For all the fun we’ve had at Jim Mora’s expense over the years, he still gets credit for uttering the single most resonant comment about the National Football League in its storied history.
“You don't know. You just don't know. You may think you know, but you don't know. And you never will."
The NFL slapped us all upside our know-it-all heads last week and reminded us of that undeniable truth. Show me one serious prognostication before the 2008 season—or for that matter, from the week between the end of the regular season and start of the playoffs—that had the Arizona Cardinals hosting the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC Championship, and I’ll either show you a modern-day Nostradamus or someone who picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.
The Arizona Cardinals. Hosting the NFC Championship.
I’m 48 years old. Over the course of my lifetime, the Cardinals have never, ever been anything more than a sidebar. Yes, there have been a few interesting players and memorable moments over the years (as you would hope from a franchise that has been around since 1920), but if you pushed me for an off-the-cuff review, my Cardinal Memories could probably be summed up thusly:
Mel (Freaking) Gray.
Moving to Phoenix. Phoenix?
The 1998 playoff win over the Cowboys in Dallas.
So if you’re a Cardinals official, player or fan, please understand why so many of us are seemingly unable to give your team the “respect” you crave, and probably deserve, for what you have done to get where you are today.
But the truth is, a half-century of “who?” cannot become “whoa” overnight. It just can’t.
Frankly, we’re still kind of in the whiplash phase here. We need a little more time.
A win on Sunday to send you jetting off to Tampa Bay and a shot at the brass ring in SB XLIII wouldn’t hurt either.
Sunday, Jan. 18, 6:30 PM EST
I just don’t think it’s going to happen.
Not so much because of how damn hard it is for someone of my generation to envision the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl, but my sense that those damn Eagles are still riding Destiny’s Wave.
Hey, the Cardinals can score. There are some stunned, accomplished football minds down Charlotte way who can attest to that. And the Cardinal defense has been playing lights out the last couple of weeks.
On top of all that, they are playing at home in windless, climate-controlled comfort, with house money. Nobody expected them to be there in the first place—they figure to play loose, let it all hang out and take their best shot.
Thing is...the Eagles' defense isn’t just playing lights out, it’s playing borderline insane. This is a team that has given up 10.8 points per game over past six weeks. You know when the Eagles last gave up a passing touchdown, which figures to be the Cardinals’ best shot?
Five games ago—a garbage-time, one-yard flip from Eli Manning in Philly’s dominating 20-14 win over the Giants in New York that started them on their run.
The good news, at least for Cardinals fans, is that one week before that, in Week 12, the Eagles defense gave up three passing touchdowns to some guy named Kurt Warner. Goods news only travels so far, however.
For one, those three TD tosses came in a 48-20 loss to these same Eagles, in Arizona. For two, Warner also threw three interceptions that day. And for three, the other QB that day, some guy named McNabb, threw four touchdown passes against zero interceptions.
I think the Eagles will try do what they did against the Vikings in the wild-card round, only in reverse. Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, one of the best in the business, sold out to take away the Vikings top (and really only) threat, Adrian Peterson and the running game.
He forced Minnesota to beat him throwing the ball, and young QB Tarvaris Jackson was not up to the challenge.
Against Arizona I look for Johnson to sell out trying to limit the Cardinals down field passing game, inviting them to beat him with sustained, run-heavy, short-pass drives. I don’t think running backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower will be up to it.
Philly won’t completely shut down stud Cardinals receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin—I think the Cardinals will have some success moving the ball—I just think they’ll struggle to finish drives.
Outside of Philadelphia and certain Pennsylvanians jonesing for a Turnpike Super Bowl between the Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers, I think all the NFL world is a Cardinals fan this week. I know I am.
No one loves a good underdog story more than me, and there’s definitely something to be said for shaking up the NFL hierarchy from time to time.
I just don’t think that time is here.
Something tells me the Eagles’ romance with Destiny lasts at least one more week.
BALTIMORE at PITTSBURGH
Sunday, Jan. 18, 3:00 PM EST
Anyone else found themselves thinking this week that the NFL world has done a 180?
To me, as an NFL fan old enough to remember well the 1980’s, this one has the distinct feel of an old NFC Championship grudge match. Two aggressive, powerful defenses and straight-at-you, physical running games, slugging it out in the icy January night for the right to go to the Super Bowl and overwhelm some poor finesse passing team from the AFC.
It’s like we’ve piloted a time machine 25 years into the past, only to find the world as reflected in a mirror. Or something.
At any rate...
I’ll keep this short and sweet.
Both the Raven and Steeler defenses are playing about as well right now as defense can be played. I think they will turn this into a game of attrition—field position, turnovers, last-mistake-loses. Vegas has the over/under hovering around 34.5 this week.
If I was a betting man, I’d take the under and try to hide my grin.
Baltimore safety Ed Reed is playing on such a different level right now that he could easily define the game with another one of those “oh no he di’ent” game-changing plays he’s made look so routine of late.
Or maybe Raven running back Willis McGahee could find a seam or two in the Steeler D and do just enough to tip the scales Baltimore’s way.
But if I had to put my own hard-earned money on this one, I think the deciding factor would be the one matchup I see which favors one team over the other dramatically enough to be “the” difference.
Not QB Ben Roethlisberger over QB Joe Flacco, as you might be thinking—though that’s a decided advantage given the experience factor.
No, I’m thinking Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau over Joe Flacco.
For my money, LeBeau is the best in the business. I think he will put 50 years of football experience to good use and create just enough confusion in the Ravens’ rookie QB’s mind, in enough key situations, where at some point Flacco will make the one big mistake that proves the difference.
That one misread that leads to one bad throw into traffic at one crucial juncture. That one split-second of indecision in the pocket that leads to that one strip-sack that ends up heading the other way.
I like the way Baltimore goes about their business. I like the way they have built their team, and I like the no-frills way they play the game. As much as it pains me to say it as a Redskins fan, that’s the team I’d like mine to be when it grows up.
But as much as I see echoes of their 2000 championship team in the 2008 version, at the end of the day I’m going to have to take the Steelers in this one. I just can’t look past the one matchup I think is the one real mismatch in this game...And for me, tips the scales.
LeBeau versus Flacco.
I did the math.