Friday, January 16, 2009

NFC Championship Game Preview

After a rough second round stab at picking NFL games (just 1-3, that’s what I get for picking all 4 home favorites) I’m now just idling along at 4-4 for this playoff season. Needless to say, that’s not the kind of results I was hoping for when I decided to pick this year’s NFL playoff season. I’m only picking the NFC Championship game today and will have a more in-depth breakdown of Steelers-Ravens up for tomorrow.

Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals

I nailed both of these picks in the first round, but unfortunately I screwed the pooch and badly underestimated both in the second round. Awful QB play by the opposition was the key for both squads advancement to this point, as the Eagles have knocked off Tavaris Jackson and Jake Delhomme who choked so bad I thought someone was going to have to do the Heimlich Maneuver on him. The Cards benefitted from Eli Manning’s reversion to the crappy Eli Manning that we all knew and loved prior to his late 2007 surge.

For Arizona, it’s all going to come down to the incomparable Larry Fitzgerald. There shouldn’t have been any doubt prior to the playoffs, but in case some fans still weren’t aware, I think Larry has officially cemented himself as the best receiver in football. He has been unbelievable in the playoffs after yet another monster regular season, and it’s a mystery to me as to why Carolina wasn’t constantly putting 2 and 3 defenders on Fitz given that Anquan Boldin was out. If Larry gets loose again and the Eagles aren’t able to make adjustments to at least keep him in check, the Cards offense will run wild on Philly. However, while I did say that Philly benefitted from the lousy QB play of their opposition, some definite credit should go the play of their D, and it will be very interesting to see how Kurt Warner matches up against Jim Johnson’s superb unit. Warner has been in this situation too many times before to lay an egg like Eli or Jackson did, so I don’t expect to see the same struggles, but I’d be more than willing to bet that Zona’s offense is held mostly in check except for the inevitable game-changing catches that Larry always seems to make. Arizona’s running game has also come to life of late, putting together a stunning 145 yards on the ground against Carolina last week. Edgerrin James has also had some spring back in his step. I don’t expect Johnson’s defensive schemes led by the likes of tackling machines Quintin Mikell and Stewart Bradley and blitzing stars Darren Howard and Trent Cole to be susceptible to a surprise ground attack from the Cards.

The Eagles late-season rejuvenation has been led by the similarly rejuvenated Donovan McNabb. Remember McNabb being benched in favor of Kevin Kolb? Yeah, that was all anybody could talk about that week, the fall of Donovan McNabb. So much for that, eh? Now he has his team 60 minutes away from his second Super Bowl berth. And I honestly can’t figure out how he’s doing this. Brian Westbrook has a few really good plays a game in him, but he’s a little on the gimpy side. And yeah DeSean Jackson has been very good as a playmaking rookie, but I mean, c’mon, he’s still a rookie wide receiver. McNabb’s use of his feet has been probably the biggest difference maker for this otherwise very average offense. His scrambling ability has neutralized blitzes and bought him time for Jackson and Kevin Curtis to get open.

The most interesting aspect of this game, though, will be the work of the Arizona Cardinals defense. The Cardinals D was gouged for tons of points and yards numerous times this season. They gave up 35 or more points 4 times in their final 6 regular season games, a truly appalling number for any team, let alone a playoff team. And yet in the playoffs, they have been very good. They have given up yards, sure, but they have made plays all over the field when things mattered the most. I mean Jake Delhomme had 6 turnovers for god’s sake! The Arizona secondary may be occasionally vulnerable, but they have outstanding athletes like Antrel Rolle and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie back there that can change the game when you least expect it. I really have very little idea what to expect from this unit in this game, but I’m sure it will be entertaining to watch it all go down.

The Pick: Philadelphia 27 Arizona 21
Jim Johnson’s superb game-planning helps to at least neutralize Fitzgerald, and forces Warner to throw to a gimpy Anquan Boldin and his other, less-talented options like Steve Breaston. Warner, as steady as he has been this season, is forced into a few mistakes by Johnson’s blitzes. Donovan McNabb avoids the dry heaves to scramble around and make plays with his feet and with his arm to DeSean Jackson, who I think has a big game thanks to his incredible speed.

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