Sunday, January 18, 2009

Championship Sunday preview

By Rick Morris

For a true football fan, Championship Sunday is one of the greatest days of the year. Super Bowl Sunday is a day for the casual fan to rule, with MTV-approved pregame and halftime entertainment and a host of dumbed-down content meant to appeal to folks who really don’t enjoy watching that much football. Championship Sunday is a day for the purists to gather to watch the greatest doubleheader in sports (with all due respect to the NCAA hoops national semifinals). I know this because I’ve been having a Championship Sunday party for years and I will do so again today as my friends and I chow down, enjoy one another’s sublime company and take in the gridiron goodness.

Let’s start with a little Championship Sunday trivia to mark these AFC and NFC Title Games:

^ It’s the first time since 2002-2003 there is no coach in the final four with a Super Bowl ring as head coach (although Andy Reid has been to a Super Bowl and in 2002-2003, Jeff Fisher had been as a head coach also).

^ It’s the first time since 1997-1998 that two of the final four teams (Pittsburgh and Baltimore) have won a Super Bowl in the last decade – and Philadelphia has also been to a Super Bowl in that span. In ’97-98, Green Bay and San Francisco were each bearing Super Bowl rings from the past few years and Denver was poised on the other side with the most recent of the Elway 1980s failures in the Super Bowl having come within the past decade. In 2004-2005, 3 of the teams had made Super Bowls in the last decade (New England, Pittsburgh, Atlanta), but only the Pats had won. In 2001-2002, New England, Pittsburgh and St. Louis had made it within the last decade but only the Rams had won.

^ Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh (a rookie) have a combined three years of head coaching between them. It’s the first time since the AFL-NFL merger that two such inexperienced coaches have met on Championship Sunday.

^ There have been eight different AFC teams playing on Championship Sunday in the ’00 decade: New England (five times), Pittsburgh (four times, counting today), Baltimore (twice, counting today), Oakland (twice – seems like another lifetime ago!), Indianapolis (twice) and Tennessee, Denver and San Diego once. But in the NFC, there have been 12 different teams! They are: Philadelphia (five times, counting today), New York Giants (twice), Carolina (twice) and Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, Green Bay and Arizona (counting today) once. When you scan that list, you see that the only “parity” in recent years has come from the NFC – not coincidentally, the weaker conference this decade with only two Super Bowl wins since 2000-01.

These playoffs have shown my crystal ball to be quite clouded, indeed, with a 1-3 record a week ago and a mediocre 2-2 the previous week. Arizona is a common denominator here, as I had them losing both weeks thus far.

On to the games:

Philadelphia at Arizona: Much has been made of the improbable nature of this championship game clash. As previously mentioned, I predicted Arizona to lose both of their first two playoff games (although in all fairness, I noted that the Arizona-Atlanta game to be the toughest to figure of the wild card round). A team that staggered into the playoffs with a poor road record – a defense that never resembled the sum of its parts – a team that won the weakest division this side of the AFC West – this team inspired very little confidence coming into the playoffs, but they have addressed all three of those concerns en route to traveling the rare path of playing a home playoff game, then one on the road, then one at home again.

But with a #4 seed playing a #6 seed for the NFC Title, you know that two hot, late-blooming squads are squaring off, because they’ve had to win tough games against teams with better regular seasons to get to this point. However, it’s a bit misleading merely to label the Eagles the lowest seed, because they competed in football’s toughest division and they would have easily bettered their 9-6-1 record against lesser competition. Interestingly, Philly mirrored Arizona as a bad road team during the regular season, but wins at Minnesota and the Meadowlands in the playoffs have rendered sour autumn memories away from home very distant to say the least.

The edge that the Eagles have carried into this game – aside from the aforementioned chance to get sharp against much better competition – is the fact that their defense is not a Johnny-come-lately like Arizona’s. Year in and year out, Jim Johnson has the Philly unit performing at a high level and his genius play-calling befuddles many a great team. Kurt Warner and Company haven’t seen anything like what’s coming their way today.

