Friday, January 16, 2009

Cohen's NFC Championship Coverage

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (11-6-1) @ ARIZONA CARDINALS (11-7)

If someone came up to me on Thanksgiving night, November 27, and told me that the prime time game between the Eagles and Cardinals would be a preview of the NFC Championship game some two months later, I would consider this person insane.

But it is true the Cards and Eagles are here and have earned it every step of the way.

After stumbling down the stretch and finishing at 9-7, noone expected much noise from the Cardinals in the postseason. They failed to win games on the east coast, failed to run the football effectively and failed to stop any opposing offense during the regular season. Something changed in the playoffs. The Cards discovered a ground attack with Edgerin James rushing for 73 yards on Atlanta in the wild card playoffs. Kurt Warner was decent in the game, completing 19 of 32 passes and throwing two touchdowns as Arizona outlasted the Falcons 30-24.

However, it was their performance against the Panthers that is the benchmark for Arizona this season. Carolina came in as huge favorite to slap the Cardinals, who were 0-5 on the east coast. Instead it was the Cards who took it to the Panthers. Arizona forced six Panther turnovers, including five Jake Delhomme interceptions as the Cards romped 33-13. Now they are in their first NFC Title game ever, and first championship game of any kind in 61 years.

As for the Eagles, they had to sneak into the playoffs. After a 10-3 loss to Washington in week 16, the Eagles needed to beat the Cowboys and hope that both the Chicago Bears and Tampa Buccaneers would lose their respective games in order for Philly to get in. The Bears and Bucs lost, and the Eagles proceeded to run over the Boys 44-6 that evening, propelling the birds into the postseason.

From there the Eagles outlasted the Vikings and thumped the world champion Giants to get to this point. This is a moment of vindication for Eagles quarterback Donavan McNabb, who was benched during a 36-7 loss to the Ravens in week 11. There was question as wheter McNabb's career in Philadelphia was over; but like a champion, McNabb came back, destroyed the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night 48-20, and has been in the driver seat ever since. Noone has questioned McNabb's status again.

So in a way this matchup is a twist of irony. The Cardinals were the team that McNabb resurected his career agaisnt just two short months ago, and now the Cards will be looking for revenge. In the past few years the NFL has had one Cinderalla march through the playoffs. In 2005 it was the Steelers who won four road games to win the Super Bowl. In 2006 it was the Saints who were finally de-railed by the Bears in the NFC Title game, and in 2007 it was the Giants who, like Pittsburgh, won four straight road games to win the whole thing.
Who is Cinderalla here? It is hard to tell. Both teams were left for dead before Christmas, and here they are now in the NFC title game. Let's just say there are not enough glass slippers to go around.

Expect to see the Eagles put on a heavy scheme of blitzes on Warner; the one way to rattle him is to get enough pressure that he throws up a couple of mistakes. Cards' receiver Anquan Bolden is expected to play, but he is coming off an injury so his impact could be limited. Expect the Eagles to do a lot of bump and run coverage on the Cards tall and lanky receivers.

The key for the Eagles is protecting the football. Coach Andy Ried loves to throw the football, and he will have to re-think that plan after the Cards picked off Delhomme five times. Expect to see a heavy dose of Brian Westbrook and Correl Buckhaulter against that shaky Cardinals run defense. PICK: EAGLES 30, CARDINALS 21.

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