GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Eagles fans are everywhere. That is the first thing you need to know on this game day. They have made their presence known in the Valley, and should put on a strong showing at the University of Phoenix Stadium later today. I'm here blogging, as usual, up way too early, and filled with nervous energy.
*12:35 p.m. (Arizona time) *
Final words: What has mattered before means nothing. I think the Eagles are the better team, but the team that plays the best 60 minutes ahead wins this game. It's that simple. I think the Eagles win with defense. I think they will not allow the Cardinals to get too many big plays. Larry Fitzgerald will get his, but the Eagles have to get off the field on third down. I don't care about the crowd. I don't care about the history of this football team in NFC Championship games.
I care about getting off to the right kind of start and playing Eagles football. Playing fast, physical football and making few mental mistakes. Do all the things the team needs to do to win this game.
I visited the Eagles Pep Rally last night at The Upper Deck in Old Scottsdale, got there toward the tail end of the party and it was impressive. There were hundreds spilling into thousands of fans there, and the early part of the pep rally was so crowded that our PhiladelphiaEagles.com photographers were unable to wedge themselves into the building or the party/tailgating lot. I think this crowd will at the very least approach the number of Eagles fans who made it to Minnesota. If you are watching on TV today, you are going to hear a lot of E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES! chants from the stands.
Not only were there a bunch of fans there, but everywhere I went on Friday night and on Saturday there were Eagles fans. Many came from Colorado, from California, from Philly and New Jersey and the burbs and, yes, there is a huge Eagles fans base here in Arizona. Thanks to all of you for making it here and lending your support.
Now, the game ... I think the Dome will be closed. Nothing official on it, but I sense the Eagles are anticipating having the Dome closed. And that's fine with me. The noise doesn't concern me. Actually, what kind of concerns me is the heat here. If the Dome is open, the game will be played in 75-degree temperatures and the Eagles aren't used to such warm climates. I think about players cramping.
In a closed environment, the Dome will be around 65 degrees and that is a significant different. In any event, I hope the Eagles players are well hydrated, beyond well hydrated. I remember players cramping in the Super Bowl in Jacksonville. Can't have that happen again today.
Quite a bit of news around the NFL in the last couple of days, and I'll get to that later. At this moment, I am going to spend my time thinking about this game. One win away from the Super Bowl. That's all I care about right now.
For the last 20 minutes, I have surfed the net reading opinions about this game and reading all of the "experts" who pick this game. Now I know why I don't do that. It drives me crazy, fills me with anxiety and I'm not going to do it ever again. You read this stuff and it makes you think about things that aren't there and it provides a false impression of these teams.
Let's talk about the approach the Eagles may take defensively. I think they are going to get after quarterback Kurt Warner with a lot of middle pressure. They don't want him stepping up in the pocket. They also, I am guessing, will try to load up on the strong side of Arizona's formation and take advantage of some injuries the Cardinals have had at tight end.
In coverage, the Eagles have to bracket-cover Larry Fitzgerald. They have to keep a safety over the top against him at all times. Anquan Boldin is going to play, but as I've said all week, I wonder how effective he can be with that hamstring injury.
I feel good about the Eagles and their ability to stop Arizona's running game. Edgerrin James is having a fine postseason, but the Eagles are so good against the run. Early on, I am looking to see how physical lthe Eagles are up front. That will be a good indictator of how ready this team is to play.
Who emerges today from the shadows? Or is today a big-game, big-player day? I am going to nominate two players from the offense as "unsung" heroes for the Eagles -- running back Correll Buckhalter and tight end Brent Celek.
My expectation is that the Eagles want to establish the running game. The Cardinals have taken the ball away 9 times in their two playoff wins and they have some risk-taking, big-play-making cornerbacks and safeties. The best way to nullify them is to run the football. Brian Westbrook is fine, trust me. I think that, going in, his knee is OK and his ankle is much better and he will have his quickness and his burst today. But I also think that Buckhalter will be a factor for a half-dozen or so carries. I also think, as we have seen recently, he can make plays in the passing game. I like Buckhalter for 60-70 yards of offense in this game.
I'm looking for Celek in the red zone. He is the starting tight end here, with L.J. Smith as the No. 2, and Celek's big body and good hands have become trusted assets for quarterback Donovan McNabb. Celek isn't the go-to receiver here, but he is going to make a big play or two. You just wait and see.
I would also suggest Jason Avant, but there is nothing unsung about him any longer. Avant is a third-down machine, and I am very relieved that he is healthy and will be on the field for McNabb. I think Avant has become a sort of safety blanket for McNabb on third downs and I truly wonder who the Cardinals will use in coverage against Avant in the slot.
Numbers for Westbrook? If the line does its job, Westbrook is healthy enough to have a big day. I think his health is actually better now than it was a week ago. Maybe being in the warmth of Arizona for a couple of days and playing on grass will give Westbrook the edge he needs.
I fell back asleep for a few minutes and had some wild dreams. Things were moving quickly in my head. A lot of people rushing past me, a sense of being closed in. I actually had to remind myself that it was all a dream and that I was OK, but it was strange. What does that mean? It was bedlam in my mind, and yet as I write this I'm calm. Excited, but calm. I feel like I did in Minnesota and then as I felt last Sunday as the team prepared for the Giants.
