|Ravens OT Jared Gaither needs to protect Joe Flacco from Steelers LB LaMarr Woodley and a ferocious defense.|
I've heard people say their favorite time of the NFL season is the Divisional Playoff Weekend, with two big games on Saturday and two big games on Sunday. That's fine, but I'll take the conference championship games.
I love this weekend.
During my years with the Cowboys, I was fortunate to be part of a team that played in 12 conference championship games between 1966 and 1982 -- including games against the Packers, Eagles, Redskins, Rams, 49ers and Vikings. All of these occasions turned out to be historical games, with unusual and unique plays that led to wins and losses. Many of these games have a notable place in NFL lore.
Because of the focus on these two games, they're usually the most talked about and dissected games each year, other than the Super Bowl. This year is no exception.
Here are just a few of the key matchups to watch:
Baltimore OTs Jared Gaither and Willie Anderson
vs. Pittsburgh LBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley
Going back to the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, this game marks just the second time that the league's No. 1 and No. 2 defenses are meeting in a conference championship game -- the first time was one of the memorable games to which I was referring. In 1978, the Cowboys defeated the Rams 28-0, but don't let the score fool you: The game was a scoreless tie at halftime, and the first score didn't come until 14 minutes into the third quarter. Cowboys safety Charlie Waters returned an interception to the Rams' 10-yard line -- and even then, it took five plays for the Cowboys to score the first points.
There's no question this will be a low-scoring game, with lots of physical play from both sides. These AFC North rivals met twice during the regular season, and Pittsburgh won both games by a total of seven points. One game required overtime; the second was decided on a disputed play in the final minute.
Since the NFL went to its current 12-team playoff format, only one team has won the conference title game against an opponent it defeated twice in the regular season. That was the Titans (over the Jaguars) in 1999.
Most people don't realize that this rivalry goes back to 1950, as the Ravens were the original Cleveland Browns until they moved to Baltimore in 1996. From 1950 to 1995, these teams met 93 times. Since the Browns became the Ravens in 1996, the Steelers hold a 17-10 edge in the series, including a playoff victory in the 2001 season.
Gaither had little playing experience at any level before this season -- one year in high school, 21 games in college and two starts as a rookie for the Ravens last season. He's athletic for his size (6-foot-9, 350 pounds) and talented, with long arms and lots of strength and power. He needs to go hard every play -- something he doesn't always do.
Anderson was released by the Bengals during the preseason and signed by the Ravens. The former first-round draft pick had been selected to four Pro Bowls prior to an injury-plagued 2007 season. He was asked by the Bengals to redo his $3.15 million contract, and he declined, which is said to be the reason Cincinnati waived him. He's an underrated player and is very good at the point of attack. He's also strong and quick for a right tackle, though he does have trouble with speed rushers when they get the corner.
Harrison this season became the first undrafted free agent to be honored as the Defensive Player of the Year. He had 16 sacks, second-most in the AFC. Harrison is a natural leverage player who's effective as a blitzer and makes plays in space. Big guys like Gaither give him trouble.
Woodley is strong and powerful, with very good pass-rush moves. He does a good job handling blockers and never stops. Woodley vs. Anderson will be a non-stop donnybrook.
Another matchup to watch: Steelers CB Ike Taylor vs. Ravens QB Joe Flacco. Taylor, the starting left cornerback, can turn and run on receivers, but he also will blitz the quarterback and does a good job coming up to support the run. He's a very underrated player. Flacco will not throw often, but when he does, it likely will be to his outside receivers. He has great arm strength, throwing 40-yard comeback routes with ease.
Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson
vs. Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald
These teams met on Thanksgiving night in Philadelphia, with the Eagles winning 48-20. Philadelphia RB Brian Westbrook had a career-high four touchdowns (two rushing, two receiving) in that game. The Cardinals weren't playing good defense at the time, and they lacked any kind of running game. Since losing to the Patriots in Week 16, Arizona has run the ball more (and better) with Edgerrin James and relied less on the pass. The Cardinals also have done well stopping the run in the playoffs, although that might not be as important in this game because the Eagles prefer to pass.
Larry Fitzgerald has caught 426 passes in his first five seasons with the Cardinals. By comparison, Jerry Rice caught 346 passes in his first five seasons with the 49ers. Hall of Famer Lynn Swann had 336 receptions in his entire career with the Steelers.
Fitzgerald is tall, almost 6-foot-3, and weighs 220 pounds. He doesn't possess outstanding 40-yard speed, but he runs faster than most in uniform because of his strength. He's very much like Cris Carter, who taught him the position when Fitzgerald was a ballboy in the Vikings' training camp. He's crafty, with a very good first move. He runs all types of routes but seems best on vertical routes. He has very good hands and is able to use his size to get open or outjump and outmuscle defenders for the ball.
Johnson's Eagles defense gave up an NFC-low 274.3 yards per game during the regular season. Historically, Johnson tries to negate the impact of the opponent's most dangerous offensive player -- and that's Fitzgerald. Johnson does it in many ways, never seems to use the same method twice and will change up the game plan from the first half to the second. If I were to guess, I think Johnson will try to put more pressure on Cardinals QB Kurt Warner and not give him time to throw, as the Panthers did last week.
Both teams set franchise records for points scored in the regular season, so don't be surprised to see a high-scoring game.
Another key matchup to watch: Eagles LB Stewart Bradley vs. James. Stewart, Philadelphia's man in the middle, is the team's leading tackler. James has run very well in the playoffs. Also, Arizona likes to throw to its running backs coming out of the backfield, and Bradley -- despite being 6-5, 255 -- can really run in space.