Battle of the Birds

It’s hard to believe we’re sitting here talking about the Eagles in the NFC Championship game after the season they had. On at least two different occasions I was convinced the season was over. The first time was after the Ravens debacle, when McNabb was pulled and the team imploded. How did the Eagles respond? By coming back four days later and destroying the Cardinals on Thanksgiving, kicking off a three-game winning streak that put them back in the hunt . . . until the second occasion when I (and almost everybody else) thought the season was over: the Washington game. We all know what happened after that: the Eagles bounced back to annihilate Dallas and Tampa Bay lost at home to Oakland. Absolutely improbable, but here we are, and through two playoff games, the Eagles have proven that they belong here.

Not too many people gave them a chance to beat the Giants, but the game played out pretty much how I thought it would. I knew that if the Eagles contained the running game and forced Manning to beat them, he would fold, and that’s exactly what happened. The Eagles were actually fortunate to have the lead at halftime as the offense had not done much, but once again, the defense came up huge and kept them in the game until the offense found its rhythm. And like the Minnesota game, the Eagles took over and dominated the second half. The defense allowed nothing but a field goal, and McNabb fought through the fierce wind to lead the Birds on three more scoring drives, making several key third down throws in the process.

So here we are, in an NFC Championship game that NOBODY predicted: the Battle of the Birds. It’s only a shame that the higher seed automatically goes to the division winner, because the Eagles, having the better record, could have hosted the game, and there’s no way the Cards would have won in frigid Philly. I still believe the Eagles will win, so do most experts (as the Eagles’ road favorite status will attest to), but this game will not be as easy as people think, primarily because the Eagles have played two brutally physical playoff games while the Cardinals have had a relatively easy time of it, but also because we will not see the same Cardinals team that the Eagles blew out in November. They will be at home, on eight days of rest, and brimming with confidence after two impressive victories over Atlanta and Carolina. Also, they are no longer one-dimensional after discovering that Edgerrin James is still on the team, so as I said, this will not be easy.

Still, this game, like most games this time of year, will come down to defense, which is where the Eagles are the far superior team. It’s no coincidence that the top three defenses in the league are still playing on Conference Championship weekend. The lone exception: the Cardinals, whose defense was in the middle of the pack. Meanwhile, the Eagles defense has given up 14 points or less in six straight games. The last team to score more than that on them? Arizona. So I’m expecting a fairly high scoring game in this one. Both offenses are capable of putting points on the board, but the red-hot Eagles defense will hold Arizona down enough to secure the win. Eagles 28, Cardinals 20.

As for the AFC Championship, another team of birds, the Ravens, travels to Pittsburgh, where their season will end. I just can’t see Baltimore staying in this game unless Pittsburgh completely self destructs, like the Titans did last week. Flacco has had a nice rookie season, and even though he has already seen the Steelers twice, I don’t think he has any idea what he’ll be walking into on Sunday evening. Baltimore’s great defense may keep it close for a while, but Pittsburgh’s defense is even better, as is their offense, which will eventually pull away. It would not surprise me if Baltimore fails to score a TD in this game, but I’ll give them the benefit of a defensive touchdown. Steelers 20, Ravens 10.

And on to the All-PA Super Bowl I predicted at the beginning of the season!

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