Despite the untimely elimination of both the Carolina Panthers and San Diego (Super) Chargers from the playoffs last weekend, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about today’s conference championship matchups. For the NFC, we’ve got the Philadelphia Eagles traveling to Arizona to play — yes — the Arizona Cardinals. In the AFC, the Baltimore Ravens visit the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Ketchup Tundra. I’m going to attempt to analyze the games, but I have to tell you: almost nothing has gone to plan this postseason. (Except, of course, the whole “Chargers-don’t-have-a-chance-against-the-Steelers” meme.) Call this a shot in the dark.
NFC Championship (The Bird Bowl): Eagles at Cardinals, 3 ET, FOX
I’m torn on this game. The Eagles are certainly playing inspired football and have been doing all of it on the road as a six-seed. They have the “hard” road to the playoffs. In the end, this game comes down to protection — namely, how does the Cardinals offensive line hold up against the patented Jim Johnson “blitz early and often” defense? If Kurt Warner has time, I suspect he will do the same thing he’s done to the last two defenses he’s faced, and that is surgically pick them apart. The Cardinals have a lot of unheralded weapons and, for the first time this season, a running game. They have been continually underestimated during this postseason.
Same with the Eagles, though. Donovan McNabb has The Hunger for a Super Bowl title and is playing the best he has all season. Brian Westbrook is becoming dangerous again, and the emergence of DeSean Jackson gives McNabb more than one legitimate weapon. The Eagles will want to put together long, punishing, NFC East-style drives to keep that Cardinals offense off the field.
Of course, what I’ve written may be complete bunk — so far, I’ve been mostly correct as to the bunkitude of my predictions — and it could come down to a safety or something. That’s how bizarre this postseason has been. Based on biology, eagles generally are more aggressive than cardinals, so I’m going to go with the opposite and pick the Cardinals to win 5-0 on a safety and a Neil Rackers insurance field goal, because this postseason has been just that bizarre.
AFC Championship Game: Ravens at Steelers, 6:30 ET, CBS
This AFC Championship Game — which I will dub the Normalcy Bowl because this is a somewhat less surprising matchup — has the makings of a smashmouth classic won purely on attrition. What’s been most astonishing about the Ravens’ run on the road through the playoffs (they, too, are a six-seed) is that they’ve gotten it done — albeit in occasionally ugly fashion — with a rookie QB, Joe Flacco. While the defense has been winning games through sheer stinginess and a superhuman ability to swarm and take the football away — Flacco has been keeping his mistakes to a minimum and keeping that turnover margin well in the Ravens’ favor. That’s been their key to success, without question. (Ask Jake Delhomme, Kerry Collins, and Chad Pennington all about what it means to protect the football.)
The Steelers, too, play mean defense (they bent a little against the Chargers but got the stops when it mattered, particularly in their one play of the 3rd quarter against San Diego, when they picked off a Philip Rivers pass). The Steelers do the whole “offense” thing pretty well, too. Their epic third quarter, where the Chargers got maybe three snaps if they were lucky, was almost completely consumed by a steady diet of Willie Parker and deliberate quarterback play by Ben Roethlisberger. They’ll need both against a very tough Ravens defense.
Then there’s those intangibles. I’m not going to count weather as much of a factor — these teams are at similar latitudes and know exactly what can happen in January — snow. And lots of it. And this game promises to be a snowfest, with snow showers expected throughout the day. Again, the makings of a classic. (Smart of the NFL to put this one into prime time.) But what about the Steelers’ uncanny ability to lose playoff games in its home stadium? Remember, their 2005 championship came as a six-seed, all on the road — much like the Ravens are doing now. The Steelers will have to buck this trend of a postseason home upset, and if this postseason is any indication, home teams have had it awfully rough. This one’s too close to call.
Enjoy, folks — Championship Sunday is always fun!