<
>

Cards scrappy, but destiny favors Philly

1/13/2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- We can safely say nobody saw this NFC Championship Game matchup coming.

On one side are the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that only made the playoffs because everything broke their way in Week 17. On the other side are the Arizona Cardinals, a team that went 9-7 in what was arguably the weakest division in football. The smart money had the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers playing for the NFC's Super Bowl berth. Instead, we now have the two teams that produced double-digit victories against those supposed favorites.

Insider: NFL rumors

Will Amani Toomer call it quits? Will Brandon Jacobs stay true blue? Where are Steve Spagnuolo and Kevin Gilbride headed? NFL Rumor Central

• More: MLB | NBA | NHL

What kind of game are we going to get from the Eagles -- who on Sunday beat the New York Giants 23-11 in an NFC divisional playoff game -- and Cardinals? When they met on Thanksgiving, Philadelphia routed Arizona 48-20, reminding many of how dominant the Eagles could be when they put their minds to it. But plenty has changed for both teams, including the stakes that will come with this next meeting. That's why neither team is giving much merit to what happened back in November. It's also why we think these are some of the questions that should be discussed as this year's NFC Championship Game approaches:

1. How much of an advantage will Philadelphia gain from its blowout win over Arizona?

None. That game had more to do with an Eagles team trying to right itself after a miserable slump and a Cardinals team that -- at the time -- still didn't have a clue about how to play teams on the East Coast. At this point in the season, momentum means far more than familiarity. The Cardinals are playing better defense and displaying more offensive balance and the Eagles have to go on the road this time.

"This is the playoffs," Eagles running back Brian Westbrook said Sunday after the Eagles' second consecutive victory in Giants Stadium. "Everybody knows Arizona is a different team at home than they are on the road [Arizona is 7-2 at home, 4-5 on the road] and we expect to be going back into another hostile environment."

2. How much stock do you put in the idea that the Eagles have played in a tougher division (the NFC East) than the Cardinals (the NFC West)?

Plenty. When it comes down to who's been more challenged this season, the Eagles have a healthy advantage. Remember, the Cardinals went 6-0 in a division in which every other team finished below .500. Meanwhile, the Eagles had to slug it out with the Giants (the defending Super Bowl champs), the Dallas Cowboys (a team Philadelphia had to beat in the final week of the regular season to make the playoffs) and the Washington Redskins (a team that nearly eliminated Philadelphia from playoff contention with a 10-3 victory over the Eagles in Week 16). You become a mentally tough team when you bang with opponents like that all season.

3. Which team has the hotter defense?

The Eagles have a slight edge here. It's hard to find anything wrong with an Arizona defense that has a mind-boggling nine takeaways over the past two games (including six in the 33-13 win over Carolina), but the Eagles have been playing better defense for a longer period of time. Philadelphia has allowed just 65 points over its past six games. The Eagles' defense also did something against the Giants that seemed inconceivable: It stuffed the Giants' vaunted running attack on two fourth-and-short plays. When you come up big like that, you deserve plenty of love.

"People say I like to throw the football around and coach on the offensive side," Eagles head coach Andy Reid said. "But I also know that you win games on defense."


4. Which quarterback has been more impressive over the past two weeks of the postseason: Kurt Warner or Donovan McNabb?

Warner gets the nod here. Maybe the Panthers are responsible for allowing Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to run wild against them, but Warner still had to make some big throws in Arizona's win over Carolina. Few people gave the Cardinals a chance to win that contest with another Pro Bowl receiver, Anquan Boldin, sidelined with a hamstring injury. But Warner's efficiency (he has a 93.9 quarterback rating in this postseason) helped his team stay alive in that game and in the Cardinals' win over Atlanta.


5. Can the Cardinals win without a healthy Boldin?

No. There's little question that the Cardinals played inspired football in Charlotte on Saturday but their offense needs to be at full strength when it meets the Eagles' defense. Philadelphia has two strong cornerbacks (Pro Bowler Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown) and its safeties (Pro Bowler Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell) have been playing at a high level, as well. In other words, don't expect to see Fitzgerald taking over another game if Boldin isn't healthy enough to play. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson simply won't let that happen.

6. Can the Eagles win without another significant contribution from Westbrook?

Yes. On Sunday against the Giants, Westbrook produced one of the worst games of his career (18 carries for 36 yards and two receptions for 10 yards) but you can't blame those numbers on a lack of effort. The New York defense knew it had to shut him down, and that's what it set out to do. Westbrook also managed just 38 rushing yards in Philadelphia's wild-card win over Minnesota, so you can see a pattern developing here.

The key for the Eagles, however, is to continue finding other playmakers when opponents take away Westbrook. "I just keep trying to help the team no matter what my role is," Westbrook said. "If teams want to focus solely on one guy, then we have other guys who can go out there and make plays."


7. Which offensive line is more underrated?

Arizona's. Both teams have allowed just one sack each this postseason, but the Cardinals have had to deal with a greater burden: Warner's lack of mobility. While McNabb remains elusive enough to escape oncoming pass-rushers, Warner is a sitting duck when the pressure mounts. That's why it's so impressive to see the kind of protection Warner has received throughout this postseason, especially with the Cardinals facing Pro Bowl pass-rushers like Atlanta's John Abraham and Carolina's Julius Peppers. Even the Cardinals' rush offense -- which ranked last in the NFL this season -- has been a little better in the playoffs.

8. Which rookie will have a greater impact on the game's outcome?

As well as Arizona cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has performed this season, Philadelphia wide receiver and kick returner DeSean Jackson will have to make some plays downfield for the Eagles. That's exactly what he did in Sunday's victory over the Giants. The former Cal star caught a 48-yard pass from McNabb in the fourth quarter that set up the Eagles' final points (a 20-yard field goal by David Akers with 3:58 left). Jackson has the speed to make life hard on a defense from any place on the field. Don't be surprised if he does just that against the Cardinals.


9. Which team has more right to claim the "no-respect" mantra for this game?

The Cardinals -- and mainly because they probably still aren't going to get much respect. Don't be misled, though. Arizona might not be a great team, but it is far from being the pretender that entered the postseason just two weeks ago. Arizona has shown it can bang opponents in the run game and its defense isn't as flawed as it once looked. The Cardinals didn't get to the NFC title game by luck. They went to Carolina as a team that had been 0-5 on the East Coast -- giving up an astonishing 202 points in those contests -- and came back victorious. That fact says plenty about Arizona's heart and toughness.

10. Which team is going to the Super Bowl?

Philadelphia. As nice a story as the Cardinals have been this postseason, the Eagles are operating like a team with destiny on its side. The Eagles thumped the most talented team in the NFC -- Dallas -- in their season finale and they just beat what many considered to be the best team in the league on the road. So it's hard to imagine the Eagles struggling with a Cardinals team they dominated back in November.

Philadelphia just has been playing too loose and effectively to let its season end with anything less than the NFC championship.

"We're playing with heart and everybody knows we have one goal in mind," Eagles defensive end Trent Cole said. "And that's just to make it to the end."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.