NFC East: Eagles-Cardinals playoffs

Monday Beastlines: Eagles playoff edition

January, 19, 2009
1/19/09
12:27
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Before we take you around the nation to see what everyone's saying about the NFC Championship Game, let me say one thing: For the people trying to somehow pin Sunday's loss on Donovan McNabb, give me a break. I thought he performed superbly in the second half -- and he put his team in position to win after the defense played horribly in the first half. OK, let's start out with the locals and then hit some of the nationals:

  • Rich Hofmann says this is an all-too-familiar feeling for Eagles fans. He writes, "Two time zones and nearly 2,000 miles away, though, are the loyal green millions. You wonder where they will find the strength to wake up this morning. Because this football team tortured the paying customers for the better part of 6 months this season and then it water-boarded them again yesterday for 60 minutes."
  • Bob Ford of the Inquirer thinks the Eagles' destiny is to lose in huge playoff games. Or maybe the Eagles simply came out flat and were beaten by a better team. Maybe it doesn't have to be all this painful talk about destinies. You either put pressure on Kurt Warner in the first half or you don't. The Eagles didn't -- and they're headed home now.
  • John Smallwood of the Daily News thinks Andy Reid should have some of his power stripped away.
  • Here's one of the two columns Sam Farmer of the LA Times wrote on deadline last night.

Runyan doesn't know if he'll be back

January, 19, 2009
1/19/09
11:27
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Runyan
After Sunday's loss to the Cardinals, Eagles coach Andy Reid announced that right tackle Jon Runyan had a concussion, which led to him remaining on the ground after he attempted to tackle Darnell Dockett. In reality, Runyan said he actually injured his back on the play. He appeared to be in some serious pain as he left the visiting locker room. But earlier, he had discussed his future in Philly. Runyan will become an unrestricted free agent in March, and the Eagles haven't made an offer to him yet.

Asked if he planned on returning, Runyan said, "You tell me. I have no idea."

Does he want to be back? "Yeah," he said.

Runyan almost got emotional as he discussed his time in Philadelphia. He also took some pokes at the local media for the way they cover the team.

"Playing all these years, it's a hell of an accomplishment," he said. "There aren't a lot of guys who do that. I'm very proud of what I've done. It's something to be proud of."

Runyan was racing to catch Dockett at the end of the game, in part, because he couldn't believe that the player didn't take a knee. Runyan thought it showed a lack of sportsmanship and he admitted to wanting to light up Dockett.

It's hard to believe it's over. How are you guys hanging in there today?

Eagles have no defense for loss

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
11:07
PM ET
 
  Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
  Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald torched Philadelphia's defense for 152 yards and three touchdowns.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Philadelphia Eagles spent the past two months digging themselves out of a huge hole. So maybe that's why we weren't surprised that it took an 18-point deficit to rouse their competitive spirit in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

After a dreadful first half in which the Eagles acted as if they'd never seen film of the best wide receiver in football, they came storming back to take a 25-24 lead over Arizona in the fourth quarter. The Big Toaster fell silent and the Eagles were poised to pull off one of the greatest postseason comebacks this side of Frank Reich.

In the end, though, the Eagles didn't leave themselves enough margin for error. The same defense that had carried the team throughout the postseason faltered at the worst possible moment, and the Cardinals escaped with a 32-25 victory.

At some point, the Eagles will look back and take pride in their postseason accomplishments. But on this day, they weren't interested in providing perspective. They let a golden opportunity slip through their hands because they had no answers for the Cardinals' offense in the first half -- or on its game-winning drive.

"I expected the guys to step up, they expected to step up, but it didn't happen," said coach Andy Reid.

After his team amassed eight yards in the third quarter, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner dialed up All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald on several key plays on the winning drive, including a remarkable 6-yard catch at the Eagles' 14 with two Eagles defenders hanging on him.

Fitzgerald has emerged as the most dangerous offensive player in the league and the Eagles didn't have anyone capable of defending him. Cornerback Asante Samuel signed a lucrative free agent contract last March because the Eagles thought he could match up with explosive receivers such as Fitzgerald. On Sunday, he wasn't up to the task.

