(NOTE: Before we start, know that this article was written on January 12, 2009. This is my preview of the AFC & NFC Championship games. I know it is posted after the fact, but I'd like to get something posted here.)
Isn’t it strange that three of the four teams left in the NFL playoffs are named after a species of bird? The Philadelphia Eagles play the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship. The Baltimore Ravens visit the Pittsburgh Steelers to decide the AFC Champion. In reality, an eagle should be able to rip a cardinal to shreds, and a raven wouldn’t have a chance at putting a dent in a wall of steel.
But this is not reality. This is professional football. And in the fickle world that is the NFL, a raven could shatter a wall of steel like an old glass window, and a cardinal could devour an eagle like a worm for it’s young. That’s what makes these conference match ups so intriguing.
I’ll hurry up and get the NFC match up out of the way and move on to an area I considder my home court. If I put money on the game, I’d predict the Eagles take the NFC in a close game based on their defense and how well they are playing right now. Donovan McNabb is a veteran and should be able to handle the Cardinals defense. But don’t forget, I said this about the Carolina Panthers game last week, as I think most people did, and look how Arizona completely dismantled a Carolina team that was unbeaten at home in the regular season. And Arizona did that on the road, a situation they haven’t faired well in over the past two years. Can Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald beat the Eagles defense? I say, if they can manage to do that, their defense will be able to hold off the Eagles just enough to win the game, and I mean it when I say just enough.
On to the AFC, this is a rivalry that came into play as soon as the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. This is a rivalry that leaves the current Pittsburgh/Cleveland “rivalry” in the dust. They are two similar teams that see each other way too often. The second meeting of the 2008 regular season was going to be, according to players and media alike, “a blood bath.” The top spot in the division on the line, and two extremely disciplined defenses going toe to toe in Baltimore. The Steelers prevailed for the second time and took the AFC North in with an absolutely spectacular Roethlisberger/ Holmes hook-up right on the edge of the end zone. Baltimore fans whined for a week about Holmes “not landing in bounds,” but they forgot that Big Ben lead the Steelers 91 yards down the field before settling the final score.
Now the Baltimore fans have their chance at vengeance. The ultimate prize, not only getting a ticket to Tampa on the first of February, but knocking out the Steelers in the process. And Pittsburgh gets a chance to show Baltimore who’s boss in the AFC North. Both of these teams have won Super Bowls in the 21st century, but who deserves a chance at a second one?
If the second meeting of the regular season was a “blood bath,” then what is this game going to be? “All out war,” running back Willis McGahee told Jim Rome, host of his self titled ESPN radio program and television show.
Another strong point is that the Ravens haven’t had a week off since Hurricane Ike ripped through Houston just days before the scheduled game there. That means Baltimore has been rolling since the middle of September! And it sure showed in the game against the Tennessee Titans. The Ravens did not win that game, the Titans lost it. By the end of that game what was left of the Ravens team looked dead tired. Line Backer Terrell Suggs missed the entire second half of the Titans game with a hurt shoulder and Samari Rolle limped off the field in the fourth quarter with a groin problem.
I hope this is not simply my fanhood speaking here, but I’m taking the Steelers to be the AFC Champions. Two reasons: 1) Veteran Ben Roethlisberger over hot rookie Joe Flacco. 2) The # 1 overall defense over the # 2 overall defense.
Big Ben needs to keep his cool and not throw picks to the salivating Ravens defenders. But, in order for Ben to keep steady the offensive line has to have as strong of a game as they did last week, and a majority of the game needs to be in the hands of the running backs. Willie Parker looked as healthy as I’ve seen him all season against San Diego. If he can get even three quarters of that kind of production against this physical Ravens defense, I see the Steelers pulling off a victory somewhere between three and seven points. Maybe ten, maybe…
The one thing that really scares me about the Ravens is their intensity. You know these guys are pumped up for this game. But the Steelers aren’t exactly taking the week off this week, and they are the fresher, healthier team.
Most of the guys in this Steelers line up have been to the holy land before. They know what it takes to win a Super Bowl, and those who don’t certainly know how it feels to play the Ravens. These two teams have been facing off twice a year since the Ravens were introduced to the NFL in 1996.
The biggest question of the week is, can the Steelers beat the Ravens for a third time in a single season? If the game were in Baltimore, I would say probably no. But with the game being in Pittsburgh I feel much more confident. Home field advantage is a whole new ball game when you are a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Especially when you are playing a rust belt rival.
The only thing that is certain this week is two damned good football games. I see this as a perfect way to end a season that has been so backwards. The New England Patriots didn’t make the playoffs at 11-5. The Miami Dolphins made the playoffs coming off a 1-15 season. Brett Farve dressed in a different shade of green. The “up and coming” Browns fell flat on their face and fell apart. The Detroit Lions were defeated, literally. The Atlanta Flacons blew up out of nowhere. The Arizona Cardinals have a shot to go to the Super Bowl. Tom Brady has been out since the beginning of the season, and may no be back for next season. Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg in a night club. Only one top seed team is left in the final round of the playoffs.
Will this week help me add to the list of wild events of the 2008 season? We will see.