ANY GIVEN FRIDAY: Championship Week Odds & Ends

Welcome to the ‘Any Given Friday’, where we think the defenses might out-score the offenses in Pittsburgh this weekend, where we’re wondering whether Mike Nolan might petition the league to become the first D-coordinator to wear a suit on the sidelines, and where we wouldn't pay a dime to watch Pac-Man Jones play football, but we can't get enough of listening to him talk.

UP CLOSE & PERSONAL: I woke up a little late last Sunday, just before kickoff, so I missed all the pregame shows. I did, however, record ‘The NFL Today’, and watched it sped through it on my TiVo, stopping to laugh at Dan Marino’s attempts at making a point, and Bill Cowher’s attempts at English. Toward the end of the show, was James Brown's interview with Pac-Man Jones and his lawyer, Red-Faced Dude With Toupee Hair about allegations that Jones ordered the murder of a guy who disrespected his lady friend in a strip club (I really hate it when that happens). 

Now, you may have seen Stephen A. Smith’s interview with Pac-Man and Red-Faced Dude on ESPN, discussing the same allegations, but that was a little more of a side-show -- it was Stephen A., after all. But J.B. was at his professional best, and went all Jim Grey on Pac-Man, peppering him over and over with the same questions about his transgressions, and even making critical comments on the situation which weren’t even questions (maybe he thought he was the one being interviewed?). Pac-Man didn't help his case much, mumbling "scrip club" and "I had a drinking problem" a whole lot.

Then, at the end, JB flipped the switch into Oprah mode, giving Pac some homespun, fatherly advice -- that before he worried about getting back in the league, Jones should make sure that he “succeed in the game of life”. It really was one of the highlights of the season for me. If JB doesn't win a Sports Emmy for that, he'll fire his publicist. Although I will say one thing in favor of Stephen A.'s interview: he did get Pac-Man to say, about why he was hanging out in strip clubs, “I was just bein' rebellion".

I think we just found the title to his inevitable reality show -- 'Bein' Rebellion With Pac-Man Jones'.

NO, NOT THOSE SAFETIES, THE OTHER SAFETIES: I’ve been writing all year about what seems to be a tremendous rise in the amount of safeties (the 2-point play), but this weekend you'll probably hear a whole lot more about safeties (the defensive backs). Each team playing on Sunday has an outstanding safety playing for them, one their defense depends on for big plays and leadership.

Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu had a career high seven INT’s this season, and ranks among the game’s hardest hitting safeties. That group also includes Brian Dawkins, Philly’s longtime team leader who forced a career-high six fumbles this year. Baltimore’s Ed Reed is the NFL’s premiere ballhawk, leading the league in INT’s this season with nine. Arizona’s underrated (at least, outside the NFC West) Adrian Wilson does a little bit everything -- hard hits, tackling (he’s topped 100 twice, 75 this year), the occasional sack (he had eight in 2005, 2.5 this year), and forcing turnovers. The teams which win will probably look back to great play from their standout safety as one of the big reasons why.

CINDERELLA VS. CINDERELLA?: Never before have both #6 seeds made it to the conference championship games in the same year, so it's a bit surprising neither is an overwhelming underdog. Not only have Philly and Baltimore survived two road games to make it one step from the Super Bowl, they both can make excellent cases for why they will be in Tampa in two weeks. Philly is favored in their game on the road, playing a team they beat 48-20 in the regular season. Baltimore is a road dog, but they played Pittsburgh very tough in both their matchups this year (more on this later). 

Of course, arguments for both home teams as well -- Arizona is hot and has played very well at home, and Pittsburgh is the top remaining seed and is 2-0 vs. the Ravens this year. So, what say you, Niners Nation? Who do you think will be playing in the big game?

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Philadelphia (11-6-1) at Arizona (11-7)

LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE: Before last weekend, no team had advanced to the conference championship game without winning 10 games in the regular season (in a non-strike year) since 1996. In fact, only seven teams have done it since the advent of the 16-game season. But both Philly (9-6-1) and Arizona (9-7) accomplished the feat within a 24-hour span. The winner of this game will be the first team to make the Super Bowl with only nine regular season wins since the 1979 Rams.