And as defensive backs Quintin Mikell and Sheldon Brown patiently fielded questions, Samuel retreated to the team bus.

The Eagles should take pride in what they accomplished this season, but Sunday was no time for perspective.

From the start, it was obvious the Eagles didn't respect the Cardinals' running game. Despite their relative success in the postseason -- the Cardinals were last in rushing during the regular season -- Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson flooded the field with defensive backs to account for Warner and the passing game. The Cardinals responded by pounding away with running backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower, who combined for 68 yards in the first half.

Fitzgerald had six catches for 113 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. His second score came off a trick play on which J.J. Arrington threw a lateral pass to Warner, who then launched the ball downfield to Fitzgerald. Reserve safety Quintin Demps appeared to be in decent position but got turned around at the last second and fell down at Fitzgerald's ankles. In the somber visiting locker room, Eagles players didn't want to admit they were overmatched, but they were clearly in awe of Fitzgerald.

"He was out of his mind today," said Brown, who was victimized on Fitzgerald's third touchdown. "He's a great player. And I like him because he's not a showman. He does everything in the context of the team."

Later, Brown told me he looked forward to telling his grandchildren about playing against Fitzgerald. Late in the first half, Brown lined up in one-on-one coverage against Fitzgerald at the Eagles' 1-yard line.

Larry Fitzgerald vs. Rest of Cardinals
-- Fitzgerald Rest of team
Thrown to 10 18
Receptions 9 12
Yards 152 127
TDs 3 1

In the Thanksgiving game between the two teams, he'd been able to break up a slant route to Fitzgerald in a similar situation. Fitzgerald "started dancing" at the line of scrimmage, and when Brown guessed slant, Fitzgerald caught a fade route for a touchdown.

Even 20 minutes after the game, defensive ends Trent Cole, Juqua Parker, Chris Clemons and Darren Howard sat together near their lockers and angrily discussed the Cardinals' winning drive. A few feet away, offensive line coach Juan Castillo sat alone, his face buried in his hands.

The Eagles insisted they didn't underestimate the Cardinals. They had beaten Arizona by 28 points on Thanksgiving, but Reid stressed all week that they didn't get the Cardinals' best shot.

That didn't happen until Sunday.

Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley spent about 15 minutes attempting to explain what had happened, but he finally settled on a hard reality.

"At the end of the day, they did their jobs and we didn't," said Bradley. "And they're going to the Super Bowl and we're going home."

Celek was brilliant

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
10:22
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Celek

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The L.J. Smith era in Philadelphia came to a close Sunday -- and pretty much no one noticed. Brent Celek, a former fifth-round draft pick out of Cincinnati has emerged as a viable long-term option at tight end -- evidenced by his 10 catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns Sunday.

In the postseason, he became one of Donovan McNabb's favorite targets. But after the game, he wasn't able to focus on his individual accomplishments. In fact, he felt awful for McNabb.

"It's heartbreaking, and honestly, I don't care about the numbers," he said. "I wanted to win for these veterans that are in here, and I wanted to go to the Super Bowl. That was the goal. I honestly do not care about the stats at all. I just wanted to win."

Folks, my column from tonight's game is going through an intense editing process as we speak. In case you're curious, I pretty much pinned this one on the defense not being able to stop anyone in the first half. This is a successful season for the Eagles. But this loss will sting for quite a while.

Farewell until next July.

Just kidding.

Rapid Reaction: Cardinals 32, Eagles 25

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
6:22
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- What looked like a romp for the Arizona Cardinals Sunday turned into a nail-biter in the second half. But after a furious rally by the Eagles allowed them to overcome an 18-point deficit to take the lead, the Cardinals put together a clutch fourth-quarter drive to help escape with a 32-25 victory in the NFC Championship Game.

Although everyone across the country knew the Cardinals would be looking to All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the Eagles looked lost against him. Even when safety Quintin Demps was in perfect position on a throwback play to quarterback Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald toyed with him before making the touchdown catch. Demps ended up turned around and was harmlessly waiting at Fitzgerald's ankles as he hauled in a 62-yard touchdown.

Cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown were completely overmatched by Fitzgerald, and for reasons maybe only defensive coordinator Jim Johnson can explain, Fitzgerald was given a free release at the line of scrimmage throughout the first half.

The Eagles looked like a different team in the second half. The defense turned up the pressure on Kurt Warner and quarterback Donovan McNabb was brilliant in finding tight end Brent Celek and wide receivers Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson. It was a 50-yard throw from McNabb to Curtis that turned the game around for the Eagles.

But when the defense needed one more stop in the fourth quarter, it couldn't deliver. Fitzgerald was once again brilliant in making acrobatic catches on the Cardinals' game-winning drive. And rookie running back Tim Hightower finished off the drive with an 8-yard touchdown reception.

It certainly looked like the Eagles were on the verge of pulling off the miracle comeback. But in the end, they didn't leave themselves enough wiggle room. They played like an undisciplined team in the first half -- as evidenced by Demps' ridiculous late hit on Kurt Warner.

Now, the Eagles will face an offseason of questions. It was a remarkable playoff run, but it still leaves the Eagles and their fans with a horrible taste in their mouths. I'll be back in a few hours with a full report on what happened.

"We are the Champions" playing as confetti falls on the field. Unbelievable scene. The Arizona freakin' Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl.

Down the stretch they come

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
6:09
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Cardinals have just taken a seven-point lead here with a stirring fourth-quarter drive, but we're still in for an interesting finish here at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Arizona leads Philadelphia, 32-25, but 2:53 remains for Philadelphia to tie the game with a touchdown and an extra point. The Eagles have one timeout and the two-minute warning at their disposal.

The Eagles have been unstoppable in the second half and have 251 yards since halftime. We'll focus in on the conclusion here and be back with you shortly afterwards.

Great block by Baskett!

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
5:41
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

GLENDALE, Ariz -- Did you guys see the block by wideout Hank Baskett on Brent Celek's touchdown? As Celek sprinted toward the goal line, Baskett took out Cardinals linebacker Gerald Hayes and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. One of those pancake blocks that receivers dream about.

In the third quarter, the Eagles outgained the Cardinals, 165 yards to 4. And Arizona came into this game as the most prolific third-quarter offense in the league. Who knows what Andy Reid said at halftime, but the Eagles are back in this game. On the Cardinals' third-down play, Victor Abiamiri lined up inside and completely destroyed Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein.

Some idiot just ran onto the field.

It's getting a little tight here

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
5:31
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's awfully quiet here at University of Phoenix Stadium, where Arizona is struggling to maintain its lead against a Philadelphia team that is getting after quarterback Kurt Warner.

With 3:42 left in the third quarter, the Eagles have outgained the Cardinals 104 yards to 1. Arizona's most recent possession went like this: Incomplete pass, incomplete pass, sack, punt.

This is especially unusual for the Cardinals, who were the NFL's highest-scoring team in the third quarter during the regular season. But Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has found a blitz combination that is getting to Warner.

Cardinals fans are trying to muster enthusiasm, but it's clear that many people are concerned about an Eagles comeback. Stay tuned.

The Brent Celek Show

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
5:26
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

GLENDALE, Ariz -- The Eagles were one play away from being completely out of this game. But quarterback Donovan McNabb threw a perfect deep ball to Kevin Curtis to put the Eagles in scoring position. I think it's safe to say that we've seen the last of L.J. Smith in Philly.

McNabb has a lot of confidence in tight end Brent Celek right now -- evidenced by his eight catches for 47 yards and a touchdown. Don't look now, but the momentum has shifted in this game. On back to back plays, defensive ends Trent Cole and Victor Abiamiri put heavy pressure on Kurt Warner. No one came near Warner for most of the first half, but on that last possession, he had someone in his face the whole time.

The Cardinals have abandoned the run for no apparent reason. On offense, the Eagles have found a soft spot in the middle of the Cardinals' defense. Kevin Curtis has been wide open across the middle several times, and the Cardinals' linebackers can't catch him once he has the ball.

Former Cowboys coaches in 'Zona

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
4:43
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will recognize quite a few people on the Cardinals' sideline today. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, running backs coach Maurice Carthon, tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens all spent time on the Cowboys' staff under Bill Parcells.

