Championship weekend is like having two Super Bowl games in one day. Players can taste how close they are to heading to Tampa Bay, with just four quarters standing in their way. Teams actually will take a lot more risks this week than they will in the Super Bowl.
Is it any surprise that the last four teams standing all got 16 games out of their starting quarterbacks? Of course not, because in this quarterback-driven league, you need your starter every week. To get this far, he had to be healthy. What is a bit surprising is that the final four teams have 22 losses combined. The trend of home-field advantage being less important over the past few years continues -- even if the host Cardinals and Steelers win this week, home teams will only break even this postseason.
The NFC game should feature a good amount of scoring, while the AFC game should be a defensive battle.
This has been one of the toughest postseasons to analyze and predict the winners. There has been plenty to talk about. Here are five things to keep an eye on in each of the conference title games:
1. Where is Westbrook?
Brian Westbrook is nowhere near 100 percent health-wise, but he still is the most dangerous player for the Eagles. The Cardinals better know where he is at all times. He touched the ball 25 times for 130 yards and four touchdowns in the Eagles' 48-20 win over Arizona on Thanksgiving night.
Westbrook has five alignments and the defense must identify which one he's in and play to the tendencies of that alignment. He can be an I-formation tailback, an offset back behind a tackle, a single back behind the quarterback, a slot receiver and occasionally a wide receiver. He can be on the field with fellow back Correll Buckhalter, he can be with three wide receivers, and he can be with two tight ends. When you're sitting home watching the game, do the same thing the Cardinals do and locate Westbrook before the Eagles snap the ball. Even after you locate him, be aware he can go in motion and change everything.
2. Here's why they got Samuel
The Eagles went out and spent the big bucks in the offseason to get cornerback Asante Samuel. He has an interception in both playoff games and now has seven picks in his 16 career playoff games.
Samuel did not play in the Week 13 win over Arizona, in which Larry Fitzgerald caught two touchdown passes. Can Samuel shut down Fitzgerald or will the Pro Bowl receiver get the best of Samuel? No one has stopped Fitzgerald yet in the playoffs (14 receptions, 267 yards, two TDs). To get pressure on Kurt Warner, there is going to have to be times when Samuel has Fitzgerald by himself. Warner will see it and if he can get the ball off before getting sacked we will find out just how good Samuel is in a tough spot.
3. Time to disrupt Warner
The Eagles believe in pressure. They have the people to get after Warner and may have the secondary to hold up when they bring pressure. Warner attempted 39 passes in Week 13 and was not sacked, though Philadelphia did manage to get four hits on him and force three interceptions. Warner has only been sacked once in 64 pass attempts in the playoffs. And he is not easy to sack at home.
4. Will either team run?
The Eagles are a streaky run team. Just when it looks like all they think about is passing, they run it 40 times for 185 yards, which was the case in the regular-season meeting against the Cardinals. Arizona is a tremendous passing team and they are expected to get Anquan Boldin back to complement Fitzgerald. Still, the Cardinals have reinvented their own running game in the playoffs and averaged 35.5 attempts in the two wins.
One of these teams will have to run the ball in the fourth quarter to protect a lead and get to the Super Bowl. Will it be Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower or will it be Westbrook and Buckhalter? In the November matchup, neither James nor Buckhalter played. Now, either could be the key to a win Sunday.
5. Has McNabb quieted his critics?
In my mind, McNabb has nothing to prove to his critics. Only Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Roger Staubach have been in more conference championship games in their careers. All of them are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Although McNabb threw four touchdown passes in the first meeting vs. Arizona, he comes into this game with three interceptions in the playoffs. That's just enough to keep his critics around waiting for him to slip up with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
1. Can the Ravens keep Flacco safe?
Baltimore has done a great job of not overexposing its rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco. The Ravens were a 70 percent run team on first downs this season and an even more telling sign was the fact they were an 85 percent run team on second-and-short downs (1-3 yards). Most teams with good quarterbacks look at that situation as a passing down. For example, the Cardinals are a 45 percent run team in that down and distance.
Flacco has done what no other rookie QB has ever accomplished, winning two road playoff games. But now he faces the No. 1 defense in the NFL. Baltimore won't drift too far from its offensive philosophy, but expect more first-down passing from Flacco because his best opportunity to use his strong arm will be on the running downs. He only completed 3 of 14 first-down pass attempts in the first two meetings against the Steelers, but in the playoffs he has shown his deep ball on early downs.
2. Can either team run?
The Steelers and Ravens were second and third in run defense respectively during the regular season. In the two games they played this year, the longest run by either team was 12 yards, the best team rushing average was 3.6, and the most effective back was Le'Ron McClain. The 260-pound second-year man had 39 carries for 150 yards. Look for Baltimore to use its "Big" package with an extra tackle in the game and Lorenzo Neal at fullback leading the way for McClain. Keep in mind that Steelers DE Brett Keisel did not play in either Ravens game and NT Casey Hampton missed the first matchup.
As for the Steelers, Willie Parker only played in one of the Ravens games. In the last two games for Pittsburgh, Parker is back on track with 50 carries for 262 yards and three touchdowns. It's unlikely any one back will rush for 100 yards in the AFC title game, but a 75-yard day is a key to team success. Look for Parker to have some success, but it won't be easy.
3. Will Roethlisberger revert to bad habits?
There's no argument that Ben Roethlisberger is a fine quarterback and a winner. However, he's took too many sacks at times this season or tried to make something out of nothing. Baltimore sacked him six times, picked him off and forced two fumbles in the two regular-season games. The Ravens are counting on getting to him again. A rejuvenated running game, an improving offensive line and the fact that Roethlisberger is starting to figure out that a safe play is a smart play will make it very difficult for the Ravens to rattle him.
4. What happens when they blitz?
Both defenses like to turn up the heat on the opposing quarterback. It remains to be seen if Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs will play or can be effective with his shoulder injury, but here's the breakdown of both teams when the pressure calls are applied:
For the season Baltimore dialed up the pressure calls 236 times and forced 11 interceptions and 19 sacks. That's a pick every 21.5 passes and a sack once every 12.4 attempts. The Steelers called for pressure 187 times grabbed four interceptions and also had 19 sacks. They came up with interceptions only once every 46.8 attempts but the sacks showed up once every 9.8 attempts. There will be plenty of pressure calls in this game.
5. The 18th game with no break
The Ravens are in unchartered water as they play their 18th straight game without a week off. This team has been on the road three of the last four weeks and now heads to Pittsburgh for their 11th road game of the year. It's been typical the last few weeks that six or seven players can't practice on a daily basis. Last week, Suggs, Samari Rolle and Jim Leonhard all got hurt in the win over Tennessee. It remains to be seen who plays and how effectively. Derrick Mason, the Ravens' best receiver, has been holding his right arm against his side when he runs so it will not be further injured.
The great middle linebacker, Ray Lewis, is in his 13th year and still holding this proud defense together. But does this unit have enough punch left to get to the Super Bowl? It would be understandable if the grind of 17 consecutive games leading up to this battle for a trip to the Super Bowl finally caught up with them.