Subscribe in a reader

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mike Bradley: Round Three; Pass-Happy Offenses vs. Shutdown Secondaries.

This NFL postseason has been nothing short of wacky. The defending Super Bowl champs played like the defending BCS Champion, the Cardinals walked into a hostile Carolina and ran the show, the Ravens are attempting to reach the Super Bowl with a rookie QB, and the Steelers are playing defense the way it's suppose to be played in January. The defensive slobberknocker that's expected in Pittsburgh is getting much of the publicity heading into Sunday, but don't be surprised if you find a struggle for points on the other coast.

At first glance, it's easy to expect a shootout. 

Arizona is led by a former Super Bowl MVP Quarterback in Kurt Warner, the best wide receiver in the world in Larry Fitzgerald, a number one-worthy second fiddle in Anquan Boldin, and a steady running game led by former All-Pro Edgerrin James and rookie surprise Tim Hightower. Add to that a rejuvenated offensive line, and you have a recipe for offensive dominance.

Philadelphia is led by a seemingly brand new quarterback and leader in Donovan McNabb, a shifty playmaker in Brian Westbrook, and one of the most explosive players in the rookie class (if not the entire NFL) in DeSean "Action" Jackson. And as far as offensive lines go, you will be hard-pressed to find a bigger unit with more experience than the Eagles veteran-led group. 

But I'm not looking at the offenses, as crazy as that may seem. Even in a game littered with Pro Bowlers on the offensive side of the ball, I can't help but feel the defenses will take the cake (or the NFC Championship, in this case).

On one hand you have a defense that came out of no where in the unit in Arizona. It's evident the Cardinals decided to turn up the intensity in the playoffs, forcing a usually-steady Matt Ryan into 2 interceptions in round one followed by complete domination of Jake Delhomme in round two. What made the Carolina victory more impressive was the way the front seven shut down the most dynamic one-two running back punch in the NFL. The emergence of a run stuffing defense, as well as a new shutdown cornerback in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, has the Cardinals feeling confident that they can shutdown any offense (especially an offense that has looked as anemic as the Eagles offense has thus far). Vets Bertrand Berry and  Adrian Wilson keep the young defense on an even keel while they also get in on the action. Berry is a pass-rushing machine while Wilson is the unquestioned leader in the impressive secondary.

In the case of the Eagles, you have a steady mix of young talent and savvy veterans leading one of the most dominating defensive units in the playoffs this year. Since the Thanksgiving game against the Cardinals, the Eagles have only allowed four offensive touchdowns. Of those four touchdowns, exactly ZERO of them have been of the passing variety. A true testament to a secondary led by "Weapon X" Brian Dawkins and Pro Bowl corner Asante Samuel, the unit is tailor-made to match up against the Big Two for Arizona. The front seven for the Eagles has been equally dominant, shuttting down Adrian Peterson for much of the first round game and holding the Giants on three 4th down conversion attempts. Jim Johnson's relentless blitzing scheme has been flawless thus far, led by the cycling defensive ends Trent Cole, Darren Howard, and Juqua Parker. 

In the end, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Cardinals win the battle on offense while the Eagles win the defensive phase of the game, which leaves only special teams to decide the game. As the saying goes, you have to win 2/3 of the battles to win the game, and it looks like the Eagles have the special teams advantage on paper. Punter Sav Rocca has certainly stepped his game up in the postseason, averaging 43 yards per punt and placing 5 of 8 punts inside the 20 yard line. His net average is also up from 38 yards in the regular season to 42 in the playoffs. David Akers enters the game as one of the hottest kickers in the league, hitting seven straight field goals in the playoffs, including an impressive 3-for-3 showing in a blustery Giants Stadium last week. In the return game, however, is where the Eagles hold a great edge. The aforementioned lightning bolt Desean Jackson could very well be the X-Factor in the battle for special teams supremacy. He will be returning punts knowing Pro Bowl special teamer Sean Morey and the rest of a very solid special teams unit is bearing down on him. In a showdown of two solid units, I expect the Eagles to come out on top. 

Of course none of this speculation means anything without a solid coaching performance. The Cardinals are led by second-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt, an offensive mastermind with a knack for pushing the right buttons with his players. However, being a second-year head coach also means limited postseason experience. Andy Reid is one of the most playoff-tested head coaches in the league. This being his 5th NFC Championship game, Reid knows what it takes to coach in high pressure situations, even if he doesn't always show it. This facet is really a coin flip, and I don't feel like it will affect the game all that much. 

It's unfair to look at the Thanksgiving game as a benchmark for this game, and that's a good thing for the Eagles. The last thing they need to do is look past a Cardinals team who thrived on that against the Panthers last week.

But as is common place in the sports world, the Cardinals have quickly gone from massive underdogs to the team expected to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl (contrary to the Vegas odds). NFL "experts" across the analyzing spectrum have been changing over to the Cardinals bandwagon as they seem to put all the pieces together. But as Skip Bayless recently said, "This is the best thing for the Eagles. They are now going into this game as the favored underdogs."

No body believed in the Giants last year, and look what happened? Their defense carried an offense that was just good enough, and they ended their year with a parade. 

In a Battle of the Birds, look for Donovan to will the Eagles to his 2nd Super Bowl behind a dominant defensive effort. I mean he beat this team with one fibula before! 

Eagles 20 - Cardinals 14. *

No comments:

Post a Comment

Add to Technorati Favorites