Commentary

Takeaways fueling Ravens' playoff run

Football Outsiders takes a look at the upsets of the divisional playoffs, why they happened and what awaits the victors in the championship round.

Originally Published: January 12, 2009
By Ned Macey | Football Outsiders

If you write about upsets every week of the NFL season, this past weekend was a fat kid in the candy store moment. On the weekend when home teams historically have won the majority of games, three road teams toppled their rested opponents.

Rather than focus on one upset, we look at all three and what they mean for next weekend's championship games. In each game, a handful of plays swung the winning team's way and show what the team needs to do to advance to the Super Bowl.

Baltimore-Tennessee

Tennessee lost because it turned the ball over three times in the red zone. The Titans outgained Baltimore by 180 yards, but thanks to turnovers, they lost 13-10.

Baltimore Ravens Tennessee Titans

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Watch highlights from the Baltimore Ravens' 13-10 win over the Tennessee Titans.

This was the Ravens' second consecutive victory fueled by turnovers. This is nothing new, as Baltimore led the league in takeaways this season. Both Miami and Tennessee (hardly offensive juggernauts) moved the ball when they were not coughing it up to the Ravens.

The Ravens should be able to force turnovers against the Steelers, who turn the ball over at a much higher rate than the generally efficient Dolphins and Titans. The Steelers' past two games, however, hint that Pittsburgh will have more success throwing the ball, particularly on shorter routes, than it did during the regular season. For Baltimore, turnovers are no longer a bonus but a necessary part of being a dominant defense.

Equally important is whether the Ravens will be able to prevent giving the ball back to Pittsburgh. Through two playoff games, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has avoided mistakes. The results are not always pretty -- the Ravens made only nine first downs against Tennessee -- but Baltimore still won two playoff games. Flacco has thrown only five interceptions in his past 13 games, but two of those were in the Ravens' Week 15 loss to the Steelers. Flacco was awful in that game, completing only 11 of 28 passes.

Given that the two Baltimore-Pittsburgh regular-season games were decided by three and four points, respectively, it is hard to imagine the AFC title game will not be extremely close. The winner likely will be the team that forces more turnovers. The Ravens' defense seems up to the challenge. Whether Flacco can remain mistake-free is to be determined.

Arizona-Carolina

The most surprising result of the weekend was Arizona's domination of Carolina. The Cardinals limped home to a 9-7 finish yet find themselves hosting the NFC Championship Game. Offensively, the Cardinals' explosiveness is well-known. Had they won two shootouts, their surprising playoff run would have been at least understandable.

[+] EnlargeAntrel Rolle
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeAntrel Rolle and the Cards' defense have shined in both of Arizona's playoff wins.

Instead, the Cardinals have played well on offense, but their defense has done the heavy lifting. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ratings, the Cardinals' best defensive game of the season was against Carolina. Their third-best was their wild-card win over Atlanta. The Cardinals have limited opponents who want to run the ball and forced their quarterbacks into obvious passing situations. Their defense has then cashed in on turnovers.

The Panthers' massive early deficit meant they had to abandon the run, but they struggled to run the ball even early on. DeAngelo Williams finished with 63 yards on 12 carries, but 31 of those yards came on his second carry of the game. When the Panthers couldn't run, the pressure fell on Jake Delhomme, who had the worst game of his career and the second-worst game any quarterback has had in the playoffs since 1995.

The game turned on the Panthers' second possession. After jumping to a 7-0 lead behind the strong running of Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers called three straight running plays but were stuffed on third-and-1 by safety Adrian Wilson. The Panthers punted. The Cardinals scored after a big play to Larry Fitzgerald. Then, the Cardinals' Antonio Smith sacked and forced a fumble on the Panthers' next offensive play, and the rout was on.

The Cardinals' defense faces a very different challenge against Philadelphia, one it failed to overcome on Thanksgiving. The Eagles, unlike Atlanta and Carolina, are a pass-first team. Arizona's aggressive safeties, Wilson and Antrel Rolle, excel near the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals' secondary has been reinforced with the insertion of ball-hawking cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into the starting lineup, but it still is not an elite group.

The Cardinals like to play man-to-man defense, which can be effective against the Eagles. The key, however, will be whether the Cardinals can put pressure on Donovan McNabb. Nothing about their regular-season performance indicates the Cardinals can do that. Of course, nothing about their regular-season performance said they could beat the Panthers.

Philadelphia-New York Giants

The rubber match of this intense rivalry went to the visiting Eagles, who relied on a dominant defense to return to their first NFC Championship Game since the 2004 season. That defense has driven the Eagles all season. McNabb remains the face of the franchise, and his midseason benching and subsequent good play have been the focus of much media attention. The dirty little secret is that McNabb is playing at the same level he has played for years. Instead, the Eagles' return to the NFC title game is predicated on the defense's return to glory.

Philadelphia Eagles New York Giants

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Watch highlights from the Philadelphia Eagles' 23-11 win over the New York Giants.

The Eagles have developed a dominant defensive line that is extremely talented and deep. The defense rotates at least eight linemen, and all are solid contributors. Tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley anchor the defense and are the key cogs to the front seven. Their disruptive play allows the young, athletic linebackers to make plays.

Against the Giants, the Eagles held their own against the Giants' vaunted run game, particularly on the game's most crucial plays. In the fourth quarter, the Eagles stopped the Giants on four third- or fourth-and-short runs. These stops basically sealed the victory. The Giants averaged more yards per play, but their inability to convert on third and fourth down (4-for-16) was their undoing.

The Eagles' offense continues to make just enough plays to win games. Against Minnesota in the wild-card round, the Eagles made a few big plays to lead them to a win. On Sunday, the key was the Eagles' proficiency on third down. The Eagles completed seven of 14 third downs. Most damaging were a third-and-21 and a third-and-10 the Eagles converted on their go-ahead field goal drive in the third quarter. Although they made some clutch plays, the offense was pedestrian overall.

Adjusting for opposing defensive quality, the Eagles actually had the second-worst offense of the whole weekend, better than only Carolina. The Giants shut down Brian Westbrook, which poses an interesting model for Arizona. The Cardinals love to stop the run and likely will mimic the Giants' strategy. In Arizona, however, the Eagles are unlikely to face the same windy conditions that slowed down both offenses Sunday, and the Cardinals cannot match the Giants' pass rush.

The Eagles have to be considered prohibitive favorites against Arizona. Their defense should harass Kurt Warner and stop the Edgerrin James revitalization tour. Still, the Cardinals' passing offense is too good not to make some big plays, so McNabb and the offense will need to play more consistently. Given the upheaval of this postseason -- underdogs are 5-3 -- anything can happen and probably will.

Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.