And another Parcells guy, Dedric Ward, is in charge of offensive quality control. I'm sure that offers little solace to Cowboys fans, but thought it was worth a blog entry.

In other news, the Eagles are AWFUL today. Back in a moment with more hard-hitting analysis. If anyone knows a great restaurant in Scottsdale, now's the time to speak up.

Bone-headed play by Demps

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
4:36
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Eagles appear to be losing their poise. The Cardinals may have been content to settle for a 21-6 halftime lead, but then rookie safety Quintin Demps decided to cheap-shot quarterback Kurt Warner a full two seconds after he delivered the ball.

The Eagles have been called for two late-hit penalties on Warner, and both of them have been silly. The Demps thing was inexcusable. If I'm Andy Reid, I'm getting the kid off the field.

Now the Cards have a legitimate shot of making this thing 24-6 at halftime. Or they could just throw the ball in the general direction of Larry Fitzgerald and take a 28-6 lead.

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has to be beside himself. How in the world is Fitzgerald seeing man-to-man coverage on some of these plays?

Telegraphing the play

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
4:24
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Trust me. I'm no football savant. But it wasn't too hard to figure out where Arizona was going with that first-and-goal play at the 1-yard line.

Receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who already had two touchdown receptions, split out wide left and was the only receiver in the formation. Cornerback Sheldon Brown followed him. And no one else.

Talk about a bad matchup. Sitting here in the press box, we all looked down on that formation and had little doubt what was about to happen. Fitzgerald is 6-foot-3 and the NFL's best receiver at outfighting opponents for the ball. Brown, 5-foot-10, was helpless.

Mike Sando will have much more on this later, but it's a tribute to the Cardinals' coaching staff that they have been able to get Fitzgerald in single coverage so often Sunday afternoon. Fitzgerald is now the third player in NFL history to have at least three touchdowns in an NFC Championship Game.

Cards benefit from no-call

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
4:11
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Not to be an NFC East homer, but Cardinals cornerback Ralph Brown was hanging all over Jason Avant on that third-down play a few moments ago. He had him by the back of the jersey well before the pass from Donovan McNabb arrived. It should've been a defensive holding penalty, but nothing was called.

The Eagles were forced to settle for the field goal. And by the way, if the Eagles come back to win this game, remember Antonio Smith's body slam of Brian Westbrook. Just a really dumb play.

It's hard to believe the Cardinals already have 68 yards rushing and they're over 200 yards of total offense. Kurt Warner is picking apart the defense right now. Todd Haley and Ken Whisenhunt are doing a superb job of getting great matchups.

Eagles defensive coordinator in press box

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
3:53
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

• As you probably know by now, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is in the press box again today. He's been using a cane the past two weeks because of back pain.

Someone told me before the game that Eagles secondary coach Sean McDermott is the one calling in the plays after talking to Johnson. On that first touchdown drive, the Cardinals were having a lot of success running against the Eagles' nickel defense.

• Defensive end Travis LaBoy has an injured left biceps and his return is questionable.

• Hero for the Eagles so far: Rookie wideout DeSean Jackson racing back to strip the ball from Cardinals free safety Aaron Francisco after his interception. The Cardinals would've had the ball inside the Eagles' 30-yard line. Instead, right tackle Jon Runyan pounced on the ball, giving Philly a fresh set of downs. If you're looking for a huge play so far in this game, there you go.

Oops, 62-yard touchdown for Larry Fitzgerald. My Super Bowl trip not looking good!

A note on the Warner-Haley 'conversation'

January, 18, 2009
1/18/09
3:48
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Those of you who are watching the FOX telecast no doubt saw the animated conversation between Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The "discussion" continued during a commercial break and ultimately ended with Warner smiling and walking away.

Generally speaking, such conversations are common on the sideline and not indicative of a major feud. Fiery, competitive people have fiery, competitive conversations. And it's a little early for Warner to be complaining about Haley's play calling.

The Cardinals marched down the field in nine plays on their first drive to take a 7-0 lead. The discussion commenced after their second possession, a three-and-out that ended with a short pass to receiver Larry Fitzgerald on a third-and-9 play.

I wouldn't read much into what you saw on the screen.

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