INJURY QUESTIONS: Arizona didn’t need WR Anquan Boldin last week at Carolina, but Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson likely won’t let Larry Fitzgerald run wild like the Panthers did. If Johnson decides Fitzgerald won’t beat him (which I think he will), the Cards may need Boldin near full strength to stand a chance vs. Philly. For what's it's worth, he's practicing and says he'll be good to go.

Eagles RB Brian Westbrook is averaging just 1.9 YPC this postseason, the lowest of any RB still playing. That number likely needs to improve for the Eagles to go all the way. Improvement could be tough if his balky knee doesn’t improve -- he reportedly tweaked it on Sunday, and could be at well under 100% this week, but also says he'll play.

BY THE (POSTSEASON) NUMBERS: 

-- In the playoffs, the Cardinals have a +7 turnover margin. In the regular season, they were exactly break-even, committing the same amount of turnovers as they forced.

-- In the playoffs so far, the Eagles have allowed only three 2nd half points. This is good, because studies have shown you can’t lose if the other team doesn’t score.

-- This is Philly’s fifth championship game in eight years. Not bad for a dumb coach and an overrated QB. Other players who’ve been around for the entire ride include S Brian Dawkins, K David Akers, and OL’s Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan.

-- During the regular season, the Cards ran the ball only 34% of the time, lowest in the league. In the playoffs, they have run the ball 52% of the time.

-- The Cards have won as many playoff games in the last two weeks as they have in their entire franchise history, dating back to 1920.

LOOKING AHEAD: If Philly wins this game, the hype for the Super Bowl will be intense -- even more than usual. On top of all the McNabb/Reid/long-suffering Eagles fans angles, either matchup would create extra buzz. An Eagles/Steelers game would of course be the battle for Pennsylvania. An Eagles/Ravens game would be the rematch of the game Andy Reid famously benched Donovan McNabb (and according to some, thus saved their season). Can you imagine the hype that would cranked out if this is the Super Bowl matchup? I almost have to pick this matchup for that reason alone. If it indeed comes to pass, my long-held belief that the producers of ‘SportsCenter’ have some say in how the games turn out will be proven correct once and for all.

TAKE YOUR PICK: Both the Cards and Eagles have DB’s on an INT roll. Rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has picks in three straight games for the Cardinals, while CB Asante Samuel has picks in two straight games, seven of his last 10 playoff games. Already tied for the NFL record with four career pick-6’s after his TD at Minnesota a week earlier, Samuel nearly added the record-breaker at New York on Sunday, getting tackled a yard short by Eli Manning.

BURNING QUESTION: Is anyone else shocked to learn that Donovan McNabb has the lowest INT rate in the history of the league?

HISTORY LESSON: On Thanksgiving night, the Eagles played the Cardinals. I’d like to say the Cardinals played, too, but mostly they just stood around watching while Philly put up 48 points. If you were hung up in the kitchen eating leftovers with your fingers like a slob, or passed out on the couch with a hand stuck down your pants Al Bundy-style, and missed the first few minutes of the game, then it was a blowout by the time you tuned in. It was 21-0 right out of the gate, and only got uglier from there. But that two months ago, on the east coast, and in cold weather. Still, it has to give the Eagles some confidence.

THE VERDICT: I've been rating the Eagles highly all postseason, ranking them behind only Indy among the teams who played the first weekend, and re-seeding them at #1 after that round. I doubted them against the Giants last week, and I've been kicking myself ever since. (Seriously, you should see the bruises.) So I just have to go with them here. But I have concerns, namely the passing game. I don't think there's any way Edge James will have much success in the game, but Warner could get hot at home and put some points. But if the Eagles blitzing gets to him, we all know he'll wilt. I say he has success early, and wilts late.

The pick: EAGLES 30, CARDINALS 20

 

Baltimore (13-5) at Pittsburgh (13-4)

MR. UNDERRATED: It’s easy to overlook Ravens WR Derrick Mason -- he’s smallish (5-10, 192), isn’t really a speedster, and has never had that one huge year, but he’s had 1,000+ yards in seven of the last eight seasons. I wrote a few weeks back about his courageous and clutch performance in Dallas when he separated a shoulder, but came back to recover a crucial fumble and catch a go-ahead TD. Playing against his old coach and team last week, he caught a long TD which was a key to sending the Ravens to the AFC Championship. 

