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Forget the regular season: Cardinals, Eagles are NFC's powers now

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants, so proud before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC Divisional Playoff Game on Sunday, so humble afterwards, admitted what just days earlier boiled their blood.

"Philadelphia is us from last year," Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said.

Championship Sunday preview

With the Eagles and Cardinals set to meet next Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, Steve Wyche has five key questions whose answers could determine which team advances to Super Bowl XLIII. More ...

The Eagles -- at least in the eyes of the Giants, after being outplayed and out-coached for the better part of four quarters -- could be those mystical, magical sleepers that make a Super Bowl run from nowhere, like New York did as the NFC's No. 5 seed last season.

Then again, so could the Arizona Cardinals.

One will emerge from next week's NFC Championship Game as the conference's representative in Super Bowl XLIII, a thought that's as unthinkable now as it was six weeks ago, when the Eagles and Cardinals had fallen off their respective perches.

Arizona couldn't compete on the East Coast -- a loss to Philadelphia was one of five this season in the Eastern Time Zone. The Cardinals' victories outside of their weak division were seen more as their opponents having off days than Arizona manning up. The Cardinals' NFC West championship was, and still pretty much is, viewed as a title by default because the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams were among the NFL's worst teams.

Plus, it's the Cardinals -- a franchise with really no history and rarely any hope. They haven't faced these kind of stakes since 1948 -- when they lost to the Eagles in the NFL Championship Game.

The Eagles, meanwhile, not only tied the sorry Cincinnati Bengals 13-13 on Nov. 16, but quarterback Donovan McNabb didn't know a tie was an actual result in the NFL. He caught hell for admitting it. One week later, he caught a benching after struggling in a blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Then McNabb caught fire, starting with a four-touchdown-pass performance in a 48-20 victory over the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night in Philadelphia. It wasn't an "in-your-face" outing because McNabb still was in the process of letting any doubters know how good he is. Since being sat down, McNabb led his desperate team to desperate wins, a trend that extended to the Eagles' decisive 23-11 playoff victory over a Giants team that didn't quite realize defending its Super Bowl title required more than earning the NFC's No. 1 seed by posting a 12-4 regular-season record.

The Eagles are here with a little luck. They caught a perfect storm of fortunate breaks on the regular season's final weekend, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears both lost, opening the door for Philadelphia to get into the playoffs. The Eagles crashed through by lambasting the Dallas Cowboys, the favorites to win the NFC East, NFC and Super Bowl championships.

It's a ride that hasn't stopped and might not. Unless of course, the Cardinals can continue building upon their run of upsets, which include a wild-card victory over the Atlanta Falcons at home and a divisional-round thrashing of the Carolina Panthers -- a game played in the Eastern time zone.

Trends, home-field advantages and edges gained by first-round playoff byes have proven to be fallacies. The Eagles and Cardinals, by advancing to the conference-championship round, pretty much rendered the regular season meaningless.

Arizona is the NFC's No. 4 seed, but it finished the regular season 9-7, the worst record among the conference's playoff teams. Philadelphia, the NFC's No. 6 seed, is just ahead at 9-6-1, the second-worst record.

The Eagles have knocked off the NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings, who won 10 regular-season games, and the Giants, who shared the conference's best record with the Panthers.

"We're playing with heart, and everybody knows we have one goal in mind: just get to the end," Eagles defensive end Trent Cole said.

The Cardinals beat the 11-win Falcons and the 12-win Panthers in the playoffs. They defanged both teams' running games, which were relatively unstoppable during the regular season. They made their game-managing quarterbacks mismanage the games against them.

Now, Arizona's Kurt Warner, who has been reborn in a pass-happy system with the game's most electrifying wide receivers and one of the league's most knowledgeable young head coaches (Ken Whisenhunt), will face off against another quarterback, McNabb, who also was given up for dead.

Warner has completed 40 of 64 passes for 491 yards and four touchdowns in this postseason. The Cardinals have scored 63 points in the two games. Their high-flying offense is flying high again. So is a defense that's playing so well, especially up front, that nobody should be surprised if the Eagles have a tough time moving the ball next Sunday.

Philadelphia has seen a different Arizona team than it beat Nov. 27, taking note that the regular season, again, doesn't mean a thing right now.

"Things change in the postseason." Eagles running back Brian Westbrook said. "Everyone knows Arizona is much better at home. We are prepared to go into another hostile environment, and hopefully, we can go out there and do some of the things we've been able to do in the past."

Just three weeks ago, there was talk that McNabb might be playing his last game for a team he has engineered for 10 seasons. Now, he's the toast of the town, the franchise quarterback, the guy without whom the Eagles couldn't live. Coach Andy Reid was clearing a path for McNabb out of the door, too. Now McNabb is the rock this team has always leaned on and will continue to lean on.

Nothing about the regular season makes sense anymore. The layers have been peeled away, and the NFC's true character has been exposed.

The favorites, the Giants and Panthers, are home because they went away from what got them there -- running the ball -- and lost some of their mojo during the bye week.

The teams who played the best when it counted are still standing.

Reid said this of the victory over the Giants, but it's also a sweeping statement of how his team has played these past six weeks: "The coaches put together a great game plan. The players executed like crazy. They never wavered one bit. That's tough to find in this league. These guys haven't questioned each other. If someone was down, they rallied around him to pick him up, and we played. From a coach's standpoint, that's all you can ask for."

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