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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Matt Mosley
The Cardinals and Eagles aren't the only ones with a Super Bowl trip on the line Sunday. Our NFC West and NFC East bloggers also have travel itineraries at stake.
Which one is headed to Florida for the big game? Hear them out and decide.
Who has the advantage when Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson matches wits with Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley?
Matt Mosley: First of all, Haley's not getting enough credit for his work with Kurt Warner and the offense this season. Obviously, I blame most of that on Sando. That said, the Cardinals are preparing to face a defense that destroyed them in their Thanksgiving night matchup. Yes, I know the Cardinals played the Giants the previous week and then made the cross-country flight to Philly, but the results are still instructive. Johnson brought his usual 15 to 20 blitz packages to the game and was in Warner's head from the start. Warner had three interceptions in that game and a 65.7 passer rating -- if you're into that sort of thing.
Let's not go overboard on all these "the Cardinals can now run" story lines. They dusted off Edgerrin James and he gained 57 yards on 20 carries in the win over the Panthers. I'm glad to see Edge back, but he won't be able to do anything against an Eagles defense that held both Adrian Peterson and Brandon Jacobs to under 100 yards. Johnson's not going to let Larry Fitzgerald beat him. He'll let Asante Samuel follow him around and he'll provide safety help over the top. You'll also see Johnson use some safety blitzes, which will force Warner to work the middle of the field instead of launching jump balls down the sideline to Fitzgerald.
Mike Sando: Haley's NFC East roots apparently go a long way with Matt. Whisenhunt and Haley will need their best game plan for this one. I think they're up to the challenge, no question. Both are sharp coaches. Both have identified the Cardinals' strengths and played to them. They have taken the Cardinals further than anyone expected.
I do question whether Arizona has the offensive personnel to fend off those Johnson blitzes consistently enough. The key for Whisenhunt and Haley remains sticking with the running game even when the passing game becomes irresistible by comparison. Arizona must create at least the illusion of balance to keep the Eagles from getting to Warner.
Whisenhunt and Haley have done that late in the season. Their decision to go back to James showed they'll put the team first. They're more interested in winning than advancing personal agendas or making themselves appear to have all the answers. That's a great sign for Arizona.
Who's better in the trenches?
|A look ahead to the NFC Championship Game between the Eagles and Cardinals.|
Matt Mosley: Let's just stick with the offensive lines here since I think the defensive lines aren't too far apart. The Eagles are old at tackle with Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan, but that also means they have a lot of experience. Jared Allen had two sacks in the Minnesota game, but one of them doesn't count against Thomas because Donovan McNabb had plenty of time to deliver the ball.
Pro Bowl right guard Shawn Andrews has returned to practice, but I'm not sure the Eagles need him right now. Out of nowhere, Nick Cole has stepped in and is doing a solid job. He's been really effective swinging out on screen plays. Center Jamaal Jackson has started every game the past three seasons and doesn't get enough credit. The Eagles aren't bothered by loud, domed stadiums, in part, because they spend a lot of time on silent counts. Since the great Al Johnson left the Cardinals' offensive line, I've sort of lost touch. Here's Sando with more details.
Mike Sando: I'm just impressed Mosley can name one Cardinals lineman, even if he's no longer with the team. Oh, wait, Johnson played for the Cowboys. Now I get it. Seriously, though, sometimes I wonder how the Cardinals' offensive line gets the job done.
It isn't always pretty. I was thinking about putting together a story on left tackle Mike Gandy recently. He seemed to hold up well against some of the better pass-rushers. He got credit for shutting down the Falcons' John Abraham. When I cued up the video to take a close look, one of the Ca
rdinals' first few plays against Atlanta showed Gandy losing his footing and accidentally doing the splits as he fell to the ground. Like I said, it isn't always pretty with this group, but it's been asked to play in a one-dimensional offense, no easy task.
The Cardinals aren't playing with Pro Bowl offensive linemen, but they're getting the job done. They've established a running game in recent weeks and given Warner time to throw in key situations during the playoffs. I do think the Eagles have the edge on the lines, but Arizona's defensive front should be formidable playing at home. Ask the Cowboys.
|Geoff Burke/US Presswire|
|Arizona will need to keep Brian Westbrook in check to have a chance to win Sunday.|
Can the Cardinals contain Brian Westbrook?
Matt Mosley: I have tremendous respect for the work of Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. He just flat-out confused the Carolina Panthers and his ability to change things up from week to week makes this a formidable unit. That said, Westbrook needs only one breakdown to make you pay. The Giants actually did a nice job of accounting for him the entire game. They lost because Eli Manning folded in the face of a superb defense.
Eagles coach Andy Reid and his trusty sidekick, Marty Mornhinweg, will try to create matchup problems for the Cardinals by splitting out Westbrook on some plays. Westbrook needs to have at least 25 touches in this game. As he showed against the Vikings, he can go off at any minute. He's become a very patient back who doesn't become frustrated if he's stopped at the line of scrimmage several times.
The Cardinals have some very athletic linebackers, but they don't want to be one-on-one with Westbrook in the open field. The entire unit will have to be rallying to the ball -- as we say in the business. Last February, Sando and I rallied to the blog throughout Super Bowl week. This year, only one man will be left standing in Tampa. The Eagles and Cardinals both realize they're playing for our Super Bowl trips. It's one of the angles some people across the country seem to be overlooking.
