 20-yard field goal two minutes later made it a 12-point game with four minutes to go. Ballgame.
In the regular season, the Giants rushed for 5.0 yards a carry, for 157 yards a game, both league-bests. The Giants did rush for 138 yards Sunday, but they were surprisingly feeble when it counted. The offensive line is tremendous, the runners emerging as stars. And the way they ran with the season on the line ... shocking. Like the first 16 and a half games this year were a collective mirage. Afterward, I asked Bradley what happened. He said the Giants' backs did a great job using their blocks and sliding off them earlier in the year, and the Eagles were able to better fill the gaps in short yardage this game. And he had an interesting theory: Blame Manning's cadence.
"We had a pretty good idea of his cadence,'' Bradley said on the bus ride back to Philadelphia. The happy bus ride, from the sounds in the background. "When you play a guy three times in a season, you can pick up certain things. The tempo of his voice, how he puts his head up when he's getting ready to snap the ball ... it helped us today.''
It's back to the future for Manning ... and don't try to tell a real Giants fan the loss of Plaxico Burress didn't have much to do with the total collapse of the defending champs.
Manning's quarterback ratings in the five games since the suspension of Burress for carrying a concealed, unregistered pistol in New York: 73.5 (loss), 43.9 (loss), 94.8 (win), 76.4 (loss), 40.7 (loss).
Manning's completions of 30 yards or more in those five games: 2.
Giants GM Jerry Reese raised the possibility Sunday that Burress could return to the team "if everything goes right.'' I remember covering the team in the '80s and being surprised how the Giants bent over backwards to keep Lawrence Taylor around when he was a constant source of irritation for partying and drug use. But the late Wellington Mara loved the passion Taylor played with and was indebted to him for helping the team win two Super Bowls. He felt Taylor needed a guiding hand in life. It wouldn't be surprising if this new front office was similarly indebted to Burress and gave him one last chance -- if he could avoid being sent to jail for possession of the handgun.. If he's not back, Manning needs to campaign for a big receiver who can get open downfield. Period. Of course, the Giants did themselves no favors by allowing their most important offensive weapon on a windy, frigid day -- Brandon Jacobs -- to touch the ball on only 19 of 61 offensive plays. There were complete series where he never appeared on the field. And he carried it twice in the last 14 minutes of the first half. When the Giants look back at this game they'll wonder, why didn't we use this guy more.