Super Bowl 43  

 

NFC playoffs now feature four Super Bowl QBs

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With the Philadelphia Eagles being the only non-division champion in the NFC to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs, the stage is set for two intriguing matchups next weekend featuring four Super Bowl quarterbacks.

"Look at the quarterbacks: Eli Manning, who is good; Jake Delhomme, who is good; (Donovan) McNabb, who is good; and Kurt Warner, who just beat us," said Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jackson, as he watched the Eagles put the finishing touches on the Vikings on Sunday night. "This is going to be tough."

The New York Giants' Manning is coming off an MVP performance in last season's Super Bowl victory over New England. Arizona's Warner has played in two Super Bowls, winning MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXIV when his St. Louis Rams defeated Tennessee. Carolina's Delhomme lost to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII, a season before Philadelphia's McNabb lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX.

Warner, who just helped Arizona knock off the Falcons in the wild-card round on Saturday, is the only one of the four quarterbacks not playing with the team he took to the Super Bowl. Yet, he's the envy of the other three because he's been back a second time.

Manning and McNabb will square off for the third time this season in Sunday's NFC Divisional Playoffs, with each winning once in the regular season on the road. Warner will be trying to avenge a regular-season loss to the Panthers when the Cardinals travel to face the NFC South champion on Saturday.

As much as the quarterbacks could carry the storylines in the NFC, Jackson said things could come down each team's running backs.

"I'm watching Brian Westbrook and, man, he is a great player," Jackson said. "With Westbrook, Philadelphia is really, really dangerous."

So is Carolina, with its bruising and explosive tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The top-seeded Giants' punishing trio of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw are prone to grinding away at teams. Then there is Arizona's Edgerrin James, who has added some semblance of a rushing threat to the pass-happy Cardinals.

No. 4 Arizona at No. 2 Carolina, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET

Carolina, the No. 2 seed, gets to host an Arizona team that not only has regained its legs behind Warner and wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, but regained its legs, literally, with James.

"Edge, he played hard," said Jackson, a part of the Falcons team that allowed James to gain 73 yards on 10 carries. "We broke down in a couple areas and he hurt us."

Arizona has taken up the "No respect" mantra for their playoff run. It's a tad played out in terms of overused clichés, but it's amazing how much it still motivates players to play, sometimes even above the needed level. Coach Ken Whisenhunt and his players said the fact that visiting Atlanta was favored to beat them in Saturday's NFC Wild-Card Game prompted them to administer a "(tail) whooping," according to defensive tackle Darnell Dockett.

Dockett went on to say that he knows the Cardinals will be underdogs again in Charlotte. There is nothing in Arizona's recent past that should suggest otherwise.

The Cardinals been outscored 202-102 in five losses -- and no wins -- in the Eastern time zone this season, with one of those losses coming at Carolina. Dockett smiled when those facts were presented to him -- as if he needed reminding -- and said, "That was last year," as in 2008.

Of those losses out East, the Cardinals nearly beat Carolina, falling 27-23. Arizona was in control until the Panthers ripped off 21 third-quarter points.

The Cardinals' New Year's resolution might be to not lose in the 2009 postseason, but to make good on what they have to step up in a few categories, especially if Boldin can't bounce back from a hamstring injury suffered in Saturday's win over Atlanta.

Matchups to watch

James vs. Panthers rush defense: James, who was demoted behind rookie Tim Hightower, has provided enough of a run presence the past two weeks to keep Carolina honest. If he can break off a few early runs, the Panthers linebackers, and maybe a safety, will move closer to the line of scrimmage to open up crossing routes in the intermediate range. Carolina has been vulnerable against the run, ranking 20th in the regular season, but its front four will be tougher to move than Atlanta's.

Carolina's two-headed backfield vs. Cardinals rush defense: Slowing down Carolina's red-hot rushing tandem, especially Williams, will be a tough task for the Cardinals. Arizona might not be able to consistently stack the box or play five defensive linemen because of the threat of wideouts Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad. "If you walk eight in the box to stop the run, that's going to hurt you because they got two good wide receivers that can beat you," Jackson said. "Sometimes you have to play with seven in the box and let the front seven get after them."

No. 6 Philadelphia at No. 1 N.Y. Giants, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET

McNabb and the Eagles just won for the fifth time in six games when they knocked off the Vikings in Sunday's wild-card game, and now they head to New York, where they defeated the Giants 20-14 at the start of a December surge that allowed them to rally into the playoffs. New York, the conference's top seed, had the weekend off to watch Philadelphia continue to look like a serious threat.

While the Eagles may have needed to play in the first round to continue to find themselves, the Giants know full well who they are. New York is the defending Super Bowl champion, which sets up Manning and its passing game with the backfield of Jacobs, Ward and Bradshaw.

The down time allowed Jacobs to get healthier and hungrier. Jacobs gained 126 yards in the Giants' 36-31 victory at Philadelphia Nov. 9 but injured his knee in New York's home loss to the Eagles. McNabb outplayed Manning in both games and for the Eagles to win; he might have to do it a third time.

Then again, Westbrook, who rushed for 131 yards and caught 72 yards worth of passes in the Eagles' victory over New York earlier this season, could be the difference-maker -- if New York doesn't play keep-away with its running game.

The Giants' running back trio gained 217 yards as New York held the ball for 39 minutes in their victory over the Eagles. A healthy Jacobs can wear down the stoutest of defenses.

Matchups to watch

Eagles defensive front vs. Giants offensive line: Philadelphia's defensive front manhandled Dallas' beefy line in a 44-6, season-ending rout. The Vikings sprung some leaks in the Eagles' run defense, but Philadelphia made plays when it had to and it harassed Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson into 20 incompletions and a pick. On Sunday, the Eagles face what is regarded as the league's top offensive line.

Giants TE Kevin Boss vs. Eagles defense: Boss had six catches for 69 yards and a touchdown in the Giants' victory over Philadelphia on Nov. 9. Of the six games he played after that, the Giants won just once when he didn't have multiple receptions, including a loss to the Eagles when he had just one catch.

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