Mike Sando: No doubt, the Cardinals' defense has shown discipline and tenacity in the playoffs. It settled down after allowing an early 31-yard run to the Panthers' DeAngelo Williams. Can it contain Westbrook for a full game? I'm not so sure.
The Vikings play tough run defense, but Westbrook beat them for a home run as a receiver out of the backfield. I see the Cardinals stuffing Westbrook effectively most of the time. I think they'll have a good plan. I think they have a good chance at containing Westbrook, but I'll hedge my bets on this one.
Which quarterback do you favor in a big game: McNabb or Warner?
Mike Sando: I'll take the guy with the Super Bowl ring, the Super Bowl MVP trophy and the most passing yards in a single postseason.
I'll take the guy with the fourth-highest postseason passer rating behind Bart Starr, Joe Montana and Ken Anderson (minimum 150 attempts).
I'll take the guy with the third-highest regular-season passer rating in NFL history (minimum 1,500 attempts).
I'll take Warner.
Here's the thing about Warner. People think he was horrible for the Giants. His passer rating in his lone 2004 season in New York? Higher than anything Manning has posted. Playing the position is about more than numbers, but Warner had a winning record as a starter that season. He's good even when people think he's bad.
One more victory this season and I think we can start talking about Warner for the Hall of Fame.
Matt Mosley: Mike, at times you have to look beyond the database. Warner's Super Bowl ring and two league MVPs are not to be dismissed. However, McNabb has had more staying power. He's led his team to five NFC title games in the past eight years. I realize he's been to the big dance only once, but it's still an impressive body of work.
In fact, I think he has a stronger Hall of Fame argument than Warner. And if he wins a Super Bowl, go ahead and reserve his spot in Canton. I think what Warner's done this season is nothing short of remarkable, but give me the guy who's six years younger and appears to still have fresh legs. Neither team runs the ball effectively. The quarterbacks will be asked to win the game (with an assist from the defenses), and I'll take my chances with McNabb in this one game. Warner's Wikipedia page is certainly more impressive, but he's going down Sunday.
Which rookie has the brighter future: DeSean Jackson or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie?
|AP Photo/Ted S. Warren|
|Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has six interceptions in his last nine games.|
Mike Sando: I'll take the elite corner over the elite receiver given how much the rules favor offense.
"DRC" has the look of a shutdown corner in the making. And despite being a ball hawk, he's patient enough to cross the goal line before dropping the football, always a plus.
Rodgers-Cromartie has six picks in his last nine games, including one in each playoff game. He had a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown this season. He even blocked a field goal try, leading to another TD return.
And he's only getting better as the stakes get higher.
The Falcons' Roddy White averaged 7.6 yards per reception on 11 mostly meaningless catches against the Cardinals. The Panthers' Steve Smith wasn't a factor until the game was out of reach.
Matt Mosley: This has to be one of the fir
st times a cornerback has been praised for giving up 11 "mostly meaningless" catches in a game. I think "DRC" will be a great player in this league, but Jackson's one of those guys who can affect several areas of the game. He was a huge part of that win over the Vikings with his punt returns and now he's making a big catch almost every week. His immaturity showed up in the loss to the Redskins in Week 16, but McNabb and Reid stayed with him.
On a roster that hasn't had a playmaking wide receiver since No. 81 left the building, Jackson has become the X factor. I fully expect him to make at least one game-changing play Sunday. I'm just not sure whether it will be in the return game or on offense. Geez, I'm starting to feel like Kirk Cameron in that movie "Listen to Me." Sando's on the ropes.
Which veteran safety should opponents fear most: Adrian Wilson or Brian Dawkins?
Mike Sando: I love what Dawkins brings to the Eagles. The Cardinals seemed to hear his footsteps when these teams played on Thanksgiving.
If I had to single out one NFC safety for acclaim, Dawkins might be the choice. But for sheer knockout ability, Wilson is the one your quarterback should fear most.
The hit on Trent Edwards comes to mind for its ferocity, enduring impact and punitive ramifications. But those who watched Wilson closely appreciate his contributions as one of the best "box" safeties in the league. Reid said as much before the teams played in November.
In addition to altering Edwards' season, Wilson roughed up Matt Hasselbeck during a victory at Seattle, leaving the Pro Bowl quarterback dazed and confused.
Wilson entered the 2008 season leading all NFL players in personal foul penalties since 2001. Quarterbacks can't afford to lose track of him on the field.
Matt Mosley: Wilson's now the better player because of his relative youth. But at 35, Dawkins somehow turned his season around. In what could certainly be his last season with the Eagles, he looked old and vulnerable early in the season. He was exposed in the first game against the Cowboys and was hearing criticism from all corners.
But the emotional player dug deep and sort of rediscovered what made him such a great player in the first place. It's the intimidation factor that Sando mentioned. And he's such an opportunistic player. He caused a fumble against the Cowboys in the second game that turned into a defensive touchdown. He's also the heart and soul of the defense and the city's most beloved athlete right now. I'm not sure if the Cardinals have a player like that, although maybe Fitzgerald's headed that way.