NFC Championship Review: McNabb Played His Heart Out, But Cardinals Prevail

Bryan HollisterAnalyst IJanuary 18, 2009

Glendale, AZ—Un...Be...lievable.

In what could be viewed as one of the most improbable Super Bowl runs in NFL history, the Arizona Cardinals soundly defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 to lay claim to the NFC Championship trophy and head to the Super Bowl.

Attention fickle, bitter, wishy-washy Eagles fans—put down your beer, stop chewing your steak and cheese sandwich for a moment, quit throwing things at the screen, and listen for a minute.

This was NOT Donovan McNabb's fault.

The Eagles quarterback wasn't on the field when Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald bounced off of three Eagles defenders for his first touchdown.

Nor was he on the field when Fitzgerald beat Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel on a flea-flicker play for his second touchdown, a 62-yard bomb.

Where was McNabb when "Lights Out" Larry caught his third touchdown, a fade to the corner of the end zone?

He was on the sidelines—watching his defense get beaten badly.

What was McNabb doing when his kicker missed a make-able 47-yard field goal?

Talking with the offensive coordinator about adjustments.

And when Akers shanked an extra point after the Eagles' second touchdown of the third quarter?

He was celebrating a touchdown after an amazing drive to bring the game within range of a win.

McNabb is not the culprit here. He out-threw Kurt Warner 375 yards to Warner’s 279. He also had nearly as many touchdowns. On his first play from scrimmage, he rumbled for 21 yards to get the offense on a roll and ended the game with 31 rushing yards. His perfect passer rating in the second half matched Warner's performance in the first.

The Eagles even had help in this one. The first bullet dodged was a pick in the first half—a pick that was returned to Philadelphia when Aaron Fransisco fumbled the ball at the end of his run-back, and John Runyan just happened to be where the ball was rolling to.

The second was the sack in the second quarter that would have stopped a drive and forced a long field goal attempt by Philly, only to be negated by a defensive holding call which gave the Eagles new life and resulted in their second field goal of the game.

The third was a kickoff that was clearly in bounds and recovered by the Cardinals at the Philadelphia 26-yard line, but was ruled out-of-bounds and blown dead, which meant it was not reviewable.

No—this loss was not due to anything McNabb did wrong. In fact, he did nearly everything right.

The culprit here was on the other side of the ball. Arizona's offense outplayed the Eagles’ defense in three out of four quarters of football. More specifically, the Eagles kept allowing Warner to hook up with Fitzgerald well into the fourth quarter.

They had no answer for Fitzgerald, who hauled in nine catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns. They weren't stout enough to completely shut down the combination of Edgerrin James—that washed up, lost a step running back—and Tim Hightower, who put together 106 yards on the ground, with Hightower contributing in the passing game on an eight-yard touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter.

They bent too far with a one-point lead in the fourth, and allowed Arizona to drive downfield and go ahead by seven points after giving up a two-point conversion; Arizona had gone 1-for-6 in the regular season on two-point tries, and this was their first of the postseason.

Even down to the end, though, McNabb battled. All the way down to fourth-and-10, when he threw a catchable pass to Kevin Curtis on an out pattern.

On a play that will undoubtedly be argued by Philly fans for the entire postseason, Curtis and the Arizona defender both appeared to slip as they made their cut. But it appeared that the defender helped Curtis own to the ground, and he turned to look for the flag.

No penalty. Turnover on downs.

And with that, Arizona ran out the clock. They punted to the Eagles with nine seconds left in the game, and Philadelphia tried the old "lateral the ball all over the place" play. But that only works in college and the movies.

Arizona picked off a pitch, fell to the ground, and the celebration began.

Warner proved once again why he is a two-time league MVP and a one-time Super Bowl MVP. He is a cerebral quarterback who still has laser-sharp accuracy and enough zip on the ball to get it downfield in a hurry. Fitzgerald cemented his place amongst the most elite receivers to ever play the game, and Edgerrin James reminded everyone that once upon a time, he used to be a pretty damn good running back.

No, Philadelphia, McNabb does not deserve vilification this time. He played heroically, but Warner and the Cardinals were just the better team today. When he gets home, instead of boos and calls for his replacement, how about meeting the team at the airport, and congratulating him on one hell of an effort.

He deserves it.