NFL Playoff Picks 2009 Championship

January 15, 2009

Historical football knowledge states “defense wins championships.” Well, it certainly wins division playoff games, based on events this past weekend:

Baltimore Ravens night terrors. I don’t play in the league; I am sure that I would run screaming from any professional defender were I ever to see one on the field. But Saturday was the first time I literally felt a chill when looking at a defensive unit. The camera angle was behind Kerry Collins staring straight into the metaphorical teeth of that front seven – and I shivered. Once, in Africa, a lioness caught me taking a photo of her cubs. Her intense look of warning stopped me in my tracks. I’m telling you, Ray Lewis had that same look.

How about that Cardinals’ D? Not to mention – where the heck did they come from? In the past two weeks, this group has hoisted the team’s fortunes on their backs and crushed the competition. Major congratulations to the coaching staff for this astounding transformation. For several years, we’ve all been noticing the individual talent on the squad. Well now they’ve put it together and given their fans a SECOND home playoff game in a generation. (Yes, Kurt and the offense certainly helped.) The Falcons and the Panthers still don’t know what hit them.

But the Panthers should have at least prepared for the onslaught after having seen it during Wildcard weekend. To use current slang – SERIOUSLY, guys! You had one of the top two rushing attacks of this season, it gave you an opening drive TD in 5 plays – and you abandoned it? “What were you thinking?” just doesn’t begin to address the insane play calling in Charlotte last Saturday night. Result: more opportunities for Warner, Edge and those WR’s to bury your team. Which they did.

A similar offensive meltdown occurred in the Meadowlands – just as lethal to playoff survival if not quite as ugly. Big Blue decided to prove they could pass, the QB had a bad day and they still didn’t go back to the three-headed rock group that has eaten yards on the ground all year. Did Kevin Gilbride get infected with some virus that compels Offensive Coordinators to go pass-happy in playoff games? Please. Of course, Philly Defensive guru Jim Johnson took complete advantage of that compulsion with his intense defense of blitzing and intercepting dervishes.

Unfortunately for San Diego, their Ron Rivera-led Defense proved to be a façade when they came up against a surprisingly relentless Steelers’ Offense. It wasn’t the 49ers of the 80’s, but it was beautifully executed and combined just enough tough running to make those sharp pass plays effective. I thought that the Chargers’ D had turned the corner after sterling performances against Denver and Indy in the past two weeks. But when Big Ben and company held the ball for all but 17 seconds of the 3rd quarter, the D couldn’t hold up and practically shattered before our eyes. However, I bet they’ll be back as long as San Diego hangs on to Rivera as the coordinator.

And there really aren’t any superlatives left for Dick LeBeau’s second-coming of the Steel Curtain. Without individual flash or showboating, the squad simply crushes their opponents – on all three levels. So well disciplined that their achievements seem almost effortless, I can’t wait to see them again on the same field as the fiery Ravens’ D. Two totally different playing personalities with frighteningly similar results.

That same traditional wisdom also asserts that defense travels well. Cool.

And now, for the best day in the football year – Championship Sunday!

Sunday 3:00 PM (all times are Eastern Standard)

Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals

Weather: sunny, clear and 75 degrees. How nice for the fans – and a little toasty for the players. Will be a bit of a shock for the cold weather Iggles.

Injuries: New and promising WR Jason Avant has a sore knee in Philly – but he is probable. Arizona’s Anquan Boldin says he wants to play Sunday and he has been upgraded to questionable. His presence would make a huge difference for the red birds.

