Thursday, January 15, 2009

AFC and NFC Championship Game Previews

Last year, I went 2-2 during the Divisional Playoff round, correctly picking New England and Green Bay but wrongly choosing a pair of 13-3 teams, the Cowboys and the Colts. This year, the top seeds in both conferences--the 13-3 Tennessee Titans and the 12-4 defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants--went belly up at home in the Divisional Playoff round. Those games, plus Arizona's stunning 33-13 road win over 12-4 Carolina (the worst home loss by a second seeded team since the NFL expanded the playoff format in 1990), meant that I went 1-3 during the Divisional Playoff round, with my only correct choice being the reliable Pittsburgh Steelers, 35-24 victors over the San Diego Chargers. The Steelers are now 11-1 in home games in the Divisional Playoffs since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger (they set a record of dubious distinction by losing four out of five AFC Championship Games at home from 1994-2004 but more about that shortly).

My playoff predicting record is a dismal 3-5 so far this season, so I need to be perfect the rest of the way just to match the 6-5 mark that I posted last season. All I can say in my defense is that this year's NFL playoffs have been more wide open and unpredictable than any postseason in recent years--or maybe ever. Home field advantage, playoff seeding, being a hot team or being a cold team--none of these factors seemed to matter at all.

Last week's games featured four rematches of 2008 regular season games and this week's Championship Games are also rematches. Here are my predictions:

NFC Championship Game

The 11-6-1 Wild Card Philadelphia Eagles visit the 11-7 NFC South West Champion Arizona Cardinals.

I've already picked against the Cardinals twice, while I correctly picked the Eagles to beat the Vikings but predicted that their playoff run would end versus the Giants. In other words, I did not expect either team to make it this far. Arizona is the first 9-7 team to host a conference championship game. Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner owns a 7-2 career playoff record, including a 1-1 Super Bowl mark and a 29-24 victory over Donovan McNabb and the Eagles in the 2002 NFC Championship Game when Warner played for the Rams. Warner completed 22 of 33 passes for 212 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 94.5 passer rating in that game, while McNabb--who has a 9-5 career playoff record, including 0-1 in the Super Bowl--completed 18 of 30 passes for 171 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 73.1 passer rating. Although McNabb has a pedestrian 79.2 career playoff passer rating (Warner's career playoff passer rating is 92.6), McNabb has started in nine playoff victories, trailing only Joe Montana (15), Terry Bradshaw (14), Tom Brady (14), John Elway (14), Brett Favre (12), Roger Staubach (12) and Troy Aikman (11) on the career list. That group is top heavy with modern players due to the multiple expansions of the postseason format in the past few decades and it is worth mentioning that each of the quarterbacks ahead of McNabb won at least one Super Bowl title and made multiple Super Bowl appearances.

The Eagles smashed the Cardinals 48-20 in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving but don't count on the Cardinals playing like they are in a tryptophan induced stupor this time. After sleepwalking through the latter portion of the regular season, the Cardinals have discovered a running game and an opportunistic defense in the playoffs. Arizona defensive end Antonio Smith said, "We had to start it over. Push the reset button and go back to the type of football we were playing at the beginning of the season. Somewhere after we clinched (a playoff spot), we got a little too into ourselves and relaxed on some of the things we focused on before. That's the big difference. This defense has always been a good defense. If anybody watches film and watches us, they will see that." Or you could just ask Jake Delhomme, whose excellent season and fine playoff resume went up in smoke as he threw five interceptions and fumbled once in Carolina's loss to the Cardinals last week.

I would have never imagined that the Cardinals could make it to the NFC Championship Game, let alone host it, but now that they are one home win away from making the franchise's first trip to the Super Bowl I expect Warner to outduel McNabb much like he did seven years ago. Arizona will win, 31-20.

AFC Championship Game

The 13-5 Wild Card Baltimore Ravens visit the 13-4 AFC North Pittsburgh Steelers.

I expected the Steelers to make it to the AFC Championship but thought that they would be visiting Tennessee instead of hosting the Ravens. Baltimore's 13-10 win at Tennessee gave new meaning to the term "head-knocking"; I don't think I've ever seen so many helmets fly off of players' heads in one game. That was a bruising, brutal and ugly game that surely took a lot out of the Ravens mentally and physically. Meanwhile, San Diego hung with Pittsburgh for a half but the Steelers limited the Chargers to one offensive play--a Philip Rivers interception--in the entire third quarter as they cruised to a 35-24 victory.

Both the Steelers and the Ravens play bonecrushing defense and want to establish the running game on offense. The Steelers swept the regular season series between these division rivals, but only won those two games by a combined seven points--and that included an overtime period.

In this matchup of mirror image teams, the only real reason to go against Pittsburgh is that the Steelers are just 1-4 at home in the AFC Championship since 1994. However, two of those losses came at the hands of the New England Patriots--winners of three Super Bowls in a four year span--and the other two losses happened more than a decade ago with a different coaching staff and different players.

Baltimore's defense will probably keep the game close for a half but Pittsburgh will win, 24-9.

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