My picks for Championship Sunday
Frigid temperatures in Pittsburgh won't play to either team's advantage
A rookie cornerback may be the key in Eagles-Cardinals game
Injuries to several starters will severely hinder Ravens on Sunday
PITTSBURGH -- Greetings from Ice Station Zebra.
It's not as bad as Green Bay last year for the NFC Championship Game, but temperatures of minus-6 degrees greeted the Steelers when they reported to work this morning. Schools were canceled all over western Pennsylvania because of the cold, and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin decided to make a common-sense change in his practice schedule this morning. He was scheduled to practice his team on the outside practice fields here, but decided to go inside ... and keep the doors to the facility open so the players would feel the cold but not be tormented by it.
There could be a snow globe Sunday night for the 6:30 kickoff (the night game rotates between the AFC and NFC each season and 2009 is the AFC's turn). The forecast is for a game-time temperature of 22 degrees with a 17-degree wind-chill, and a 40 percent chance of flurries.
Advantage? Neither team. Both quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco, are sturdy guys with strong arms who grew up playing in the cold -- Roethlisberger in high school and college in Ohio, Flacco in high school in Jersey and college in Delaware. These teams have lots of cold-weather experience, so it shouldn't be a deciding factor Sunday night.
I like the Steelers, which goes against my pick of the Ravens at the start of the AFC playoffs. And I like the Eagles in Arizona. More about both picks later, but a Keystone State Super Bowl would make the folks on the Pennsylvania Turnpike awfully happy. On my drive out here Thursday from New Jersey, I saw blinking signs every few miles, from Carlisle to Monroeville, saying: "Go Steelers ... Go Eagles ... Turnpike Super Bowl.''
Two defensive coordinators a generation apart take the main stage in this weekend's championship games. Had a chance to talk to both Thursday and this is what I came away with: Arizona's Clancy Pendergast, 41, and Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau, 71, both like pressure, versatile players and new ideas ... and will try to use all three to advance to the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals are a different team in the playoffs, obviously, than the one that stumbled to 28-, 21- and 40-point losses down the stretch. Pendergast credits coach Ken Whisenhunt's wakeup call to the team after the 47-7 beatdown by the Patriots in Week 16, when the head coach told the players he'd make playoff playing-time decisions based on how they practiced and played in the final regular-season week. And the Cards put on pads and beat each up before playing Seattle in Week 17, and the toughening-up has obviously helped. "We needed that,'' Pendergast said. "And our guys have really responded to playing playoff football. On the defensive side, I've always believed in putting players in position to take away what the offense does best, and I think we've done a good job at that in the playoffs so far.''
Arizona has allowed only 3.5 yards per carry in eight postseason quarters, and has seven interceptions of Matt Ryan and Jake Delhomme. The Cards have done it, in part, by Pendergast moving players to different sports to maximize their effectiveness and to disguise what they do. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett has played all over the line, and defensive end Antonio Smith, a vastly underrated player, moves around too. Middle linebacker Karlos Dansby has dropped back into center-fielding coverage at times, while safety Adrian Wilson has doubled as a linebacker. Antrel Rolle alternates between safety and corner.
What's also helped significantly is the cover ability of rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has two playoff interceptions; his clinging coverage helped hold Steve Smith to two catches for 43 yards last week. "He's got great closing speed and ball skills,'' Pendergast said of the Cards' first-round rookie.
Rodgers-Cromartie, to me, is the key to this game. Donovan McNabb is playing with great confidence. I expect the Cards to be able to shut down the Eagles running game the way they shut down Michael Turner and slowed the Panthers rushing attack. Whether the secondary, keyed by this young ballhawk, can bug McNabb is the key to winning.
In Pittsburgh, LeBeau has been watching lots of Flacco tape. He's impressed. Though Flacco had only one touchdown pass and completed 46 percent of his throws in two losses to Pittsburgh, LeBeau can tell why he might be dangerous Sunday. "They've had no turnovers in the playoffs,'' LeBeau said. "And for Joe, he's played 16 regular-season games and two playoff games. This is his 19th game. That's almost two college seasons. So he's pretty comfortable in what they do now. They've become more and more comfortable with him as the year's gone on. He does remind me -- and not just a little bit -- of Ben [Roethlisberger]. Tremendously strong arm, and he has the ability to create plays with his legs.''
Pittsburgh wins on defense by turning second and third down into long-yardage situations. If Baltimore back Le'Ron McClain is hampered or idled by his severe ankle sprain, it puts more pressure on Flacco -- and it gives LeBeau more of a chance to use his changeup linebackers, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, in multiple rush and coverage looks. That's often what the Steelers do that offenses can't figure out. The defense is like a snowflake. You never see the same formation twice. Expect Flacco to see very few discernible patterns Sunday night.
Now the picks:
The longer the week goes, the more reason I find to like Arizona. The defense has been reborn in January, the players have perfected the Rodney Dangerfield no-respect rant, Larry Fitzgerald is playing like Superman, and they'll be home, inside their weather-controlled dome. However, what this pick comes down to is my late-season belief in Donovan McNabb ... 217 yards passing in the Meadowlands wind tunnel last week, 68-percent passing in Minnesota's noise machine the week before, and a 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception differential in the five games since Andy Reid pulled the plug on him in Baltimore. And though I trust the Arizona defense to stop the Eagle run, I trust McNabb to make the right decisions and move the Eagles consistently against Arizona.
On the other side, I don't think Kurt Warner will have the time to throw that he's had in his first two playoff games, which means he probably will have to throw more checkdowns than he likes. The Eagles linebackers ate up the checkdowns against the Giants last week. McNabb's out for redemption, whether he says it or not, and he'll get it near his winter home in the desert. Philadelphia 24, Arizona 19.
As a reporter, or a fan, when you get to the big games, you just hope both teams come in healthy so when the ball's kicked off, you can say, "Let the best man win.'' In this game, I'm afraid it's about the healthiest team winning. The Steelers' running game has come alive with a healthy Willie Parker gashing the Browns and Chargers for 262 yards on 50 carries in his last two starts. And Roethlisberger has made a real alternative out of Santonio Holmes in the passing game, so he now has three guys -- Holmes, Heath Miller, Hines Ward -- he trusts implicitly when he throws.
I fear the Ravens will have to play the pass with Fabian Washington and Frank Walker -- good, hard-trying guys but not shutdown corners -- playing most of the snaps at corner with Chris McAlister long-gone and Samari Rolle likely out with a thigh injury. Two huge Ravens in this postseason, McClain and Terrell Suggs, will either be out or severely limited with injuries. I loved the Ravens two weeks ago. I still love their gumption, but I don't think that's enough to beat the hottest team playing and playing at home. Pittsburgh 20, Baltimore 13.