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Philadelphia Eagles @ Arizona Cardinals - NFC Championship Game Open Thread

Hmm. Which side to take in this one. Last week, I was perfectly willing to proclaim my confidence in the Eagles to beat the Giants on the road. Couldn't have felt more confident about that one. The match ups were too juicy for Philly versus that particular Giants team:

As the #4 seed, there's a very legitimate possibility that the Cardinals could be hosting next week's NFC Championship game. That would happen if the Eagles took down the Giants in the Meadowlands Sunday afternoon.

Not going to spend much time explaining why I think that's exactly going to happen, but I do. Both road teams won during the regular season; McNabb's no stranger to big games; but most importantly to me, New York doesn't have enough offensive firepower to repeat as champs. I personally think their run is short lived and will end tomorrow against the Eagles. There's just nobody on the Giants that can scare Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. With no Plaxico Burress to worry about, match up problems disappear and the Eagles can do what they like to do best: blitz with abandon while leaving their excellent CBs alone 1-on-1. That's not risky against the Giants with no Plax.

Well what about Brandon Jacobs you might say? I don't know. I don't think he's enough to win a game against that Eagles defense. Manning has to have targets in the passing game for it work and I don't see where the Giants have an edge in any match up on the outside.

As for the Cardinals, I wrote that I thought they'd give the Panthers a much closer game than people were expecting. It's hard to predict a 6 turnover performance of course, but people were too low on Arizona just one week after playing very sound football against Atlanta. Even down 7-0 early I thought the Cards had a shot to make a game of it after getting a critical stop in the 1st quarter (from a game thread, so pardon the shoddy grammar and spelling):

I'll say it still even with it 7-0. I think this games going to be close till the end. Another long drive though by Carolina on that previous one would have been devastating. Turned the field though field position wise and are in bizness. Had to avoid a big early hole though and it looks like they're off the brink of disaster for now.

The main reason I thought people were misguided a bit last week was because most across the country aren't quite aware of the big game mojo littered throughout Ken Whisenhunt's resume. Whiz is a top flight game theorist and strategist - he's so good at pulling off the unexpected, while finding ways to set up what he wants to do at just the right time.

There's more...

(you really should read this book if you like to think, read, are interested in logic, game theory/strategy, or you just want to learn something new about making sound informed decisions in all sorts of daily life transactions, then you're going to both really love the book and learn a ton from it. That covers just about all of y'all so...).

And by unexpected, I don't mean gadget plays all the time. I mean a game plan that is tough to foresee coming yet still within the general framework of what's feasible, somewhat familiar, and sustainable over the course of prolonged stretches of the game, not just a singular play or series. Take last week for example. There was a steady dose of the running game early, something the Cardinals haven't done at all this year. But don't let that talking point skew the whole picture - Larry Fitzgerald still also had monster numbers in the first half. In other words, Whiz was being unpredictable while still finding just the right times to go to his All-World play maker on the outside.

That all sounds easy in theory to do - throw early to set up the run like we did in '05 for example - but it's not. Opposing coordinators know that's the plan. Remember the movie Princess Bride? Remember the scene where 'Mr. Inconceivable' is going through all the likely strategies Westley must be considering in their Battle of the Wits. The train of thought from the yappy bald fellow is not all that incongruous with what coordinators go through each week trying to get inside the head of their opposing counterpart as they draw up comprehensive game plans and contingency options for all sorts of scenarios:

Inconceivable? Not really when you have a coach that's one of the league's most unique, unpredictable and successful single game strategists.

Whiz has frequently found a way to outfox his opponent, most of the time by simply not being afraid to roll the dice and trust his guys to execute like professionals, even in areas where they've been mediocre all year.

This week though?? I have no idea. My inclination says that Philadelphia is going to win this game. Who knows though, and part of my reluctance stems from Whiz's success getting his teams to play loose on the biggest of stages.

I will say this: Arizona has to turn the Eagles over 2-3 times to win this one because I think Jim Johnson and the Eagles defense will have some success themselves getting after Kurt Warner and forcing a turnover. The Cards may need a few fortuitous bounces to change the field and tide of the game if they're going to complete the unthinkable and advance on to the Super Bowl.

Anyway, I think the early moments of this game will tell a lot about what will happen. If McNabb is given time by his offensive line and is able to cleanly scan the field, the Cards are probably in trouble. If McNabb seems a bit rattled for whatever reason - be it from a fluke INT, a sack, whatever - than this one could be interesting and hedge in AZ's favor. It might also be clear whether or not Jim Johnson and the blitzing Eagles have the Cards confused in their protection packages. Struggles early might mean struggles often. Clean pick ups of the blitz might mean a big day for Kurt Warner and his targets down the field. Philly's a fairly feast or famine type of team. Will we see one or the other early on? I think so, personally.

Regardless of who wins, if Pittsburgh were to win later in the day, the Super Bowl would have intriguing story lines for us. If it's Arizona, it's a match up with former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and former offensive line coach Russ Grimm. If it's Philly, it's a rematch of the Week 3 debacle, when Big Ben was sacked 8 times and hurried countless others.

I have some Steelers related stuff for us in the early afternoon, but let's start here to talk about this game as it unfolds as we nervously await the AFC Championship game between your Pittsburgh Steelers and the sewer's Baltimore Ravens. Don't be too nervous though - everything's aligned in our favor and for what it's worth, your homeboy Blitz not only likes Pittsburgh's chances, he's contemplating a big, big last minute bet on them, something I've felt confident enough to do only one other time this year - last week against San Diego (mom, if you're reading, I hope you gave up by now or got caught up being nostalgic about having kids in your house many moons ago with the Princess Bride on every couple of weeks at least; gambling's bad, or something, I remember).

I'll be right here throughout. Join me. Oh, I think we should all agree on one thing - if the Steelers were to win later, we want Arizona. Period. No two ways about it. At least if we're talking about the best possible match up for winning's sake. If you're heart is set on revenge, so be it. But for this Steelers fan, it's go Cards...unequivocally.

It's Championship Sunday my friends. Time to see who's for real and ready to bring it all one more time with the table stakes as high as they can be in each conference - by day's end two tested and weary teams will be heading to Tampa Bay and Super Bowl 43.

First up: Philly and Arizona.