Eagles’ Offense versus Cardinals’ Defense: McNabb couldn’t be hotter right now. NFL Network pundits estimate that at least 10% of his fire comes from the “I’ll show you” factor. Could be – you KNOW he’s still pissed about that benching incident. In fact, the only thing keeping him from submarine warfare with his Head Coach has to be the incredible Lazarus act that has this team on its way to yet another NFC Championship contest. Donovan was 22 of 40 for 217 yards in the air and 59 on the ground last week. #5’s rediscovered scrambling plays have defenses grinding their teeth and catching their breath. Will fans please give this guy the respect he deserves? The only two times in his career that he’s had ONE legit WR (T.O. and now DeSean Jackson) he has been one of the top 3 QB’s in the league. What is it? Because he has a sense of humor people can’t see him as a true top-notch signal caller? To quote the movies: “Snap out of it!” He’s one of the best around and apparently a great guy – what more does any football fan want? McNabb had all this success last weekend in a game where the Giants’ essentially shut down Brian Westbrook – who only managed 36 yards. Usually that spells doom for Andy Reid’s so-pure-it’s-practically-transparent West Coast scheme. But Donovan carried the entire offense last week. The squad as a whole converted 50% of their third down attempts – wow! The question here is which Cardinals’ D will be on the field Sunday: the disjointed sieve of previous weeks and seasons or the dominant point-misers of the last few weeks? This unit has given up only 18.5 points per game in January action so far and forced SEVEN turnovers! That’s impressive stuff. I think they CAN repeat this level of play– but I’m not entirely sure they will.

Arizona Offense versus Philly Defense: Carolina sacked Warner only rarely last week. Philadelphia must do better: nothing else will stop that passing attack. Edge and Hightower were given the ball enough on the ground to keep opposing defenses from getting too focused on the secondary – but let’s be real: this is a passing offense. A darn good one, too! Two weeks in a row an early deep ball to Fitzgerald has jump-started the scoring unit. I’m sure the play callers will try to make it three in a row. Expect the odds to shift if Boldin can start – having BOTH those guys on the field is a lethal combo. The Cardinals have averaged 31.5 points scored in the post-season. They must stick with this new “respectable running game” strategy and get the ball to their RB’s at least 20 times or Philly’s D will try to blanket the WR’s – starting with probably 3 defenders draped all over Fitzgerald. Unless Andy Reid has a serious brain cloud (like John Fox did last week), his defense will make sacking Warner and covering those WR’s a priority on Sunday. And with Brian Dawkins and Asante Samuel in that secondary I wouldn’t be surprised to see several sacks based strictly on coverage. Dawkins is so passionate he’s practically the Flash, igniting all over the gridiron. And do NOT miss Samuel battling Larry Fitzgerald for every pass in the air. Two super-talented guys at the top of their game! And Arizona may plan to run the ball, but the Eagles’ D did an excellent job of slowing down (and occasionally stuffing) the Giants’ formidable running trio. That’s something very few units can do – so Edge has his work cut out for him. In fact, the Philly interior defensive line (particularly unsung hero Broderick Bunkley) completely dominated their Giant counterparts last week. This phase of the contest will be decided by whether or not Arizona’s Oline can stand up to the challenge.

The rest: The key intangible in this game is intensity. Philly has been so intense that they have left their very souls on the field the last three weeks – can they keep it up? And Arizona has NEVER played in an NFC Championship game – EVER! You think that crowd was psyched when they won the division? I expect the walls to shake with crowd noise and energy on Sunday. Unless the Eagles can steal the momentum early and quiet those fans, the very air will vibrate with home field fervor. Will it be enough? Well, it couldn’t hurt that’s for sure.

I am a fan of Arizona’s entire coaching staff – the job they have done the past two years and particularly of late with the defense is truly impressive. They’ve taken a bunch of separate, talented guys and molded them into a unit whose whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Conversely, I put Philly’s lack of a Super Bowl ring for the past 10 years squarely on Reid’s shoulders: his play calling is predictable and his refusal to acquire a power rush has him stuck in the 80’s. And so far, he’s been left in the dust when it comes to the big game.

Philly should win this one. They have more experience, a longer string of wins and ultimately more talent. But I don’t expect a blowout. In fact, the Cardinals could pull it off.

Straight Up: Gotta go with Philly. They are due.
Spread: Arizona +4.0. I may be a sucker for the underdog here, but I think with home field advantage this game could be a three pointer. In fact I think the Cards could actually win if Andy Reid chokes.
O/U: 49 points Hmmm. I’m betting that Arizona’s D will come to play and that they’ll hold Philly to 24 points or so and the Eagles’ D is so good that I don’t think the Cards will be able to score their usual 30 points this Sunday.

Sunday 6:30 PM

Baltimore Ravens at the Pittsburgh Steelers

Weather: from the sublimely lovely to the ridiculously ugly. Snowing and 20 degrees MAXIMUM in the Steel City Sunday evening. Yuck! But both teams can play in it and snow is easier to play in than rain, so the weather will not have as much of an impact as will an undoubtedly soggy field. Don’t expect any lightening speed Sunday night.

