Donovan McNabb's reversal of fortune after getting benched in Week 12 started with a four-touchdown performance in a 48-20 win over the Cardinals. Since then, he has been on a tear -- and he doesn't have the same type of targets Kurt Warner does. He's completed 61 percent of his passes in the playoffs and has been one of the top QBs since getting benched. Slight edge.
Arizona has stuffed Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the playoffs. Rushing yards might not come easy. Brian Westbrook gashed the Cardinals for 110 yards earlier this season. His effectiveness could come more in the passing game in non-passing situations. Arizona's front is aggressive and potentially susceptible to screens, draws and play-action passes.
Warner has Fitzgerald, Boldin and Steve Breaston. McNabb has â¦ it's the age-old question, "How good could McNabb be if he had at least one stud wide receiver?" McNabb had to have people making plays for him to go on the late-season tear he's on. DeSean Jackson is a long-ball threat and TE Brent Celek has emerged as a red-zone option. Jason Avant, nursing a sore knee, has made some big plays.
As Arizona's front is going to be challenged, so will Philly's. The Eagles have not found a way to get any up-front push in the run game but they may have some success on cutbacks if they get the Cardinals aggressive DTs to flow. Pass protection wise, the Eagles' line is among the best, but it will have to stay on its blocks because the Cardinals are relentless and get a slight edge here.
It's hard to argue which defensive tackles are playing better. Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson have formed a stone wall in the playoffs, especially in short-yardage situations. The Cardinals run mostly off tackle but Bunkley and Patterson can get such penetration, it could be hard for Arizona to set up some of the runs they like. End Trent Cole has played like a man possessed.
Philadelphia's crew has to be aware of crack-back blocks on run plays and out of Arizona's bunch packages on short screens. MLB Stewart Bradley is playing very physical football and will need to step into the off-tackle seams the Cardinals like to run through. OLB Chris Gocong is going to be put in position to make a lot of plays in the run and pass.
CB Asante Samuel has shown why the Eagles went after him in free agency. His knowledge of situations and tendencies are impressive and they will have to be against an incredibly well-designed passing scheme. Safeties Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell will try to set the tone by leveling some big hits on Fitzgerald and (maybe) Boldin on the crossing routes they frequently run.
P Sav Rocca could be a key asset if he's able to keep Arizona pinned deep in its own territory. The Eagles have allowed an average of 2.25 yards per punt return in the postseason. PK David Akers has been perfect (7-7) in the playoffs. DeSean Jackson is a constant threat to break one on punt returns.
The Eagles have been well prepared and motivated, but according to the players, the biggest thing is they've remained loose. Andy Reid and his staff have this veteran team playing relaxed, but inspired, in all phases. Philadelphia has managed ideal game plans to dictate the pass and foes out of their games. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's aggressive play-calling could dictate tempo either way.
Philadelphia has allowed 25 points in the playoffs. It kept the Giants, which tied Arizona as the third-highest scoring team (26.7 points per game), out of the end zone. The defense is playing at a dominant level. This may also be where Philadelphia's experience could be a factor. No team has played better over the past seven weeks.
Kurt Warner actually has thrown 10 fewer passes than McNabb (64-74) this postseason. He's also doubled McNabb's touchdown output in the playoffs (4-2). Warner threw three interceptions against the Eagles on Thanksgiving night and will see similar pressure. His bond with WR Larry Fitzgerald has allowed Arizona to survive the better part of two playoff games without Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin.
Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower are playing well, with Hightower finding some life vs. Carolina. As James fed off his demotion, Hightower seems to have regained some of his focus. The Cardinals ran the ball just 10 times in their loss to Philly. That won't happen again, even if they fall behind. By balancing the attack in the postseason, Arizona has become unpredictable and dangerous.
Anquan Boldin's availability (hamstring) will be a question all week but Larry Fitzgerald showed this postseason that he doesn't need much help. He has caught balls in double coverage and when he's bracketed in the front and back. He probably will face more man coverage than he's seen this postseason, so he could have more opportunities for big plays.
Here's the true test to find out if Arizona's ability to run the ball and protect Warner in the playoffs is real. Guards Deuce Lutui and Reggie Wells are going to have to play stronger than they have in the playoffs and the entire front needs to be aware of a multitude of blitzes. Carolina and Atlanta played things relatively safe. The Eagles will be coming from all angles.
Like the Eagles, the tackles set the tone. Darnell Dockett and Gabe Watson have played with such energy that the whole defense seemingly plays through the whistle on every down. Ends Antonio Smith and Bertrand Berry have been hyper aggressive. If they find ways to keep Westbrook from releasing cleanly into pass routes, they could seriously disrupt the Eagles.
Karlos Dansby will probably draw part of the assignment of tracking Westbrook -- he likely will have some safety help -- and the outside linebacker is up to the task. Arizona's linebackers are playing with tremendous ferocity. The unit's athleticism allows them to survive in passing situations without dropping into nickel sets. Dansby's performance could really drive the defense.
The sure tackling of safeties Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson are important because the Eagles throw a lot of underneath passes. CBs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Rod Hood better not ever lose track of DeSean Jackson and Kevin Curtis because the Eagles tend to scheme to get them in man coverage at surprise points and set them loose down the sideline.
PK Neil Rackers got a workout last week, booting four field goals against the Panthers. He's also had to kickoff 13 times, a sign that the Cardinals are scoring a lot in the playoffs. He's on familiar turf with no weather conditions and the game could come down to his leg.
If you want to see great pass scheming, check out some of the routes Arizona ran against Carolina. Fitzgerald got open because secondary receivers were running defenders away from primary targets. There is a reason why offensive coordinator Todd Haley is so highly regarded. Coach Ken Whisenhunt is an excellent game manager and one of the most knowledgeable in his profession.
The Cardinals have been underdogs throughout the playoffs and they have used it as motivation. As long as Arizona doesn't get caught up in the historical magnitude of this game for the franchise and focuses on the Eagles, it has an excellent shot of advancing to the Super Bowl. Key is minimizing turnovers.