NFC Championship Game Preview: Eagles vs. Cardinals

By Josh Satler –

When the 11-6-1 Philadelphia Eagles head into Arizona to face the 11-7 Cardinals, a trip to the Super Bowl will be on the line.

It’s actually quite unbelievable to think these two teams, neither of which finished with 10 wins in the regular season would be here, but both have stepped up in January and earned the right to play in the NFC Championship Game.

The Eagles are here after annihilating the Cowboys 44-6 on the final Sunday of the regular season, and then defeating both the Vikings 23-14 and Giants 23-11 in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The Cardinals are here after holding off the Atlanta Falcons 30-24 in the Wild Card round and then going on the road and destroying the Panthers 33-13 in the Divisional Round.

The first time these teams played, the Eagles won 48-20 on Thanksgiving night; expect a closer outcome in this one.

When the Eagles have the ball, look for them to continue doing what they’ve done in the playoffs: use the short passing game to set-up the run. The Cardinals are very good at loading the box (with S Adrian Wilson) to take away a team’s running game. They did this last Saturday against Carolina, and that defensive scheme coupled with HC John Fox’s horrible game plan, kept the Panthers’ two-headed running game in check all night. Once that was the case, the Cardinals pass rush was able to key on Delhomme and force the QB into six turnovers.

So the Eagles will use the slant pattern and quick pass to WR’s Avant and Curtis and TE’s Celek and Smith to keep the Cardinals honest. And once they have some success doing this, look for them to feed the ball to RB Westbrook and try and isolate him against the Cardinals’ LBs and take advantage of Westbrook’s game-breaking ability.

This in turn will keep McNabb off his back—pocket protection will be good, and then he’ll have a chance to go up top to speedster DeSean Jackson when the opportunity presents itself. But don’t expect too many opportunities; Rookie CB Rodgers-Cromartie has been playing big time football so they’ll have catch them off guard if they want to hit on a big one.

When the Cardinals have the ball, look for them to continue to pound the rock with the Edge. Everyone knows Arizona can pass on anyone; that was never an issue. The problem they faced late in the season was by becoming one-dimensional, defenses were able to drop more guys in coverage and this led to an overall offensive drop in production against the better teams in the NFL.

So the Cardinals will try and get 15-20 carries to RB James just to keep Philly’s defense honest. The Eagles come into this game with the third best defense in the NFL, so don’t expect much from the ground, but by sticking to the run, it’ll have a neutralizing effect on the Eagles’ blitz package and provide more opportunities in the passing game.

And that’s where the Cardinals will look to attack with Fitzgerald, Boldin (if healthy enough to go), and Breaston.

In today’s game, the rules are decidedly in favor of the offense, i.e. DBs can’t be as physical as they were in the 90s and earlier, so receivers are given freedom to run their routes and any sort of contact is usually flagged. So if the Cardinals offensive line can provide Warner with adequate protection—a big if facing the top rated defense in the NFC—he’ll be able to locate his outside targets. And once he does, those talented receivers have the ability to take it all the way to the house.

So look for Eagles’ DC Jim Johnson to come out and rush only four down lineman to put pressure on Warner, but if the QB begins to have success, pressure will come from all over. And that’s when either Warner will kill the Eagles with precise passing, or Philly will force him into sacks and turnovers.

As the NFC Championship Game comes to a close, look for the Eagles to pull out a slim victory—in the 24-21 or 21-17 vicinity. Both teams are playing well on both sides of the ball: The Eagles are playing excellently on defense and efficiently on offense while the Cardinals are playing excellently on offense and efficiently on defense. And while the Cardinals will have the advantage of playing this one at home, the Eagles are showing that mental toughness that makes them too hard to pick against.

So the Eagles and McNabb will finally have a shot to win their first World Championship in franchise history, while the Cardinals will head home after exceeding everyone’s expectations in professional football, including their own.

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