A Tale of Two NFL Conference Championship Games
I look forward to viewing and enjoying both the NFC and AFC championship games for a variety of reasons.
For the most part, this pair of games are the most intense and the best-played. The Super Bowl is only one win away!
Both games are rematches of regular season battles. The NFC title game means high scoring but the AFC title game will be a boxing match.
Let us (salad, anyone?) begin with a meaningless but still interesting statistic: since 1970, home teams are 50-26 in conference championship games.
Obviously, the "playing very well" advantage is more significant than any home field advantage. At times, home teams are nervous because they feel pressured to perform well in front of their fans and they are usually favored to win, especially in the playoffs.
The Eagles are road favorites, but they appear to be loose, having fun, and want to take care of business. “Appear” is the key word of the previous sentence. Sometimes appearances are deceiving but at other times, appearances are exactly what they are.
At times, the road team are warriors on a mission and are more focused and play with more intensity. Usually, visiting teams are underdogs and fully utilize the “we don’t get respect” and “it’s us against the world.”
In the AFC, this scenario applies to the Ravens since the Steelers swept them in the regular season and are the favorites.
In the NFC, this situation uniquely and oddly applies to the home team, Arizona.
Statistics, home field advantage, the weather forecast, the regular season results, expected matchups, and other data make writing previews and making prognostications fun, entertaining, interesting, and insightful.
However, it’s the unexpected events or actions during a course of a title game that makes it so memorable. It’s not always the star player that turns the tide for victory.
Expect both the expected and unexpected to happen in Sunday’s conference championship games.
While the Steelers-Ravens matchup seems to be more predictable because of the tough defenses, a big offensive play because a safety slips and falls, a blocked field goal, or an untimely turnover may be the unexpected difference.
I expect more unexpected things in the Eagles-Cardinals stage of performance. While I expect Arizona to throw frequently to their great WRs and while I expect Westbrook to have a huge game for Philadelphia, both head coaches, Reid and Wisenhunt, may throw in a few wrinkles and trick plays, especially early in the game to gain momentum.
The upstart Cardinals host the surprising Eagles on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium in a game that absolutely no one saw coming. Both Arizona and Philadelphia are playing with nothing to lose because no one expected them to make it this far.
Because of that factor, this should be a most fun and entertaining, and probably great game to watch.
The Eagles' strong winning streak began in the last week of the regular season. The Cardinals are simply and shockingly a completely different team in the playoffs.
Out of nowhere, seemingly, Arizona's defense has become a takeaway machine in the playoffs, intercepting seven passes and recovering two fumbles against Atlanta and Carolina. Unbelievably, these nine turnovers forced are one more than even Baltimore's dominating defense has accomplished in wins at Miami and Tennessee.
The Eagles have forced five turnovers in the postseason.
The Cardinals were the NFL’s worst rushing team in the regular season, averaging just 73.6 yards per game, and 3.5 yards per carry. But in the postseason, Arizona actually has a run game, with 86 yards on the ground against Atlanta and a whopping 145 at Carolina.
The Eagles and Cardinals feature two veteran quarterbacks on the verge of being Hall of Famers. Some would argue that one or both are already in Pro Football’s Hall of Fame.
Do not underestimate or count out Kurt Warner.
The Cardinals' QB is 7-2 in the playoffs with 19 touchdown passes in nine playoff games and a 92.6 quarterback rating.
He is also playing at home. During the regular season, he completed 70.5 percent of his passes at home and had 17 touchdown passes. He has thrown only five interceptions at home.
While one may argue that the Cardinals mostly played weak NFC West divisional opponents at home and although Arizona has benefited from the opposition making careless turnovers in the playoffs, the team has stepped up to the prime-time stage, preformed well, and took advantage of these opportunities.
Again, Arizona is simply a different team in the postseason.
The quarterback who handles the blitz the best will have a decided advantage in the NFC title game. Warner has the edge over McNabb in that area.
Warner completed 134 of 208 passes (64 percent) for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns against the blitz during the regular season, with only four interceptions and a 103.1 quarterback rating.
McNabb completed 108 of 196 passes (55.1 percent) against the blitz for 1,388 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Obviously, there is a big difference in the quality of receivers.
McNabb and the Eagles simply cannot allow the Cardinals to play on a short field and generate the kind of early-game momentum that doomed Atlanta and Carolina.
While a Cardinals win and trip to the Super Bowl will feel like a dream sequence or scenes from a movie, don’t count out Warner.
