NFC Conference Championship Preview

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Philadelphia Eagles (11-6-1) at Arizona Cardinals (11-7)

The Arizona Cardinals take on their old NFC East foe in the Philadelphia Eagles at 1pm Sunday at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

Much has been said since last weekend about this match up.  You have the side that is sorry that they ever picked against the Cardinals and then there is the side that says this is all a desert mirage and anything short of a Super Bowl victory will keep them from believing the Cardinals have turned a corner.

There are the Eagles, all but dead in the water going into week 17, needing to defeat the Dallas Cowboys and then needed Tampa Bay to lose at home to lowly Oakland.  Both happened and the Eagles marched on to two road victories over Minnesota and the New York Giants.

Whoever your team is, you must admit this has been one of the most talked about games in a long time, especially from an Cardinals point of view.  Imagine what it would be like if the Cards pulled off the upset and punched a ticket to Tampa in two weeks?  I still pinch myself that this is real.  Trust me, it is real and the Cardinals do have a real legitimate chance to win this game, regardless of what some may say.  However, the Eagles can not be taken lightly.  They are riding momentum much like the Cardinals are and they have veteran experience that can carry them to Florida for the Super Bowl.

The Matchups:

Arizona Offense vs. Philadelphia Defense:

Many believe that the Arizona offense with Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Edgerrin James will be able to move the ball at times.  The real question is though how many points will they be able to put up?  The Philadelphia run defense is stingy.  Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has created a defense that has been able to stop the Vikings Adrian Peterson and the Giants Brandon Jacobs so far in the playoffs.  Most think they should be able to do the same job on the Cards James and Tim Hightower.  That means the Cardinals will be forced to throw more.  That will in essence take the Cardinals out of the balanced attack that has propelled the Cards each of the past two weeks.  However, don’t look for the Cardinals to abandon the running game as quickly as they did in the regular season, especially if the Arizona defense is able to keep the score low. If the Cards do become pass happy, which will most likely happen only in a case where they fall behind, then watch for the Eagles Asante Samuel to be in the mix and ready to snatch passes out of the air.

Philadelphia Offense vs. Arizona Defense:

Donovan McNabb has found new life since his November benching in the Baltimore game.  Although his numbers haven’t been flashy in the playoffs, they have been effective nonetheless.  He has made limited mistakes and much like Kurt Warner, hasn’t needed the flashy numbers to help advance his team in the playoffs.  The key is Brian Westbrook.  He has been hampered by a knee injury.  The Cards front three has become the the front four on the defensive line ever since the loss to New England in week 16.  Bertrand Berry, Darnell Dockett, and Anotnio Smith have led the charge and have all contributed to the much improved defensive effort.  If the Cardinals can contain Westbrook, something they failed to do in November, by applying the same run stopping defense that beat the Falcons and Panthers, then the Cardinals could be on their way to victory.  Allow Westbrook to take control, and Philadelphia may be punching their ticket to Tampa.

Special Teams:

This is the one area Arizona still hasn’t been consistent in.  Last week, they allowed Carolina to take the opening kickoff to the 50.  That allowed Carolina to gain excellent field possession and take an early 7-0 lead.  Neil Rackers has been fairly consistent this season, although when rushed still has trouble making the longer kicks.  Meanwhile Eagles kicker David Akers is in a different league right now.  He is making everything and could possibly be the difference in a close game.

The Prediction:

That being said about Akers, I feel it will come down to the other side.  A Neil Rackers field goal will be the difference.  Having home field, which really hasn’t meant much in these playoffs, I think means more to the Arizona Cardinals than any other team.  Although the Cardinals were able to win on the road, back east, last week, you can be sure the Cardinals are more than happy to have this one at home.  That certainly doesn’t guarantee victory, however it sure helps.  Expect both teams to come out with high energy and don’t be surprised by both teams making some early mistakes before settling down and fully implementing the game plan.  It’s going to be a close one.  Most feel the Eagles will come away with the ticket to Tampa and it very well may be that way.  I think however the Cardinals prevail in a tight one and will be the ones planning for the trip to Florida.  Cardinals 27  Eagles 24