It’s hard to pick against a streaking underdog.
Yet that’s the dilemma most NFL fans are in when they look at this Sunday’s pair of conference championship matches.
At 3pm the NFC title game gets underway with two surprise teams. The streaking Philadelphia Eagles travel to Phoenix to take on the suddenly formidable Arizona Cardinals.
At 6:30pm the AFC Championship game kicks off. Perennial AFC power Pittsburgh hosts the upstart Baltimore Ravens.
All of those squads earned their spot in those games after some solid showings last weekend in the divisional playoffs.
In the NFC the Eagles looked in good form as they took down the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants at Giants Stadium with a resounding 23-11 victory.
Meanwhile the Cardinals, lead by a dangerous pass rush and solid runs, pulled off the upset of the year as they spanked the Carolina Panthers 33-13.
Over in the AFC Pittsburgh used its bruising defense and a resurgent run game to shut down a streaking San Diego Chargers team 35-24.
The Ravens continued their improbable run by winning the bout of heavyweight defenses with the Tennessee Titans 13-10.
The Eagles got by the Giants last week because their defense dictated the pace of the game and the options for the offense.
Sure the Giants ran the ball ok (nabbing 138 yards on the ground), with Brandon Jacobs eating up 92 yards. But Eli Manning got nothing in the air, throwing for just 169 yards, no TDs and two interceptions.
Moreover Donovan McNabb got protection and time to throw. He didn’t put up great numbers (217 yards, one TD and two interceptions) but he doesn’t need to as he only needs to make the big plays when they matter most.
Look for the Eagles to do more of the same. I expect Asante Samuels, DeSean Jackson and McNabb to play leading roles for Philly in Phoenix.
The Cardinals smacked the Panthers because the defense stepped up. The pass rushing was consistent, throwing Delhomme’s timing off and the secondary prevented big plays.
Morever Carolina panicked because Arizona showed great versatility on offense. As expected Warner made good passes (21/32, two TDs, one pick) but the backbreaker was backs James and Hightower combining for 37 attempts, 133 yards and a touchdown.
It has to be noted that Carolina moved away from the run game despite nabbing 75 yards and a TD on just 15 run attempts.
Against the Eagles the Cardinals have to run the ball with similar success. In addition the secondary will need to shut down receivers and the defensive linemen have to control the line of scrimmage.
I may come off as an Arizona doubter but they’re too inconsistent to be trusted and see their defense making enough mistakes to allow Philly to get the edge on time of possession and pound the ball.
I see Philly winning in convincing fashion 24-12.
Over in the AFC the Steelers beat the Chargers because they were the more physical team.
The tackling was solid, the secondary made the plays when it counted most and the offense found a way to get points on the board.
In fact the Steelers had an unusually high-scoring outing. They scored in every quarter, the run game grabbed 165 yards and three TDs and to cap it off their punt return man took one back for a TD.
The parts of the game that worried me where their pass defense and special teams. Sproles nabbed 164 yards on kick returns and 91 yards receiving (including a TD). QB Philip Rivers had a good game with 308 yards passing and three TDs.
The biggest defensive positive I saw was their complete shutdown of the run game. Granted LT was missing but it doesn’t take away from the fact the Steelers allowed just 15 total yards on the ground.
I expect to see Tomlin preach better defense to his Steelers crew this week. Meanwhile Parker should continue to run hard and the receiving core should make timely grabs.
Everyone knows and respects that Baltimore is a tough team to score on. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bart Scott and company certainly made that clear in their win over Tennessee.
Their ability to force five fumbles and constantly get in Collins’ face made plenty of difference. The defense also took Chris Johnson and the run out of the game and forced the Titans into being one-dimensional.
On offense the Ravens were ok though you wouldn’t know it on the stats sheet. The run game fell flat (McGahee got stoned badly and McClain just didn’t show up) and the receivers (not named Mason) hardly got the ball.
However, Flacco played with poise beyond his years, especially on the last drive to get in field goal range.
For Baltimore to continue their run the defense has to continue to be the focal point. Stopping the run and getting more stops on pass plays will be critical this weekend. To me more brilliance from Flacco and the receivers would be icing on the cake.
With the way Baltimore’s defense is going it’s hard to see them falling flat against the Steelers. Pittsburgh can burn them with the run but they really have the make-up of the 2000 squad that won it all.
This is a really close game to call and this game will be a dogfight. Though the Steelers beat the Ravens twice this year I don’t think the third time will be a charm. Baltimore squeaks by here 12-9.