Monday, January 19, 2009

What a Championship Sunday!!

By Sean Trench

It seemed as if these games would never start. The first game started at about 3:15, and the second one a little after 6:30. The four teams that were in the games today were the Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. If you are wondering how these teams got to this point, here is a summary.

The Arizona Cardinals won the NFC West with a record of 9-7. It wasn't a very strong division. In fact they were the only team with a winning record. After giving up 56 points to the Jets, 47 points to the Patriots, and 48 points to the Eagles, no one thought that this defense could stop anybody. Nobody was giving them a chance in the postseason. They beat the Falcons at home in the wild-card round 30-24 and the defense started to make plays in that game. Next, they had to play the Carolina Panthers. Nobody gave them a chance in that game. The final score was 33-13 in favor of Arizona. The defense came up with 5 takeaways, all interceptions by Jake Delhomme.

The Philadelphia Eagles were a similar story. They finished the season with a record of 9-6-1. That's right, they tied a game with the Cincinnati Bengals. Donovan McNabb didn't know that a tie was possible! At that time their record was 5-4-1. But the Eagles won four out their next six games to make it into the postseason. They were arguably the most dangerous team in the NFC. Nobody wanted to play the Eagles. They beat the Vikings on the road in the wild-card round 26-14. Then they traveled to New York to face the defending champions. Thanks to their defense and clutch plays by McNabb, they won 23-11.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were a team that finished the season 12-4. Their defense was #1 in most of the categories. They had home field advantage. They had a bye in the wild-card round. Then, they dominated the San Diego Chargers at home, 35-24. Nobody thought that anybody could score on their defense. The Chargers scored three touchdowns on them. So that gave Baltimore some confidence coming into the AFC championship game.

The Baltimore Ravens were a team that had the best story coming into the postseason. They have a rookie head coach, John Harbaugh, and a rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco. The Ravens finished the season with an 11-5 record. The defense was just getting started, however, in the postseason. The Miami Dolphins came into the wild-card game with the lowest turnover margin in the NFL. Baltimore forced Chad Pennington to throw four interceptions, one returned by Ed Reed for a touchdown. They also forced a fumble to give them five takeaways. The final score was 27-9. Next, they went to Tennessee to face the #1 seed Titans. The Titans were second in the NFL in turnover margin. The Ravens forced three turnovers including, two in the red zone. This game came down to a field goal by Matt Stover with 53 seconds left to lead the Ravens to the AFC Championship.

So now that leads to the championship games in both the AFC and NFC. The NFC championship game featured the Arizona Cardinals and the Philadelphia Eagles. This game was played in Arizona. The Cardinal fans sold out the game in just six minutes! This game started off with Arizona driving 9 plays and 80 yards finishing the drive with a touchdown by Larry Fitzgerald. Then the Eagles drove 8 plays and 33 yards, but they finished the drive with a field goal by David Akers. This would be a theme in the first half: the Cardinals finishing drives with touchdowns and the Eagles settling for field goals. Kurt Warner was on fire in the 1st half. He threw three touchdown passes, all to Fitzgerald. The Eagles defense had no answer for Larry, as he pretty much had whatever he wanted on the field. One of the touchdowns featured a great call by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. It was a flea flicker from Arrington to Warner, who threw a 62 yard bomb to Fitzgerald for touchdown #2.

So at the end of the first half, Arizona was in control 24-6. What a change from the previous game between these two teams, which Philadelphia dominated 48-20. But this Cardinals team is vastly different from that team back in week 13. The Cardinals defense was much better than they were back in the regular season. But the 2nd half of this contest was much different than the 1st half. The Eagles put a lot more pressure on Kurt Warner, and McNabb started to make some plays with the offense. The Eagles came roaring back into the game with 19 unanswered points to give them a 25-24 lead to start the 4th quarter. Then came the drive of the game and the answer of that high-powered Cardinals offense. After shutting down Arizona in the 3rd quarter, Kurt Warner was masterful on this particular drive. The drive was 14 plays and gained 72 yards. It took 7:52 off the clock. It featured four crucial and backbreaking third down conversions, two to Fitzgerald.

The final play in the drive on third and goal was a well designed screen pass to Tim Hightower. Hightower bullied his way for eight yards into the end zone to give them a 30-24 lead. The next play was crucial as well because it would have given them a 7 point lead. Another great decision by Warner finding his backup tight end, Ben Patrick for the two-point conversion. So that left McNabb with just 2:23 left to try and tie the game. He was constantly pressured on that final drive and missed his target four times from midfield, and then on 4th down he threw a pass to Kevin Curtis, but thanks to former Eagle Roderick Hood, no dice. The play resulted in an incomplete pass and a trip to Super Bowl 43 for Arizona.

