Battle of the Birds: NFC Championship Preview

Bryan Hollister@too_old_4stupidAnalyst IJanuary 13, 2009

How fitting that the NFC Championship will be played just outside of Phoenix, Arizona—a town whose name refers to a mythical bird that appears to die in flames before resurrecting itself from the ashes to appear as strong as ever.

Not only do the two teams competing for the NFC title have birds for mascots, they are both led by quarterbacks who have risen from the ashes this season to earn their teams playoff berths.

This weekend, they go head-to-head to claim the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIII.

Arizona is led by Kurt Warner, who "burst" onto the scene in 1999 as the ringmaster for "The Greatest Show on Turf" to lead the St. Louis Rams to victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV, then saw his career take a long slow slide as he suffered injuries that kept him from returning to form.

While their 9-7 regular season record wasn't spectacular, their postseason chances weren't really in jeopardy seeing as all they had to do was win the NFC West title.

Warner's performance this year has been of the renaissance variety, throwing for 4,583 yards, 30 touchdowns, and completing nearly 70 percent of his passes.

The Eagles have at the helm one Donovan McNabb, who has had a career—and season—of ups and downs, but was able to pull it together at the last minute and snatch the No. 6 seed away from the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17.

McNabb's performance thus far in the playoffs has been what most have come to expect—or at least desperately hope for—517 yards passing with two touchdowns, another one gained rushing, and some key heroics to take the Eagles to Scottsdale, and possibly to the Super Bowl.

These two teams have plenty of detractors, current company included.

Philly couldn't manage anything better than a tie against Cincinnati, a "cardinal" sin in my book, if you'll excuse the pun.

Arizona gained entry into the post season by beating Seattle, San Francisco, and St. Louis—not exactly what you would call the most challenging schedule in the league.

But, lament as I might, it doesn't change the fact that these two teams are preparing for a showdown next week, so we may as well accept it and look to what each must consider if they want to win the game.

Key Matchups to Watch

Larry Fitzgerald vs. Eagles Defensive Backs

Fitzgerald has been largely responsible for Arizona's success in the postseason. He has made catches in the open, in single coverage, in double coverage:  Just throw the ball up there and tell him "go get it!"—and he does. If Anquan Boldin isn't able to go, Fitzgerald will once again have to step up and be the big play receiver.

Asante Samuel comes into this game with two interceptions and hunts down passes like a Patriot missile hunts down SCUDs. These two will line up head-to-head often come game time, and with Quintin Mikkel and Brian Dawkins providing backside support, Fitzgerald may find the circus catches he has made in his last two games a bit harder to pull off.

Kurt Warner vs. Eagles Zone Blitz

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson loves the zone blitz, as well he should. Multiple fronts and varying cover schemes can prevent an offense from knowing who will be coming from where, and who might drop back and spy.

However, Warner has been around. He's seen a lot, and has shown a propensity this year for reading the blitz well enough to get the ball out to his receivers in plenty of time.

The key for Philadelphia will be if they can show Warner something he hasn't seen before. If they come in with a game plan similar to the one they used in Philly's victory over Arizona earlier this year, he's liable to pick it apart.

Cardinals Front Four vs. Philadelphia Front Five

This is a David vs. Goliath matchup. Philly's offensive line weighs in at a whopping average of almost 334 pounds, while Arizona's front comes in at 281 pounds. Travis Leboy was the biggest producer of the group—in stats, not size—but he's questionable, which likely means Bertrand Berry gets the work.

Arizona will have to figure out a way to get a good push out of these behemoths, or McNabb will sit back and play catch with his receivers all day long.

Donovan McNabb vs. Cardinals Secondary

Jake Delhomme is not as bad a passer as the Cardinals made him look last weekend. His completion accuracy has been at or near 60 percent every year he has played. Still, the Cardinals were able to pick him off five times last week, with Rodgers-Cromartie, Brown, Hayes, Hood, and Rolle all getting a share of the pie. If they perform like that against Philadelphia, McNabb is in for a long day.

Donovan McNabb vs. Donovan McNabb

Which Donovan McNabb shows up for this game? The one who has led the Eagles to five NFC Championship games in eight years, or the Donovan McNabb who was plagued with injuries for most of 2005-2007, didn't know before a 13-13 tie against the Cincinnati Bengals that a professional football game could even end in a tie, played so poorly against the Ravens that he was benched, and garnered a pointless unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the New York Giants?

Off the field, McNabb presents the appearance of a well-dressed, well-spoken professional who knows his stuff. On the field, he can pull some real bone-headed moves. He can also be brilliant.

Philadelphia needs to hope he brings brilliant to Scottsdale.

As in my AFC preview, I am wimping out on calling the score on this one. I see Philly pulling this one out, but I haven't decided whether it will be a barn-burner or a slug-fest. Both quarterbacks have the ability to turn this into a shootout.

But both defenses have shown in the playoffs that they can shut things down.

Let's just hope it doesn't go into overtime: McNabb might decide to play for a tie.

It got him in the playoffs, didn't it?


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