Cardinals vs. Eagles: Ultimate NFC Championship Preview

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Cardinals vs. Eagles: Ultimate NFC Championship Preview

It's a conference title game no one really expected, but it is a game filled with storylines:

  • First home conference championship game in Cardinals franchise history
  • Rematch of 2001 NFC title game quarterbacks
  • McNabb, Reid attempt to salvage careers with magical Super Bowl run
  • Eagles try to become second No. 6 seed to reach Super Bowl
  • Cardinals want redemption from Thanksgiving blowout

This Sunday in the Arizona desert, the Cardinals and Eagles will play the final NFC game of the season to decide who will play for a ticket to Tampa, Florida, and Super Bowl XLIII.

Fans, I bring you a complete wall-to-wall breakdown of what should be a fascinating contest.

Keys for Philadelphia

A: Run containment

The Eagles boast one of the most physical defensive lines in the NFL and while Edgerrin James has performed well in the postseason, he is not the player he once was with the Colts.

Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was key in pressuring the Giants offensive line on the Eagles' second fourth down stop late in the fourth quarter. 

Bunkley was lined up against Pro Bowl center Shaun O'Hara and was quicker on his very first step, forcing O'Hara basically backwards into both plays.  The ensuing pressure caused both running back Brandon Jacobs to be stopped well short of first-down yardage.

Now of course, what set this up was Tom Coughlin's questionable playcall to snap the ball directly to running back Derrick Ward.  Wide receivers Steve Smith and Domenik Hixon were asked to block a defensive end and a linebacker; neither block really materialized and the Eagles blew up the fourth down run. 

What will be key in Sunday's matchup is the Eagles defensive line's ability to push the Cardinals' offensive line and what I mean by that is, they need to win their individual battles at the snap count and fill gaps with their linebacking corps.

Gap discipline is key because you cannot allow a veteran back like Edgerrin James to see a lane to either run through or cutback against into the open field and if such a situation occurs, tackling is vital. 

James is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, the exact average the Eagles defense has allowed this postseason.

Tim Hightower completes the backfield picture and while he is not the running threat like James is, he presents a physical goal-line presence (10 rushing touchdowns during the regular season) as well as a viable receiving option for QB Kurt Warner

B: Pass rush/secondary coverages

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has done a brilliant job all season long of unleashing his vultures on opposing defenses and making the "big play" almost invisible.

Quarterback Kurt Warner has been sacked only once this entire postseason so obviously pressure on him is critical in stopping his high-powered passing attack. 

The 37-year-old, four-time Pro Bowler and former two-time NFL MVP is almost strictly a pocket passer, completing 63 percent of his passes in the playoffs as opposed to a career-high 67 percent in the regular season.

Defensive ends Trent Cole and Juqua Parker will be matched up against offensive tackles Levi Brown (right) and Mike Gandy (left).  The Eagles have the advantage at Warner's blindside, although Gandy is a seasoned veteran and contained Julius Peppers last week. 

Gandy has a very good first step but since the Eagles can pressure the quarterback in so many ways, Parker can use his hands to throw off his timing and deliver hits on Warner which could be something to watch late in the game.

The Eagles racked up 48 sacks during the regular season, 24 of them coming off of a called blitz.  A key to their pass defense is cornerback Asante Samuel, who has made a career in the postseason with seven interceptions.

Samuel will be matched up one-on-one against Larry Fizgerald who has proven to be unstoppable in his first two playoff games with 267 yards and two touchdowns.  Philadelphia brings not only a physical secondary, but a very smart one as well and keeping plays in front of them will serve the Eagles just fine, let me explain.

In the Super Bowl last year, the Patriots employed the same shotgun spread offense that the Cardinals will use on Sunday. 

The Giants did not necessarily double-team Randy Moss and company, BUT they did keep completions short and contained and right in front of them in open space where tackles were easier to be made.  Tom Brady's longest completion: 18 yards. 

The Eagles have feasted on opposing quarterbacks, not allowing even 170 yards passing in their first two playoff games and have forced three interceptions while returning one for a touchdown.

Pressure on Warner's pocket, combined the personnel in the Eagles secondary could allow Philadelphia to create turnovers which have proven to be a valuable asset in this year's playoffs.

C: Offensive Production/Protection of McNabb

While the Eagles have one of the NFL's most physical defensive lines, they do have the heaviest offensive line that averages over 300 pounds.

The Eagles love to use double tight-end sets in their power running packages and have shown more of a balanced attack during their playoff run. 

Philadelphia must contain defensive tackle Bertrand Berry, who already has two sacks and is a run-stopping threat. 

Dominating the Arizona front four will be key in protecting McNabb, who does have three interceptions in the playoffs.

On offense, Brian Westbrook must be the double threat that he has become known for over the past few seasons.  Though defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergrast will be tempted to throw different looks at the Eagles offensive line, Westbrook must be the focal point of Andy Reid's gameplan.

The Eagles must not underestimate the Cardinals ability to stuff the run or cause turnovers; they've shut down Michael Turner and DeAngelo Williams, the NFC's top two rushers, holding each to well under 100 yards. 

DeSean Jackson must continue to play well in the postseason against a now-formidable secondary.  Rookie corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and safety Adrian Wilson will most likely bracket the rookie out of California and look to limit his big-play ability. 

Keys for Arizona

A: Pressuring McNabb/Containing Westbrook

Arizona's defense coming into the playoffs wasn't something to be feared but now they have shown the ability to stop the run and create turnovers with pressure on the quarterback as shown last week against Carolina and in the wild-card round against the Falcons.

A way for the Cardinals to get after McNabb is with scheme versatility and it starts with DT Bertrand Berry.  Berry must win his battle against center Jamal Jackson and anticipate his cadence in order to get off a good first step to disrupt the Eagles' protection schemes.

Don't be surprised if Adrian Wilson sneaks into the box to provide additional pressure and make plays in the defensive backfield.

Arizona must also make plays against Brian Westbrook who has a habit of squeaking through defenses on a weekly basis.  Whether it's on the line of scrimmage on the run or in the backfield, the Cardinals must identify and stop Westbrook's production or hold him to minimal gains.

In other words, Arizona needs to make the Eagles one-dimensional.

B: Running on Edge

Edgerrin James has had somewhat of a revival in his first playoff games since 2005 with Indianapolis, rushing for 136 yards and a score. 

Not the 1,000 yard-plus threat he once was, James has done his part in bringing a second dimension to the league's highest-scoring offense which makes play-action with quarterback Kurt Warner much easier. 

James has had most of his success running to the left behind tackle Mike Gandy.  Cutback lanes will be hard to come by against a defense that has yet to allow 100 yards this postseason. 

Feeding the rock to James will be key in slowing down the Eagles aggressive pass rush.

C: Protection of Warner/Formation Sets

The Cardinals offense begins and ends with Pro Bowl quarterback Kurt Warner, who had his best overall season since his last MVP in 2001. 

Arizona loves to use the shotgun, using more passing plays (630) than running plays (430) during the regular season.

In the playoffs, they have discovered a running game and are running seven more total plays on the run than through the air (71 to 64).

Warner threw 30 touchdown passes this season and had a plethora of options, more specifically his big three receivers: Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston.

His offensive line has allowed just one sack this postseason and they face their most daunting task in a defense that ranked in the top five in all defensive categories. 

The Cardinals can find solace in the fact that the game is being played on their turf so the fast turf and crowd will be on their side.  Look for Arizona to use multiple formation packages to give the Eagles defense different looks.

One formation they love to use is a four receiver, trips bunch package (three receivers in a triangle on one side of the field); this allows the utilization of route combinations that can throw defenders off guard in coverage. 

They can also motion players in and out of this formation into other sets though Warner threw 24 of this 30 touchdowns with no motion out of the backfield.

Though the Eagles love to blitz, Warner has a 103.8 rating (14 TD, 4 INT) against such a rush and with great weapons at his disposal it will be key for him to get rid of the ball quickly and on time to a group of disciplined receivers. 

Warner threw three interceptions in the Cardinals' 48-20 Thanksgiving Day loss in Philadelphia and must have a better performance to get to Tampa.

Final Take

With everything I've just thrown out, I'm tempted to pick Arizona since they're at home, but I have a sneaky feeling that Jim Johnson has a few extra surprises up his sleeve for Kurt Warner. 

Both quarterbacks have been here before, but Arizona is playing in its first NFC title game while the Eagles are in their fifth this decade so I have to go with experience.

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