NFC West: Sheldon Brown
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.
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
We've come to that time in the week where we take a (much) closer look at the teams in this division through our latest roided-out NFC West rosters. Download here.
With the Cardinals facing Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game, I threw in an Eagles roster featuring 25 columns of information for 146 players. Like the rosters for NFC West teams, this one includes players currently on the roster, players signed to future contracts, players on injured reserve and players no longer with the organization.
A few roster-related notes about the Cardinals and Eagles, based on information I track:
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Another week, another chance for the Cardinals to avenge a regular-season defeat against one of its regular-season conquerors -- this time with a Super Bowl berth at stake.
The Cardinals caught a break when the Eagles defeated the top-seeded Giants in the divisional round, sending the NFC Championship Game to University of Phoenix Stadium. Home-field advantage will arm the Cardinals with additional confidence and a better chance at advancing. But this matchup remains a potentially difficult one for Arizona.
We take a quick look at five challenges facing the Cardinals:
1. Stop pressure up the middle.
The Panthers' best pass rusher, Julius Peppers, applies most of his pressure from the outside. The Eagles are tougher across their defensive line. They have the ability to generate pressure up the middle, where the Cardinals have sometimes been vulnerable.
The fastest way to make Kurt Warner appear 37 years old is to pressure him up the middle. The Eagles have the potential to apply that type of pressure with their linemen and with blitzes. The Cardinals need a strong game in pass protection from their interior offensive linemen and their running backs.
NFL.com Video A look ahead to the NFC Championship Game between the Eagles and Cardinals.
2. Containing Brian Westbrook.
The Cardinals have played strong run defense against top running backs over the last two weeks. The Eagles' Westbrook is more elusive than the Falcons' Michael Turner and far more of a receiving threat than Turner or the Panthers' DeAngelo Williams.
Arizona has vastly improved its tackling in the playoffs. The trend must continue. The Cardinals must become gang-tacklers. Failing to finish even one play against Westbrook could expose Arizona to a game-changing play.
3. Defeating the Eagles' aggressive coverage.
Philadelphia cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Asante Samuel relish taking receivers out of their comfort zones with aggressive tactics. Brian Dawkins is one of the most intimidating safeties in the game. Receivers tend to hear his footsteps, leading to lapses in concentration.
Dawkins forced Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin to fumble during the Eagles' 48-20 victory over Arizona on Thanksgiving Day. The Cardinals are a different team this time around. They won't be traveling on a short week, as they were then, and the stakes are much higher.
A hamstring injury has slowed Boldin recently. Even if he doesn't play, this game provides the Cardinals' receivers a chance to prove themselves against the best. Arizona dropped five passes when the teams played on Thanksgiving.
The Cardinals have to like their chances playing at home. The Eagles, having defeated the Vikings and Giants in successive weeks, have to like their chances against the lowest-seeded division winner.
Both defenses have the ability to force turnovers. The Cardinals are 10-0 this season when they finished tied or ahead in turnover differential. Warner, under frequent pressure when the teams met in November, tossed three interceptions in that game.
The turnover stat will likely determine whether the Cardinals make the first Super Bowl appearance in team history.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic doesn't expect first-round choice Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to sign in time for rookies to report today. Cardinals GM Rod Graves has apparently had a hard time connecting with Rodgers-Cromartie's agent, who has multiple first-round clients. But Graves thinks a deal can be completed quickly. While players are expected to check in for camp between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. this afternoon, the Cardinals do not practice until Friday morning. That gives them time to work out an agreement.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat says the 49ers face more questions than ever heading into camp. He addresses 10 issues/subjects: the QB situation, Mike Nolan's job status, Mike Martz, Justin Smith, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, leadership minus Bryant Young, o-line continuity and the NFC West. Maiocco advises fans to brace for speculation that retiring Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren will wind up with the 49ers. I know this about Holmgren: Independent of what happens in San Francisco, he still has the GM itch. He perked up when the Dolphins gave Bill Parcells millions to oversee the rebuilding process in Miami.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch explains why the Rams are bucking the trend of holding training camp at team headquarters. Coach Scott Linehan wants to change things up after a 3-13 season. Linehan also wants to train in cooler weather, figuring the team can get more done near Milwaukee. He'll get no argument here. Last summer, the Rams' camp was the least comfortable camp I attended while checking in with the Bears, Colts and Titans. Linehan also advocates the team-building aspects of training off-site. The Rams need all the team-building they can get after a season in which frustrations boiled over.
Kevin Lynch of sfgate's Niners Insider wonders what Mike Nolan meant when he mentioned a camp battle between Arnaz Battle and Ashlie Lelie. The 49ers have entered each of the last five seasons with an average of six receivers on their roster, most in the NFC West during that time. They have 10 right now. Bryant Johnson, Battle, Lelie, Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill and rookie sixth-round pick Josh Morgan have name recognition. Robert Jordan, Dominique Zeigler, Cameron Colvin and Jerard Rabb do not. Jordan, the former Cal star, does have a profile in the Bay Area.
Scott Rabalais of the Baton Rouge Advocate checks in with former Cardinals and Rams defensive back Aeneas Williams, who explains how Gill Byrd demonstrated true mentorship early in his career. "A mentor is not your friend," Williams said. "A friend will love you the way you are. A mentor will love you too much to let you stay the way you are." At Byrd's urging, Williams changed his fundamental approach to the cornerback position. Rabalais notes that Williams becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2009. The eight-time Pro Bowl choice and 1990s all-decade team member picked off 55 passes.
Reuben Frank of the Burlington County Times catches up with Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who is already bracing for a Nov. 27 battle with Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and the successor to Bryant Johnson. "More teams are using three wides on first down, and we're going to match up," Johnson said. "When we play the Arizona Cardinals, they have three great wide receivers, so we'd probably start out in nickel." Hence the need for three proven corners in Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard.
Cam Inman of the Contra Costa Times implores Nolan to name Alex Smith the 49ers' starting quarterback. Inman also urges Nolan and the 49ers to stop using former offensive coordinator Jim Hostler as a scapegoat for what went wrong last season. That sounds like a good idea. Coaches secure in their standing generally do not need to point fingers in public. Plus, it's bad form. Hostler was in a tough spot last season as a first-year coordinator for a team with serious issues, including injuries at quarterback. It's not his fault the 49ers hired him. Was he supposed to decline the opportunity on grounds he needed more seasoning?
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks are hopeful that rookies Lawrence Jackson and John Carlson will sign in time for the first practices of camp Friday. The Seahawks have had their share of training-camp contract disputes over the years, and in this case the process hit a snag while an arbitrator settled differences between the NFL and its players. Reporting dates aren't nearly as important as practice dates. Getting Jackson and Carlson signed by Friday is the important thing.