Having said that, it’s worth noting that Larry Fitzgerald has had a huge breakout in these playoffs, going from legitimate franchise player to one of the very best big-time performers today. He terrorized a good Panther D without benefit of Anquan Boldin last week and Leapin’ Larry is about to get his partner in crime back. But a greater surprise has been the resurrection of the Cardinal rushing game thus far in the playoffs. Coming into the postseason, one would have pegged Philly as much better at both running the ball and stopping the run, but the Cards’ recent play negates this notion as an automatic reality.

The health of Brian Westbrook will be of paramount importance for the Eagles, as he has held the mantle for a few years as the key weapon of the offense. He can play hurt with decent effectiveness, which will be critical, because Philadelphia has little or no chance of keeping up with Arizona without him.

The sub-plots of this game from a media perspective (the Eagles going up against the team who they pummeled on Thanksgiving night to start the process of salvaging their season, two proud and experienced veteran survivors at quarterback in Warner and Donovan McNabb) don’t tell us much about what to expect. This would surely be the case for either of these teams going forward also (an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl, which would have broad popular appeal all the way from Scranton to State College, would not justify the media attention it would get, nor would a Ken Whisenhunt/Russ Grimm vs. the Steelers Super Bowl, nor would the Eagles facing the team that put them at rock bottom late in the year in the Ravens). But media storylines aside, this game will come down to which offense is able to operate most effectively – and given the choice between siding with a hot defense or a hot and proven defense, I’ll take the hot and proven one. In a game that feels like a coin flip in many ways, I see the team with fewer offensive weapons finding a way to get it done on the road. Philadelphia 23, Arizona 16.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh: I will note in passing that as a lifelong Clevelander I view this matchup on this stage with complete and total revulsion. However, notwithstanding my personal lack of a rooting interest, it’s quite apparent that this is a compelling mirror-image showdown between two teams predominantly noted for their bruising defenses.

Both teams persevered through tough schedules to make it to this point. But like the Eagles, both are very battle-tested by this point in time. Neither team was especially likely to make it this far – Baltimore because they are in their first year under a new head coach with a rookie QB and a stout, though aging defense and Pittsburgh because their offensive line isn’t what it used to be, QB Ben Roethlisberger took quite a pounding and the run game was up-and-down with Willie Parker at less than 100% most of the year (and the preseason loss of rookie stud Rashard Mendenhall). However, both ended up making it to this point through physical and opportunistic defense and with multi-headed running attacks that took the pressure off of the vertical game.

For the Steelers, Mewelde Moore came off of the scrap heap and provided the boost that Pittsburgh needed when Parker was down. For the Ravens, big Le’Ron McClain augmented incumbent Willis McGahee and rookie scatback Ray Rice to produce an all-around ground approach that few in the league could match.

Health among those in the trenches will figure big into this outcome. McClain is really feeling the effects of his straight-up rushing style right now, while Parker finally appears to be in decent shape. Plus, Troy Polamalu has a hurt calf, so the Pittsburgh run defense could suffer from that – although that reality is obscured by the larger problem for Baltimore of Terrell Suggs’ injured shoulder.

In the end, most of the key indicators in this game to point to the Steel City:

^ Home AFC Championship Games were kryptonite for Bill Cowher, but he’s not the coach anymore.

^ An away game of this magnitude is a lot to ask of any rookie quarterback, even one as poised as Joe Flacco.

^ Pittsburgh’s receiving corps is deeper – although ballhawking safety Ed Reed is one heck of an equalizer.

^ Due to the hurricane-postponed game that the Ravens had with Houston back in September, they have played the overwhelming majority of their season without a bye week in between. Plus, they had the “car crash” effect of a physical battle with Tennessee last week while Pittsburgh overwhelmed a very soft San Diego team. Additionally, factor in the fact that the Steelers had a bye week during the first round of the playoffs.

^ Baltimore’s defense is older and has been reliant, perhaps disproportionately, on turnovers to keep their run going.

Field position will dictate this battle in brutal cold and snow conditions. The challenging Heinz Field kicking circumstances could well come into play, as every point should be at a premium. Pittsburgh 20, Baltimore 13.

Bonus early Super Bowl pick: Pittsburgh 16, Philadelphia 13.

No comments: