NFC and AFC Championship Predictions

John HartContributor IJanuary 15, 2009

The first matchup I will review is the NFC Championship game, which has two teams that no one thought would be in this position, especially earlier in the season. The Eagles came off a somewhat surprising win in a game that many believed they would win but also they were the underdog.

The Cardinals are coming off a win, which no one, including myself, gave them a chance to win. It is hard to decipher if the Cardinals won that game or if Delhomme lost it because his performance was absolutely pathetic. Looking forward to this Sunday's matchup, I would figure to give the Eagles the edge because of their momentum, but then again, the Cardinals are on just as much of a high right now.

The first area I will break this game down is the Eagles' defense against the Cardinals' offense. This is the matchup which will most likely decide the outcome of the game; they are the two teams' biggest strengths. Against the Giants, the Eagles did not have to worry as much about the passing game because without a big time WR in Plaxico there was no big time threat and no need for a double team on any one receiver.

This allowed the Eagles to use the blitz more often or allowed them to cover up the middle of the field where someone like Kevin Boss or a tailback on a screen would have the most success.

This week, there will be many instances where Larry Fitzgerald will need to be double teamed which will open these options for guys like James, Hightower, or Pope.

With the game that Fitzgerald had against the Panthers, which included eight catches for 166 yds and a touchdown, it is hard to believe that this receiver with big play capability will not constantly have a corner and a safety on him with every play.

One can look at the box score for the Giants Eagles game and say that the secondary for the Eagles were able to keep the Giants receivers as bay, which was not the case.

Eli Manning had a very hard time throwing in the swirling winds of the Meadowlands and looked like he was uncoordinated. Do not make the mistake thinking the secondary did a good job of keeping the receivers in check because Hixon, Toomer, Smith were wide open on many occasions.

I fully expect the same to happen in Arizona this week. If the Eagles' front four does not manage to get to Warner on a regular basis, it could be a very easy road to the Super Bowl for the Cards. Advantage Cards.

On the other side of the football is a deadly running attack of Westbrook and Buckhalter, while the passing game lacks the explosiveness that Arizona has.

Jackson is a rookie who has proven himself a threat down the field, Curtis is always a scary WR, Buckhalter and Westbrook have big play capability from the screen pass, and Smith is there for third and long plays to convert the first downs.

The biggest key to this offense is obviously McNabb. We saw his ability to not only lead, but also adjust, which I what he did so very well against the Giants this past week. Also, he cannot just beat you with his strong arm but also his ability to move outside the pocket and give his receivers more time to get open downfield. When he is hot, he is red hot.

However, we have seen his red-hot spells be quickly put out with a horrific cold stretch like earlier in the season when he was benched at halftime while being down by only three against the Ravens, a team they could end up seeing in the Super Bowl.

If McNabb is the same man who converted a long 3rd-and-20 while being hit and throwing across his body, then I cannot see him being stopped by the Cardinals' defense if the Giants defense could do it.

Advantage Eagles when they have the ball.

Overall, I look for a high-scoring game, even though I feel the Eagles want to keep it low to prevent a shootout. I have the Cardinals winning and going to the Super Bowl, 31-24.


The next matchup is even better then the first. The Baltimore Ravens go into Pitt to face the Steelers in a game that will certainly be a defensive struggle. Both defenses have been among the elite of the NFL all season.

Baltimore's defense is led by interception and touchdown machine Ed Reed and the man who leads the Ravens in tackles in the playoffs with 20, Ray Lewis. These two teams know each other well and I expect the Ravens defense to know what Pitt will throw at them.

The only problem I have with the Ravens defense was their inability to get at Collins this past week where they recorded only one sack and one interception. I know complaining about just one interception may seem odd, a lot of times teams go weeks without interceptions.

But it is different for this team because they depend on their defense, and their sacks, and their turnovers. Sacks and turnovers create good field position while keeping the other team off the board, and a rookie QB needs good field position in order to have success. If Baltimore wants, any chance in this game, their defense needs at least three turnovers and four or five sacks.

The Steelers' defense is almost as good as the Ravens, but they did give up three TD's through the air last week, which shows some vulnerability in the air. This team forced two turnovers against the Chargers including a Rivers interception and a Weddle fumble.

They also were contained by the Chargers' O-line, while Rivers was sacked only once and were able to stand in the pocket for over 300 yards.

The biggest difference in the two defenses is that the Steelers do want their defense to come up big and take pressure off the offense, but they are less dependant on the defense because the offense is more likely to win a game for the Steelers, unlike the Ravens.

Advantage on defense defiantly goes to the Ravens, and if they have a big game as they did against the fish, they will win this game. The other side of the ball shows two very different offenses.

Pitt has a veteran QB who has won big games before where Flacco does not have this kind of experience of pressure before. Flacco has not really experienced a hostile environment yet.

Miami is relatively easy to play compared to other places and while Tennessee is aggressive, it is nothing compared to what the Pitt fans will be. Big Ben will not give you a 250-yard game with three TD's but he will do enough to win. He has a lot more targets then Flacco does in Ward, Miller, Washington, and Holmes, all of which can make big plays and generate large YAC.

Flacco, on the other hand, does not have as many weapons. He does have Mason who had five catches and a TD last week in Tennessee but he had Clayton and Heap who also can make big plays.

On the running game, I think I must give the advantage to the Steelers because Parker is getting healthier and Moor is always a capable second back. Parker ran at will against the Chargers with 146 yards and two TD's and Moore seems to be used more for screen plays as opposed to rushing the ball.

For the Raven, McGahee and McClain only combined last week for 44 yards, which means that the offense relied on Flacco more and more.

Do not get me wrong, Flacco has done a great job and seems to have all the confidence in the world, but I do not think the game can be put on his shoulders without a legitimate and successful running attack.

Advantage on offense goes to Pitt.

Therefore, my prediction is simple. Two great defenses with one offense better than the other; I will give this game to the Steelers 16-10 in a low scoring defensive struggle. This means I believe it will be a Cardinals-Steelers Super Bowl, which would be amazing.

A high-powered offense that is beginning to have a great running attack and explosive passing abilities and a team with a stellar defense. Should be interesting to say the least.