I'd like to say that today is just like any other day, but it isn't true. This is the fifth NFC Championship Game for me and each one has been different. Each one has come with high expectations. For a few of them, the night before was party time. The NFC Championship Game party was always a blast, and I took full advantage of the fun.
In 2004, though, a snowstorm covered Philadelphia, and I had a quiet night wtih my wife and friends. We went out to dinner and got home early. Last night, I went to dinner with a couple of guys here, stopped by the Eagles Pep Rally for exactly one soda, and then got back to the hotel early. Went to bed at 9:30 or so. Maybe history repeats ..
All I know is that I feel great about today's game. It's time for me to get my workout in, snoop around the hotel and get back to you soon.
Great workout. The usual -- bike for 30 minutes, stretch, get some lift in. Just enough to take some of the edge off and breathe deeply before the game starts, when I am wired and tight and nervous and can barely breath.
By 8 a.m. here, the hotel was buzzing. Players were dressed, off to the team meal and ready to take the bus to The University of Phoenix Stadium. The team usually takes five buses to the stadium and buses one and two leave together and then buses three, four and five leave about 2 hours and 45 minutes before kickoff. Players follow the same routine. They like to get to the stadium at a certain time and do their pre-game routine the same way each week. They are creatures of habit, as is head coach Andy Reid. When you hear the term "players coach," it sometimes sounds like the coach is soft and can be run over at times. Players take advantage of soft coaches.
Reid is a players coach, but he is anything but soft. Oh, he gives the team a non-traditional Monday and Tuesday off -- most teams give players off only on Tuesdays -- but he does that for a reason. Certainly, at this stage of the season he knows that the rest to the body is more important than another afternoon of running around on tired legs. This team, despite two road games, is as fresh as it can possibly be. Reid runs a very, very demanding training camp and then he knows when to pull back on players.
Aside from that, Reid is also demanding in other ways. The players must be disciplined on an off the field. They must be on time or pay the price. They must be attentive and see the overall bigger picture, that the team is greater than any individual. These may sound like small things, and they are, but they add up to a team that rarely gets in any kind of off-the-field trouble, that conducts itself with professionalism and that plays hard and plays the right way.
I've seen a lot of smiles. Brian Westbrook was beaming. I just have this feeling about him today ..
I can't properly describe the energy that is with this team right now. I'm sure it is the same with the Cardinals. No doubt, this is a different atmosphere, a higher level of excitement and the feeling of what is ahead. The team meal was filled with lively chatter, nervous banter and, from the players, out-and-out laughter. So many of these players have been in this position before. So many have felt the tension that a big game like this brings. And make no mistake, the players realize the impact here. It is not just "another game."
The pre-game meal is an interesting time to see what players arrive at what time and who eats what (I admit I don't pay attention to that). Donovan McNabb walks in at the exact same time each week and, let me tell you, he is wearing a killer suit with white (I think) shoes for today. I don't sense from him, from seeing his body language, that he is feeling anything unusual. It is a great feeling to know that the Eagles have an experienced quarterback, experienced offensve tackles and enough experience in the secondary, the kicking game and throughout the roster to approach this game the right way.
Will the Eagles come out running the football or throwing it? I wouldn't be surprised to see some runs early, set a tempo and establish something up front. I also wonder if the receivers need a little bit of time to settle down. Will the Eagles catch the ball?
We are on the team bus. Merrill Reese is talking on the phone in front of me in his radio voice, his normal voice, actually, and is complaining that if the NFL allows the Cardinals to close the Dome for "artificial reasons" it is a "disgrace." There is no weather threat, for sure. Sunny skies, 70s, no real wind.
A perfect day to win the NFC Championship.
Our bus is pulling near to the stadium, and we see it all: The Dome is closed. The Eagles prepared for this during their walk-through on Saturday, and they piped in noise all week in practice. We'll see what kind of impact the crowd noise has. Eagles fans need to come up big, I know that, and they will.
Ugly stadium from the outside. Looks like a toaster out in the middle of nowhere.
Reggie Brown is inactive, with Greg Lewis back in at wide receiver. Otherwise, everything is exactly as it was last week against the Giants. No Shawn Andrews or tight end Matt Schobel or running back Lorenzo Booker. There are no surprises from the Cardinals, either. All of those questionable players are now no longer questionable. They are playing.
I had a chance to watch Anquan Boldin in warm ups and it is very difficult to tell if he is limited by his hamstring injury. He hasn't totally turned it loose and won't until game time. Boldin doesn't run a lot of deep routes, anyway, but we'll see. I stil think he will slowed just a little bit.
Great turnout from the from the Eagles fans. They are lined around the stadium, rows deep. It will be difficult to assess how much impact the fans will have with more than 75,000 Arizona fans here.
I've seen Randall Cunningham and Chad Lewis here. Lewis is his typical, extremely excited guy. He speaks in such volume about the Eagles being "warriors" and showing "a lot of emotion." He was a hero from the 2004 NFC Championship Game, so he knows what it takes. "I want to see a lot of guys jumping around, loving it here," he said.