Will the Eagles beat the Cardinals on Sunday and advance to the Super Bowl? That is the question on every Eagles fan's mind. We're back in the NFC Championship Game for the 800th time under Andy Reid (at least it seems that way). Will Sunday go the way of St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Carolina or will it be like the 2004 game against Atlanta? I know the answer, of course, but why spoil your fun. I'm going to make you wait and see how things play out on the field.
I have done my research and my tape study. I can tell you that the Eagles are the better team. We're also playing our best football of the year. You always want to peak in January if at all possible. The Cardinals are also playing pretty well right now. They beat Carolina 33-13 last week. I went back and rewatched the game last night to see just what happened in more detail. I wanted to see if that score was due to Arizona playing lights out or Carolina coming up small in a big game.
Carolina was awful. If I were a Panthers fan, I'd be furious. The team didn't look prepared. Their effort was inconsistent. They were passive. Jake Delhomme was horrible. The Cardinals deserve credit for taking advantage of the situation and blowing them out, but a lot of media types are going to over-hype Arizona based on last Saturday.
The Panthers' coaching staff had to be sick as they watched the game. Larry Fitzgerald was left uncovered on a third-down play on the Cardinals opening drive. He caught a short pass and turned it into a gain of 31. I don't mean he was covered by a linebacker or simply had a step on a defensive back. Fitzgerald was uncovered. On the next drive, Arizona faced third-and-goal from the 3-yard line. The Panthers failed to cover running back Tim Hightower and he caught an easy touchdown pass. On both plays you could see Panthers defenders pointing and arguing about who to cover.
The Cardinals have a good offense. Their plays are creative and do feature some confusing elements. Still, you can't have multiple plays where defenders don't know who to cover. That is inexcusable in the postseason. There was another goal-to-go play where a linebacker didn't shift with motion and was completely out of place on a touchdown run where Edgerrin James went untouched. These are simple alignment mistakes that cost the Panthers points and huge chunks of yardage.
Carolina's defense was very passive in the first half. They sacked Kurt Warner once, but only pressured him on two of his first 15 passes. That means Warner had a nice clean pocket to sit in. How do you let that happen on top of leaving guys uncovered? Yikes. Warner threw 19 passes and the Cardinals scored 27 points in the first half. With no pressure he was very effective. Carolina decided to blitz in the second half and it worked. The blitzing didn't lead to sacks, but it slowed down Warner. He was only 6-of-13 for 21 yards after halftime. Arizona struggled on offense. They had less than 100 yards in the second half and only scored six points.
Delhomme had six turnovers in the game. It was a nightmare performance for him. I'd tell you I felt bad for the guy, but that would be a lie since he once cost us a trip to the Super Bowl. I was curious to see if Delhomme had a bad game or big-time pressure and a great defense led to the mistakes. It was mostly Delhomme. His fumble came on a good rush by Antonio Smith. His interceptions were either thrown into double coverage or just sloppy passes in traffic. It was funny to listen to the FOX analysts argue. Tony Siragusa was trying to defend Delhomme, but Daryl Johnston would have none of it. In this case, listen to Moose over Goose.
I'm not trying to say Arizona didn't play well. They certainly did. The point is that Carolina was terrible and had a significant hand in giving the game away. There are lessons to be learned from the game. First, you must aggressively cover Fitzgerald. He's one of the best receivers in the NFL and will be productive, but you have to make him earn his catches.
Your offense must be careful with the football. The Cardinals aren't dropping interceptions. They are recovering fumbles when the ball is on the ground. Both wins for Arizona have featured defensive points or points set up by the defense.
You must pressure Warner. Ideally the front four is able to get this done. If that doesn't work you have to blitz. Warner is great when he's allowed to sit in the pocket and scan the field. He's smart, accurate and will tear a defense apart.
The good news for Philly fans is that the Eagles are strong in each of the areas mentioned above. With that in mind, let's start talking about the matchups. The two teams did play on Thanksgiving night. That came on a short week of practice so you can bet that those were real basic game plans. Things will be different this time around.
We'll start with the Eagles defense, since that unit is playing brilliantly right now. They know that the first order of business is getting to Warner. Jim Johnson will mix in some blitzes early, but likely will try to let his defensive line do most of the work. If you can pressure Warner with just the front four you are that much better off. The back seven can then focus on coverage.
I'm sure the Eagles pass rushers are excited this week. The last two games they had to focus on the run and couldn't tee off on the opposing quarterback. This game will be different. The Cardinals like to throw the ball. Trent Cole, Juqua Parker, Darren Howard and Chris Clemons will be able to get after Warner. They don't have Adrian Peterson or Brandon Jacobs to worry about. Warner is public enemy number one.
While Warner isn't the most mobile guy he does an excellent job of moving in the pocket and also avoiding sacks by getting rid of the ball quickly. He was sacked once every 24 pass attempts. That is impressive for a guy of his age and mobility. It goes to show you that a sharp mind and quick release can be just as effective as the ability to scramble.
