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Cardinals' playoff emphasis on the run could be the difference

The Cardinals got a bad deal when they were scheduled to play Thanksgiving night in Philadelphia, just four days after a tough home loss to the Giants. They already had three unsuccessful trips to the East Coast.

The Eagles snapped a three-game winless skid by handing it to Arizona in a Thanksgiving night victory over the visiting Cardinals on NFL Network. Here are that game's top performers:

» Top passer: Donovan McNabb (260 yards)

» Top rusher: Brian Westbrook (110 yards)

» Top receiver:DeSean Jackson (76 yards)

The Cardinal players had a light practice on Tuesday, before traveling to face the Eagles. They were not ready for that game and before they knew it Andy Reid's team jumped out to a 21-0 lead on three Brian Westbrook scores.

Edgerrin James did not play in that game for Arizona and neither did Asante Samuel, or Correll Buckhalter for the Eagles.

Kurt Warner threw three interceptions and the Cardinals ran the ball only 10 times for 25 yards. It was an ugly game for Arizona and the start of a 6-1 run by Donovan McNabb and Co. that led right up to the NFC Championship Game.

The public opinion of the 9-7 Cardinals heading into the playoffs was that they didn't deserve to be in the playoffs, certainly didn't deserve a home game and were destined for a one-and-done finish. But this team changed and has become as dangerous as any in the playoffs.

I can't find a single person who believed the NFC Championship Game was going to take place in Arizona, but that is exactly the situation. Now the Cardinals get the Eagles on their home field in a rematch of that ill-scheduled Thanksgiving game.

What has changed for the two teams

Two big things happened to the Cardinals: One, they became the team coach Ken Whisenhunt has always told me he wanted them to be -- a solid running team with a good play-action pass attack.

The Cardinals' best athletes are their receivers and the temptation to lean on the pass and forget the run was a problem in Arizona until Coach Whisenhunt put Edgerrin James back in the lineup a week before the playoffs started. That move took the pressure off the passing game.

Run Cardinals, run


In two playoff games, Arizona has gone to its rushing attack a lot more often than it did in the regular season. Take a look at the stats:

Postseason rushing numbers

  » Carries per game: 35.5

  » Yards per game: 115.5

  » Rush TDs per game: 1

Regular-season rushing numbers

  » Carries per game: 21.3

  » Yards per game: 73.6

  » Rush TDs per game: .88

Two, the defense improved against the run overnight and created seven turnovers in the two playoff games.

As for the Eagles, the truth is Westbrook got healthy down the stretch and McNabb is playing like the Pro Bowl QB he once was and will be again. The Eagles defense tightened the screws on its opponents in the last seven games, giving up just 85 points (12 per game).

First-down breakdown

I always start my scouting reports with a look at first-down tendencies and the "new" Cardinals reveal everything you need to know about the changes in the desert.

When the Cards played the Eagles in November, they had a run/pass ratio of six-to-15 on first down -- which was typical of the Cardinals philosophy all year. Arizona gained just 13 yards on those six rushes and that included a 9-yard gain on a reverse.

As for the passing, they connected on 8 of 15 for 92 yards. Just good enough to get fooled that one-dimensional football had a chance of success.

The Cardinals' first-down calls have changed in the playoffs. Against Atlanta and Carolina, Whisenhunt ran the ball 35 times on first down, compared to 19 pass plays (65 percent runs). James got 23 of those carries and gained 83 yards. He also had one catch for 9 yards.

James will force the Eagles defense to at least think about the run and when they blitz, James is one of the league's best pass-blocking running backs. Warner was not sacked in his 19 first-down pass attempts in the earlier meeting. There are a number of times on the game tape that James is able to line up on the right side and get all the way back to the left and pick up an outside blitzer.

The Eagles were very balanced in the Cardinals game on first downs. They called 18 runs for 86 yards (4.7 per carry). The first-down passing game was equally as impressive with McNabb connecting on 12 of 17 for 127 yards and two scrambles for 12 yards. The toughest part of the Eagles' first-down passing was that McNabb hit five different receivers in his first six passes. That tells me he was reading the coverage well and was not easily fooled.

When the Eagles have the ball

The key when looking at the Eagles remains the same: Where is Brian Westbrook? He has five different alignments and each one has clues as to what to expect.

Wyche's call

Steve Wyche breaks down the matchups in this meeting between unlikely NFC Championship Game participants and makes a prediction. Who did he go with? Watch ...

He can line up as a wide receiver, in the slot, in the I-tailback spot, as the single back behind the QB, and offset behind the tackle. The offset spot is his most dangerous, where the running game and the fast release in the passing game both are available.

Look for Arizona to blitz the linebacker on his side and snatch him to prevent a free release.

When the Cardinals have the ball

Arizona will read the defense and run the ball when the Eagles don't crowd the line. There are run opportunities off tackle and outside, but the inside run game is tough business against the Eagles' two tackles.

So far, Philadelphia has gotten its money's worth out of Samuel, who has an interception in both playoff games. Samuel did not play in the first game against Arizona and it will be interesting to see him match up with WR Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had two touchdowns against the Eagles in November and has been unstoppable in the playoffs with 14 receptions for 267 yards and two scores. Philadelphia will zone off Fitzgerald more than man him up, but even when the corner and safety converge on him, Fitzgerald still wins most deep jump balls.


The NFC Championship Game is harder to pick than the Ravens-Steelers game. Two veteran quarterbacks who have been to the Super Bowl. The Cards are the first fourth-seed to host a championship game. The Eagles are the first No. 6 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the NFC. The Eagles have outscored opponents in the fourth quarter during the playoffs, 20-0, and are a very tough out. The Cardinals scored 63 points in two playoff games and at home average over 30 points on the year. I think this will be a high-scoring game with the Cardinals winning it by a field goal or less.

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