McNabb is also resilient.
Brian Westbrook is capable of taking it to the end zone on any play.
Both McNabb and Warner—and their offenses—are expected to light up the scoreboard with a lot of points in an entertaining offensive show.
Points will likely be at a premium when the NFL's top two defenses square off in Sunday night's AFC championship game in Pittsburgh.
Baltimore-Pittsburgh will be an old fashioned, defensive, extremely hard-hitting slugfest. These throwback teams should both wear throwback uniforms.
Do the Ravens own throwback uniforms?
These two teams are almost identical: power rushing-oriented offenses with dominating, hard-hitting defenses. These two teams are only four hours' drive apart.
These two teams have already played twice, both barely won by the Steelers, and the Ravens want pay back in this post season three-match.
Are you tired of hearing about the overused cliché, it’s tough to beat the same team three times?
Duh! It’s very tough to beat the Ravens at any time this season, but the Steelers are rested and healthy while Baltimore has played for 18 consecutive weeks and have some significant injuries.
This may be a very cool snow game to watch, too. The forecast is for a game-time temperature of 22 degrees with a 17-degree wind-chill, and a 40 percent chance of flurries.
These teams have had a lot of cold-weather experiences.
Both quarterbacks, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger, respectively, are solid performers with strong arms who grew up playing in the cold: Roethlisberger in high school and college in Ohio, Flacco in high school in Jersey and college in Delaware.
This game features the NFL’s two best safeties: the Ravens’ Ed Reed and Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu.
Both are No. 1 safeties of the league. Take your pick for 1A and 1B.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had the best defense in the NFL this season en route to the AFC North title and the No. 2 seed in the conference.
The division rival Baltimore Ravens are a franchise with some of the best defenses in the NFL over the last decade, including another awesome unit this season.
The Ravens will try to force the quarterback out of his comfort zone and create turnovers. The Ravens have forced eight turnovers (five interceptions and three fumbles).
Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger has four interceptions in his past eight games.
Offensively, the Ravens want to establish the run and take pressure off rookie QB Joe Flacco. The Ravens have been able to run on Pittsburgh in two previous meetings this season.
The Ravens have several injuries, most notably to Suggs and McClain, while the Steelers are as healthy as they have been since the season opener.
Flacco has stayed away from big mistakes on the road. But the Steelers did a good job pressuring and confusing Flacco in the last meeting and did not allow any big plays in the passing game.
The return to form of running back Willie Parker brings back something that has been missing from the offense: the big run threat, which takes pressure off Roethlisberger.
The Steelers have won three of four against the Ravens and seven of eight at Heinz Field, where Pittsburgh is 0-2 in AFC championship games.
The Ravens feel they are the better team who lost to the Steelers twice this season and they are most motivated to reverse those results.
Pittsburgh knows if the don’t turn the ball over and play a patient, field position game against Baltimore, they will win another close contest.
To repeat: statistics, home field advantage, the weather forecast, the regular season results, expected matchups, and other data make writing previews and making prognostications fun, entertaining, interesting, and insightful.
We love to prognosticate, but for these games on Sunday, we may need to throw out our prognostications out of the window. Whether that is a literal window, Microsoft Windows, or a metaphorical window, it does not matter!
The key word of the previous paragraph is “may,” which also implies “may not.”
Pregame analysis is analogous to foreplay and sex. While I want you, the reader, to fill in the blanks and make the connections, if the referee makes a horrendous call or non-call that decides the outcome of a game, the losing team will say they got “screwed.”
Their fans will then react with “WTF?”
Alrighty then! Which teams will actually show up at their best, outperform their opponents, and make travel plans for Tampa, Florida to play in the Super Bowl?
With apologies to Charles Dickens, in this tale of two NFL Conference Championship games, anything may, can, and will happen.
That is why they play the game.
In my recent previous articles, I picked the Eagles and Steelers to win and create an all-Pennsylvania/Keystone State/Pennsylvania Turnpike Super Bowl.
The Silver Fox Updated Forecast for Sunday, January 18, 2009:
- The Philadelphia Eagles 30, The Arizona Cardinals 27 in either clear skies around 75 degrees or in the comfort of a closed roof dome.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers 16, The Baltimore Ravens 13, in snowy, 25-degrees weather; the wind-chill temperature will drop to the teens by the end of this night-time game.
Quote of the Day:
In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place.
--“Mahatma” Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Philippians 2:14-16 “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life—in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.”
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