The Cardinals offensive line is good, but not great. Those guys are overachiever types, my favorite kind of linemen. They don't have the greatest athletes in the NFL, but those guys will battle you on every snap. Offensive linemen who are well-coached and play hard can be very tough to beat. I was surprised at how good a job left tackle Wayne Gandy did on Trent Cole in the first meeting.
I expect the Eagles to play a lot of man coverage underneath. They will probably press, where the defensive backs line up aggressively on receivers and try to either jam them or at least run tightly with them. Jim Johnson will not let Fitzgerald run free this week. Quintin Mikell and Brian Dawkins will play a lot of Cover 2, where they line up about 15 yards off the ball and split the field in half. That makes it tough for Arizona to throw deep. Mikell and Dawkins are already off the ball and can turn and run if needed. They are able to see the ball in front of them if Warner throws short or over the middle. That's when they can go attack receivers and pound on them.
With the safeties deep, the front seven will have to play the run well on their own most of the time. Arizona only ran 10 times in the November game. Don't expect a repeat of that. They're improved on the ground. Edgerrin James is back to being the primary ball carrier, which allows Hightower to come in with fresh legs and be a very effective backup. I think the Eagles' size and speed will be good enough to handle the Cardinals ground attack. James shows a tendency to like to go outside, but he lacks the speed to get there. He still has good vision, but his legs just can't move like they used to.
The Cardinals will move the ball and score points. Warner, Fitzgerald, James, Hightower, Steve Breaston and Anquan Boldin are too good to be completely shut down. I think you can count on Boldin playing. He missed last week and I'm sure sitting that game out is eating at him. Add in the fact that he really struggled in the first game with us and you can bet he'll have something to prove. One interesting thing to watch is how the Cardinals handle our defense. They faced the 24th- and 18th-ranked defenses in the first two rounds. We have the number three defense in the NFL. Arizona has to be at their best against us, but they will have some success.
Our offense will need to score. Donovan McNabb has been safe and efficient the last two weeks. He's also been extremely clutch, leading scoring drives at key times. Against Arizona we'll need to do the same, but also have to make sure we score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals on some of those drives.
Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg have run a ball-control type of offense for the last couple of months. That needs to continue. This game will be played in a dome, taking away any weather issues. The Cardinals had the 19th-ranked defense in the league. I know it will be tempting for the coaches to be more aggressive in this game. I hope they stay with the ball-control attack. It has worked well and the offense has looked good.
The dilemma the Cardinals face is whether to focus on McNabb or Brian Westbrook. Both the Vikings and Giants decided to take Westbrook out of the game and to put pressure on McNabb and the passing game. The offense moved the ball and scored points in both games. The Eagles also won both games. With that in mind, the Cardinals have to come up with a new wrinkle or they have to outperform the Vikings and Giants defenses.
Arizona will be at home and that will give their pass rushers an advantage. Anyone who saw their Wild Card win over Atlanta knows those guys are quick off the ball. Darnell Dockett is explosive. Bert Berry remains a force off the edge. They also have good blitzers. The Eagles offensive line must slow them down. Going against Minnesota's defense in their dome hopefully will give the offense an advantage. That was as loud a place as there is in the league. The Vikings have as quick a defensive line as there is in the league. The Cardinals will be a tough test, but Tra Thomas and company got a good feel for the situation a couple of weeks ago in the game at Minnesota.
One of the questions I've received a lot recently is what's wrong with the Eagles running game. We haven't run the ball well. The first thing is to look at the opponents. Minnesota led the league in run defense. The Giants were in the top 10. Then add in the fact that both teams decided to focus on Westbrook. You now have teams stacking the box and aggressively playing the run. Both teams even had cornerbacks flying in to play the run.
The Eagles are a passing team. The tight ends are better receivers than blockers. There is no great fullback. There is no running back that has the power to wear down a defense. The line is built to pass protect. Simply put, this team isn't built to play power football. They have to throw the ball effectively to create room to run.
The Cardinals could not stop Westbrook or the rushing attack on Thanksgiving, but I think that was somewhat of an anomaly. Their guys had a bad game that night. I think they will be tougher against the run this time around. I do, however, think we will have more success against them than we did the last two weeks. Those defenses were like Hadrian's Wall.
The real key is to attack the middle of the Arizona defense. They don't have the fastest guys in the middle of the field. Kevin Curtis, DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant, Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter should all get passes thrown to them so that they can run after the catch. That is one area where the Eagles can use their speed. They can turn short, safe passes into bigger gains.
I can't foresee McNabb having six turnovers. He is normally a very careful quarterback. Arizona won't get gifts from him the way they did from Delhomme. That will put more pressure on their offense and defense. Turnovers are big-time momentum plays. They also eliminate or create good field position. McNabb knows that and is generally protective of the ball.
Either team can win this game, but I like the Eagles' chances. Defense wins championships and the Eagles have the better defense. The team is playing at a high level right now. The guys have been on red alert basically since the loss to the Ravens. I can't see them letting up and playing an error-filled game with so much on the line. Limit big plays, pressure Warner and feed the ball to Westbrook and Buckhalter. Do those things and live to play another week.