Raise your hand if you had money down on the NFC Championship Game being played in Phoenix.
I don’t mean this year. I mean ever.
The Arizona Cardinals host the Philadelphia Eagles — you had them getting to within a game of the Super Bowl too, right? — in the NFC game Sunday while the Baltimore Ravens visit the Pittsburgh Steelers to decide the AFC title.
That one was a little easier to see coming, though not too many of us had it written on the card once Tennessee got off to that 10-0 start. The Ravens and Steelers will meet for the third time this season. The Steelers won both regular-season games, but saying that makes it sound like there’s a bigger spread between the division rivals than there is.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Philadelphia Eagles (9-6-1) at Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
3 p.m. EST, Fox
How improbable is this matchup? It’s the first time since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1977 that neither team in a Conference Championship Game has managed 10 wins in the regular season.
The winner of this game will be only the second nine-win team to make the Super Bowl since the schedule reached its current length. The other was the Los Angeles Rams, who went 9-7 in 1979.
There has been one other game to decide a Super Bowl berth that pitted two nine-win teams. It was the Ice Bowl, the Dec. 31, 1967 NFL Championship Game in which the Green Bay Packers (9-4-1) beat the Dallas Cowboys (9-5) on Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak on the Frozen Tundra. That was a 14-game schedule though.
There haven’t even been that many 10-win teams in the Super Bowl. Last year’s 10-6 New York Giants were the first 10-win club since the 1988 San Francisco 49ers, and those two are it. They and the ’79 Rams are the only teams to make the Super Bowl in the 16-game era with fewer than 11 wins. The Eagles or Cardinals will join them.
All of this is by way of saying don’t believe anybody who predicts anything for this game, because everybody making predictions has already been spectacularly wrong.
I mean, look at me. I picked the Eagles to win the NFC East and the Cardinals to win the NFC West. And I never dreamed they’d meet for the conference title.
For months I kept thinking the Eagles were better than they appeared to be on the field, but when they clonked down to 5-5-1, with the benched quarterback and the banged-up running back and the world of hurt and 400 kinds of lousy, I thought, “I guess I don’t know anything about football.” This was a big step for me. Usually I think, “I know I don’t know anything about football.”
The Eagles turned things around by — well, this is funny — they turned things around by beating the snot out of the Cardinals on Thanksgiving. They played at night so you were passed out on Aunt Sally’s couch, but the Eagles won that game 48-20, the start of a 4-1 run to close out the season.
The Cardinals were trundling along to an easy title in the West thanks to sharing the division with three atrocious teams. They had Kurt Warner reliving his MVP period, throwing to the fabulous wide receiver tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and they had — nothing else. A really easy schedule. Six wins in the division, a 3-7 record against everyone else when the season was over.
But in the last two weeks, everything’s changed. The Cardinals running game has kicked in, thanks in part to the resuscitation of Edgerrin James, and the defense has had two straight solid games, the playoff wins over the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.
Has that been real? The Cardinals intercepted Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme five times in the 33-13 drubbing last week in Charlotte, but it looked less like the Cardinals were playing brilliantly and more like Delhomme was just having a meltdown. But they stopped the run too, and it’s been two weeks now.
Maybe the Cardinals defense is doing what the Indianapolis Colts did in their Super Bowl year, raising their game for the postseason. In fact — and keep in mind not to listen to anyone, and especially me — I’m going with that. The Cardinals are legit, they’re playing at home and they’re going to win. If I say it enough, I’ll start believing it.
The Eagles are playing punishing defense, but the Cardinals are a home-run hitting team, and they can be contained for most of the day and still score four or five touchdowns on crazy-great plays by Warner and Fitzgerald.
Everybody always says the key for the Eagles offense is the multifaceted Brian Westbrook, but I don’t think that’s true these days. Westbrook has slowed considerably thanks to injuries and age, and now the Eagles rely on Donovan McNabb teaming up with a solid squad of sometimes dangerous receivers, led by rookie DeSean Jackson, though receivers Kevin Curtis and Jason Avant and tight ends L.J. Smith and Brent Celek are all catching a lot of passes lately.
I think the Eagles’ improvement is real, and I don’t know if the Cardinals’ improvement is anything close to real. But if it is, I don’t want to miss out.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
6:30 p.m. EST, CBS
There’s this idea that when one team beats another twice in one year and then they meet again in the playoffs, the losing team has the advantage because it’s hard to beat an NFL team three times in one season.
Of course it’s hard. It’s the NFL. It’s hard to beat an NFL team one time in one season. Ask the Detroit Lions.
That’s my new all-purpose argument-ender, by the way. Ask the Detroit Lions. I don’t care what we’re debating, I say, “Ask the Detroit Lions” and it’s over. You’ve got nowhere to go. It’s the best argument slam dunk I’ve had since “Look at Dan Quayle.” That baby would prove any point.
It turns out that teams that have swept two games from an opponent and then met them again in the playoffs have gone 11-7 against them. So I guess you could say that the losing teams have improved from 0-36 in the regular season to 7-11 in the playoffs, which is infinity percent. That’s a lot.
But I think the point here is that it’s not spectacularly hard to beat a team a third time in one year. Teams that have been better in the regular season tend to be better in the playoffs too. They win most of the time.
The Steelers were better than the Ravens when they played each other in the regular season, but not by infinity percent or anything. The Steelers won 23-20 in overtime in Pittsburgh and 13-9 in Baltimore, and that one almost literally couldn’t have been closer. The Steelers’ winning touchdown was that Santonio Holmes did-he-make-it goal line play.
The Ravens, you might have heard, are led by a rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, the first rookie ever to win two playoff games. He had his worst outing of the year in the second loss to the Steelers, but the Ravens still came within a sixteenth of an inch of winning that game.
This one figures to be about the same as the first two. Both defenses are great. Both offenses will try to avoid sacks and turnovers and get the running game going and complete the occasional pass. It’ll be brutal.
The Steelers, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker healthy, are more likely to get something done on offense, but really it’s a coin flip. Big defensive plays figure to decide this game, and while the Ravens have the genius of Ed Reed in their defensive backfield, I’ll take the Steelers to be a little better again.
Why? Ask the Detroit Lions.