Friday, January 16, 2009

A Look at the NFL Conference Championships

While the Super Bowl may be the NFL’s biggest extravaganza on the year, Conference Championship weekend often ends up being the league’s most compelling weekend of the season. Two games, four great team all playing for the opportunity to play on the biggest stage in sports. With one grudge match, and one rematch with the ultimate underdog story, there is no doubt there will be plenty of drama during the Conference Championships.

Philadelphia Eagles vs. Arizona Cardinals: I’ll be the first to admit that I did not see the Arizona Cardinals making it this far. I have picked against them pretty much every step of the way this post season and obviously I have been wrong. The Cardinals have overcome plenty of obstacles in the last month, and apparently they are stronger for their effort. Arizona limped into the post season after suffering embarrassing losses to Philadelphia, New England and Minnesota. However, once the post season began Arizona put up an impressive second half to knock off the Atlanta Falcons. Last weekend they went into a hostile environment against the Panthers and they destroyed Jake Delhomme and company. Did I mention the Cardinals were missing arguably their best player in Anquan Boldin last weekend? Yeah, they were that good.

The Arizona Cardinals were manhandled by the Eagles on Thanksgiving night and in many ways that’s was the beginning of the Cardinals late season downfall. But Arizona seems to have righted the ship since the beginning of the post season. One of the nice additions the Cardinals have found this post season is their rushing game. Edgerrin James has a masterful game against the Atlanta Falcons and he followed it up with another solid performance against a strong Carolina Panthers rush defense. In addition Larry Fitzgerald has come into his own over the last two playoff games. We all knew that Fitzgerald was a great receiver but with Boldin sidelined with a hamstring injury, Fitzgerald has become a number one receiver. He has made an exceptional reception in each of the playoff games. There are rumors that Boldin will be able to play on Saturday and that will only serve to increase the Arizona Cardinals passing attack because the Philadelphia defense will not be able to double and triple team Larry Fitzgerald if Anquan Boldin is on the field even if he is not 100%.

Just a short while ago, it seemed like the Philadelphia Eagles made it to the NFC Championship game every year. Unfortunately for the Eagles the NFC Championship has not been kind to them, losing three out of their previous four trips. This year’s NFC Championship will be different for the Eagles. In the past the Eagles has racked up at least 11 wins during the regular season and they were the home team. On Sunday the Eagles are in the odd position of being the sixth seed out of the NFC but somehow managing to be a four and half point favorite despite being the road team. A few weeks ago the Eagles were on the brink of self destruction and now they are only four quarters away from the Super Bowl. The Eagles are still a rough looking team to me. While they are on a hot streak their offense still looks bad to me. In both their post season victories over the Vikings and the Giants Philadelphia was led by their defensive effort. The Eagles defense has been as good as either of the units we see in the AFC. Last week they hammered Eli Manning and the Giants into submission. With the Cardinals the Eagles will have their hands full controlling their passing attack. Philadelphia will need to control the Cardinals to avoid getting into a shootout. Philadelphia has struggled on the offensive side of the ball and they will struggle to keep pace with a high powered Arizona attack if they game turns into a shootout.

The current spread has the Philadelphia Eagles favored by four and a half points. While this game should be a no brainer at first look, it is actually a difficult decision calling this game. The Philadelphia Eagles offense has been so anemic over the last few weeks that I am scared for the Eagles chances. Nonetheless, I am going out on a limb and picking the Eagles to cover the spread and win the game.

Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: This is going to be a blood bath and I will love every minute of it. The Ravens and Steelers are divisional rivals and they plain don’t like each other. And that makes for great football. These teams have met twice already this season with the Steelers emerging victorious both times.

The Baltimore Ravens have bullied their way into the AFC Championship game. They earned the right to play in Sunday’s game by pounding the Miami Dolphins and the Tennessee Titians into eight turnovers. It is no secret that defense is the backbone to the Baltimore Ravens team. Right now Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are playing some of the best football of their respected careers and that is saying a lot. We all know that the Ravens have an amazing defense but what impressed me the most about them last week was forcing three turnovers in the red zone against the Titians. The one concern the Ravens gave me when watching them last week was their lack of a running game. Yes I understand the Baltimore Ravens will never light up the scoreboard, but traditionally they have been able to put up consistent numbers with their grown attack. However, last week their ground game was shut down by the Titians. The Steelers defensive front is a step up from what Baltimore played last week, and the Ravens will need to increase their efforts at the point of attack if they want to find success on Sunday. A big reason for the Ravens renewed success this season was due to the fact that their offense was able to sustain long drives. This meant the defense was able to get off the field and get some rest. The Steelers are too strong offensively for the Ravens defense to take 50 plus snaps against them.

The Pittsburgh Steelers looked flat out scary last week against the San Diego Chargers. The defense was exactly what you would expect from a Steelers team, but what stood out last Sunday was their offense. Willie Parker has had an up and down season due to injuries and who knows what else. Last week he came out of his shell and exploded for the best playoff performance of his career. But what was even more impressive than Willie Parker was the Pittsburgh passing attack, especially their deep attack. The Steelers offensive line found some pride in them and they did a great job of protecting Ben Rotheslisberger. Big Ben has all day to scan the field and complete passing to seemingly whoever he wanted to. When the Steelers initiate a deep passing attack they can become a nearly unbeatable team. The deep passing down the field opened the San Diego defense up, and their defensive front was easy to shred when Willie Parker came running through. This all sets up to create a very interesting matchup between the Steelers passing game and the Baltimore Ravens secondary. There will be an interesting game of human chess as both teams try to crack the other.

The current spread on this game favors the Pittsburgh Steelers by six points. There is no doubt this spread has grown after people saw what the Steelers accomplished last weekend. However, one should not overlook the Baltimore Ravens. This is why I am picking the Ravens to pull the upset and win the game thus covering the spread.


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BlueWorkhorse said...

I'm thinking opposite of you DWalk. I had Arizona and Pittsburgh winning today. So far, so good for me.

We'll see what happens in game two of the day.

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