Injuries: The Ravens are in trouble here. DB Leonhard has a concussion and Samari Rolle has a hurt groin – which is a VERY bad injury for a CB. But the worst news is that DE and extraordinary pass rusher Terrell Suggs has a severe shoulder injury and was still in a sling and out of practice as of Thursday. Without Suggs I think you just have to go with the Steelers. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has no new injuries and they DO have Willie Parker back healthy. Uh-oh.

Ravens’ Offense versus Pittsburgh’s Defense: Everyone is saying that the key here is whether or not Joe Flacco will play like a rookie. Maybe, but I think Flacco will be fine UNLESS Pittsburgh’s rush dumps him early and often. In which case I don’t think it would matter if he were Tom Brady; no one throws well from the butt-seated position. And the Steelers’ Dline can accomplish this. Of course, the Ravens’ Oline is probably hip to that plan and will dedicate themselves heart and soul to keeping their young signal caller clean and un-harried. They can’t completely succeed, but their level of success will determine the winner. Personally, I think Flacco will be fine as long as he doesn’t get in a hole.

Toward this end, Baltimore MUST be able to run the football with McClain and McGahee. Remember that Pittsburgh held San Diego to ONE rushing first down last weekend. Oh dear. However, the above two non-Scottish running backs are much, much stronger and tougher than anything the Chargers had on the field so they should fare far better on the ground. The Steelers’ D is so disciplined and their execution so smooth that, except for the occasional diving play by Polamalu (the only one really allowed to freelance), they hardly seem to be trying as they stuff play after play down their opponents backfields.

Steelers’ Offense versus the Ravens’ Defense: Aside from the Carolina meltdown, Pittsburgh’s offensive success was the biggest surprise of last weekend. Big Ben started out with his usual Superman complex: going deep early and with little success. But eventually this field-stretching paid off in pulling back the Chargers’ D. And then an amazing thing happened. The Steelers’ offense turned into a yard-grinding, judiciously throwing machine. And this machine was powered by the return of Fast Willie Parker. His health couldn’t have come back at a better time for the Pittsburgh faithful. In two TE sets, Parker steam-rolled his way to 146 yards and two touchdowns. Beware, Ravens – the feet that led the team to the Super Bowl in ’05 are back and fleet as ever. Behind Parker’s rushing, Moore’s special teams sparkle and WR’s who can block as well as they can catch Big Ben was able to pass his way to 17 or 26 attempts, 181 yards, a TD and a trip to the AFC Championship. The only change I can suggest is that the play callers START with this philosophy and not let Ben toss it all over the field for the first quarter. If they let him do that, even a Ravens’ secondary minus Rolle will pick some off. Worried as I am about Suggs’ injury I cannot write off the Baltimore D entirely – they are simply too intimidating. They have forced 8 turnovers in two weeks and are tremendously tough in the Red Zone. While Pittsburgh’s Defense is methodically frightening, the Ravens are downright intensely terrifying.

The rest: Cover the kids’ eyes – this is going to involve at least one fight. Division rivals does not begin to describe the animosity level between these two teams. And this one may not be for all the marbles, but it is for the chance to take all of your marbles to the Super Bowl.

That famous traditional wisdom also notes how difficult it is for anyone to beat the same team three times in one year. Pittsburgh has won the first two meetings. Hmmm.

Mike Tomlin is the youngest coach to get to the AFC Championship game since John Madden in 1970. (As a William and Mary graduate myself, I am proud.) You have to give Tomlin a slight edge just due to the fact that he is in his second year with the team versus rookie Head Coach Harbaugh. But they both impress me.

I’m giving the pick to the Steelers only because of those injuries, but I do know for sure that I wouldn’t miss this game for the world. As Coach Mike said, “ Us and the Ravens. It’d be a big game if it were a scrimmage.” You bet.

Straight Up: Pittsburgh
Spreads: Steelers –4.0 (spreads vary up to 6 – don’t go over 5.5)
O/U: 34 points I’m going to go with the over as long as it is snowing and not raining. I expect at least one of these defenses to score also. Don’t go above 37.

True football fans only should be allowed in our living rooms this week – it’s the best Sunday for real football all year!

Enjoy the games!

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