Reid Fischer's World of Rants

Looking at the sports world through orange colored glasses

Conference Championship Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on January 15, 2009

3-1 last week, which I’ll take any day in the playoffs.  I never thought in my wildest scenario I could dream up that the Arizona Cardinals would find a way to win in Carolina, let alone dominate every aspect of the game.  It just goes to show how unpredictable the NFL is.  At this point nothing would surprise me.  I just hope we don’t have any more games decided by a bad call or in overtime with a team not touching the ball.  Both of these games are such crapshoots at this point that I frankly don’t have any more idea who is going to win than the man in the moon, but like anyone else I can give it my best guess:

NFC Championship: Philadelphia at Arizona: Who would have thought when these teams met on Thanksgiving night, in a game most people couldn’t see because they don’t get NFL Network, that there would be a rematch in the NFC title game, and that the Cardinals would be the host?  The Eagles rolled from the word go in that game at Lincoln Financial Field, racing to a 21-0 lead before the Cards could even blink, and hit the finish line with a 48-20 victory.  Brian Westbrook had a monster game (which I remember too well because I was going against him in fantasy that week), scoring four touchdowns.  Turnovers doomed the Cardinals in that game, as Kurt Warner threw costly picks on each of Arizona’s first two drives (three picks altogether in the game), and because of that the Cardinals never had a chance.  The Arizona running game was also worthless, gaining just 25 yards on the night.  That game was also the first after Donovan McNabb’s benching in Baltimore, and was the jump start of Philly’s late run, as they have now won six of their past seven games.  All that being said, I think that game means nothing when taking a look at this one for several reasons.  

First, Arizona was at a significant disadvantage in that first meeting because they were forced to travel three time zones east for a Thursday game on a short week, while coming off a physical game against the Giants the previous Sunday.  The Eagles had the luxury of not having to travel anywhere, and that had to at least make some difference.  Second, the Cardinals are a much different team now.  That game was played in the middle of Arizona’s late season slump after they essentially had the division wrapped up.  Their running game is much more effective with the Edgerrin James resurgence (he didn’t even play in the first meeting) and their defense is much sharper now than they were in that game.  Third, we learned today that Brian Westbrook tweaked his left knee injury last week against the Giants.  If he’s not 100 percent, odds are he won’t repeat his monster performance from the first meeting.  Fourth, the game is in Phoenix, where the Cardinals went 6-2 this season and will have the benefit of a frenzied crowd on Sunday.

Both teams have really come out of nowhere to be in this game after essentially being left for dead during the season.  The Eagles hit rock bottom with their embarrassing tie in Cincinnati and then McNabb’s benching and subsequent blowout in Baltimore.  The Cardinals had become a complete embarrassment on the road, having gotten shelled in every way imaginable in the snow in New England in week 16.  Both teams enter the game hot, and a case can really be made for either team here.  The Eagles are experienced in NFC title games, appearing in their 5th in 10 years, while the Cardinals have a quarterback who has won a Super Bowl and will be playing at home where the crowd will be rocking.  It is a guarantee that this game will be closer than 48-20, regardless of who wins it.  I have to pick someone so…..

The Pick: Cardinals 28 Eagles 24.  Strange as it is since I thought Arizona would get shellacked last week, I like Warner to outduel McNabb indoors in the desert.

AFC Championship: Baltimore at Pittsburgh: This game will be so physical, you may just feel the pain in your living room if you’re watching on HD.  The Steelers won each of the first two meetings in extremely close fashion.  The first one was a Monday nighter at Heinz Field in week four, won by Pittsburgh 23-20 in overtime.  The Ravens actually led 13-3 at halftime, but Santonio Holmes turned the game with a 38-yard touchdown catch.  Both teams actually saw the ball in OT, but the Ravens punted before the Steelers got the winning field goal.  The yardage couldn’t have been any closer (243-237 for Baltimore) and each team turned it over once.  The second meeting in week 15 was also won by the Steelers in Baltimore 13-9 in controversial fashion, as we’re still not sure if Holmes had really broken the plane of the goal line on his winning touchdown catch with 43 seconds left.  The Steelers dominated the yardage this time (311-202), especially on their final drive of the game.  The Steelers started at their own 8 yard line with 3:36 left, and drove 92 yards in 12 plays for the winning score.  Each team committed two turnovers in this game, including an interception thrown by Joe Flacco with eight seconds left that sealed the win for Pittsburgh.

The Steelers swept the regular season series, but the two meetings combined were decided by just seven points.  I am frankly astounded that the line for this game is Pittsburgh by six at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.  Since it is reasonable to assume that this will be an extremely low scoring game that will be decided by defense and turnovers, I find it hard to believe that the margin of victory either way is a lock to be by more than three points.  I think the Steelers have an advantage in that they should be more rested than the Ravens.  Pittsburgh had the bye, and then their defense stood on the sideline the entire third quarter (except for one play) against San Diego while the offense controlled the clock.  Baltimore had to give everything physically in their win against Tennessee, so it will be interesting to see what they have left in the tank.  

It is interesting to note that the Steelers recently have not fared well in home conference championship games.  They did win at home in 1995 against Indianapolis, but have home losses in AFC title games to San Diego (1994), Denver (1997), and New England (2001 and 2004).  In fact, the Steelers only recent AFC title game win came on the road in Denver in 2005 (one of my darkest memories as a Broncos fan – I still have nightmares about all the terrible towels that invaded our stadium that day).  Perhaps considering that history the Steelers should petition the league to play this game in Baltimore instead of at Heinz Field.  Baltimore is in particular not afraid of playing on the road, so the Ravens are not likely to be flapped.  The X factor in this game is Joe Flacco.  If he doesn’t make mistakes, the Ravens defense will keep them in the game and might have a chance to make plays themselves.  If the Steelers defense forces him into a couple of picks, than Baltimore will really face an uphill battle.  Pittsburgh on the other hand needs to be able to run the ball effectively and convert third downs, which would allow them to wear Baltimore’s defense down in the fourth quarter.  Both teams are banged up, and both defenses are outstanding against the run.  This game may be the biggest toss up of the year.  You’ve got a third meeting of two teams that always keep it close and are both playing well.  Oh, and they hate each other, so there would be no shortage of motivation even if this was a July scrimmage, let alone the AFC title game. Again, a point spread of six is completely absurd in this game, especially since my pick is…..

The Pick: Ravens 13 Steelers 10.  Something tells me the Ravens defense has enough in the tank to continue their high play.  It frankly wouldn’t shock me if this game was 6-3.

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