What a story this Cardinals team is, but now they had to play either Pittsburgh or Baltimore in the Super Bowl. They will again probably be the underdog, which they have been used to all year round. So this is nothing new for Arizona. Ken Whisenhunt, who is in his second year as head coach has lead this team to the Super Bowl. Their 61 year drought from the Super Bowl is the 2nd longest in history. They have been in three different cities though; Chicago, St.Louis, and Arizona. The Chicago Cubs have the longest drought, which is 100 years since they have been to the World Series. Interestingly enough, the Cleveland Indians have the 3rd longest drought, which is 60 years since they won in 1948.

So now we had another game to watch, the AFC Championship game between the Steelers and the Ravens. This game was another one that did not disappoint. This game featured the two best defenses in the NFL. So you figured that this would be a low-scoring game right, well, sort of. Overall, Pittsburgh dominated this game, but Baltimore would not let this one go down without a fight. The 1st quarter was one that Pittsburgh led just 6-0. But Ben Roethlisburger threw a touchdown pass, or so he thought, to Santonio Holmes. Harbaugh challenged the catch, and sure enough Holmes couldn't hang on so the call was overturned. That led to a field goal instead of a touchdown. What a challenge by Baltimore!

The 2nd quarter featured another unbelievable play by Ben Roethlisberger. Baltimore sent a house blitz on third down, and Ben scrambled out of a sack and threw a pass off his back foot that just got over the defender, and into the arms of Santonio Holmes. Holmes then made a series of moves and took it the distance for a 65-yard touchdown. Then on the next drive, Mitch Berger punted to Jim Leonhard, who returned it 45 yards all the way inside the Pittsburgh 17 yard line. Then Baltimore went to an unbalanced offensive line with a jumbo formation with Haloti Ngata, and Willis McGahee ran it in for the touchdown. Baltimore was right back in it at 13-7. That was the score at the half thanks to poor clock management by Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger.

The 3rd quarter was a defensive battle. Pittsburgh did put points on the board by kicking a field goal. The score was now 16-7. The 4th quarter was a nail-biter at first, but then Pittsburgh made the plays that they needed to make to come out with a victory. The Ravens got right back into it after Joe Flacco threw a long pass intended for Derrick Mason in the end zone. The play resulted in a flag for pass interference on Ike Taylor. The next play, McGahee with the same unbalanced line ran it in for another touchdown. The score was now 16-14. Then, on a huge third down play, Terrell Suggs sacked Roethlisberger and gave Baltimore the ball back. After a couple of costly penalties, Flacco made another mistake. There was pressure coming on Joe from his blindside and he lofted a pass intended for Mason, but intercepted by Troy Polamalu, who in return took it back for a touchdown to "put the nail in the coffin" for the Ravens. The final score was 23-14 in favor of the Steelers. Pittsburgh's defense just proved to be too tough for Joe Flacco to handle. It came down to the quarterbacks, and Roethlisberger just made more plays to win the game.

Super Bowl 43 will be between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh is making its seventh appearance in their history, and second in four years. Arizona is making its first ever appearance. The game features two second year head coaches in Mike Tomlin and Ken Whisenhunt. Mike Tomlin is now the youngest head coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl. He is just 36 years old. The Cardinals are the first team with nine wins or fewer in the regular season to reach the Super Bowl in a non-strike season since the 1979 Los Angeles Rams. Kurt Warner improved to 3-0 all time in NFC Championship games; while the Eagles fell to 1-4 under Andy Reid. Ben Roethlisberger improved to 7-2 all time in the playoffs to pass Troy Aikman for the second-most playoff wins by a quarterback in his first five NFL seasons.

Larry Fitzgerald became the fourth man in NFL history to record three consecutive 100-yard receiving games and the first to do it in the same postseason. So now Super Bowl 43 will have Whisenhunt facing his former team, The Pittsburgh Steelers. What a story that these two teams have been this year, and they will continue to be the story in this game. It comes down to a great offense against a great defense. This should be another great game to watch. Vegas is favoring the Steelers early for the Super Bowl. So the Cardinals as it looks will be the underdog yet again. Do you think that they would want it any other way? This team has thrived on being just that throughout the playoffs, and don't be surprised if they come out as Super Bowl Champions. In two weeks we will find out.

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