YOU AGAIN?: For the Ravens, this will be the third week in a row they’ve had a rematch of a regular season game in the playoffs. In fact, both championship games are rematches of games in the regular season, as were all four games last week, and two the week before. So, eight of ten playoff games so far have been rematches. And if Philly wins on Sunday, the Super Bowl will be as well -- the Eagles beat the Steelers 15-6 in Week 3, and lost to the Ravens 36-7 in Week 12.

THE FOOTBALL GODS: Almost any time a wild card makes a run to the Super Bowl, they appear to be a Team Of Destiny -- partly because it takes catching a few breaks to get there. The Ravens caught one last week when there was no delay of game on the big 3rd and 2 which Joe Flacco converted into a huge 22-yard gain to TE Todd Heap -- only after the play clock expired. And then stayed expired. And then came the snap -- with no flag. A big deal has been made of this, with commentators complaining, and even Titans coach Jeff Fisher calling it “inexcusable”, but I don’t really get it (then again, I’m not a Titans fan). Here are three reasons I think it’s overblown:

1) This happens all the time. There has always been a delay of about a second while the ref who’s tasked with looking at two things at once moves his eyes back and forth. While the delay seemed a lot longer than that -- and Dan Dierdorf claimed it was three seconds -- but it was actually just over a second. It seemed longer, in my opinion, because it was the playoffs, a close game, and a key late moment, and we were all watching with extra anticipation.

2) The Titans defense did not seem aware of the play clock expiring, and were ready to play, so they have no room for complaint. The fact they were burned for 22 yards outweighs any bad break they got, and a delay of game penalty would’ve been a gift, not something they earned in any way.

3) Even a delay of game would’ve only caused a 3rd and 7 rather than a 3rd and 2, and the Titans did allow 22 yards. Yes, the difference in distance would’ve likely required a different defense, the Titans probably wouldn’t have respected the run, etc. But the point remains, you allow 22 yard gains on 3rd down late in games, I don’t want to hear you wining about “inexcusable”, even if you played and coached for Buddy Ryan, and shared a same defensive backfield in college with Ronnie Lott (10-time Pro Bowler), Dennis Smith (six-time Pro Bowler), and Joey Browner (six-time Pro Bowler).

HOLD THE LINE: The Steelers have had problems with their O-line all year, but put up a solid performance vs. the Chargers last week. Willie Parker had 146 yards and two TD’s, and sack-prone Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once.

INJURY QUESTIONS: After LB Terrell Suggs left the game vs. the Titans last week, Baltimore struggled to put any kind of pressure at all on QB Kerry Collins. Suggs will reportedly be a gametime decision. If can’t play this week, or is at less than full strength, it could deal a major blow to a Ravens D that seemed to be dragging a bit at Tennessee after playing 17 straight weeks.

Steelers LB James Harrison was the NFL’s defensive player of the year, but many people believe S Troy Polamalu is the team’s most important defender. He greatly affects both the running and passing games, and is the inspirational leader. Despite a calf injury, Polamalu will reportedly play.

SMALL SAMPLE SIZE: So far, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has a 22-10 record as head coach of the Steelers -- a better winning percentage (.688) than either of his Super Bowl-winning predecessors, Bill Cowher (.623) or Chuck Noll (.566). Of course, he has a long way to go in terms of his postseason resume: He’s 1-1, while both Cowher (12-9) and Noll (16-8) had winning records to go along with their five Lombardi trophies. Cowher struggled in his championship game experiences, going 2-4 and losing three at home, while Noll went 4-3.

HISTORY LESSON: Both Steelers/Ravens games were tight affairs which went right down to the wire. Everybody remembers the showdown in Baltimore for the AFC North crown which was decided by the controversial TD call on Santonio Holmes’ catch at the goal line in the last minute. What you may not remember is that the first matchup in Week 4 went to OT, with the Steelers winning 23-20. In the game, the Ravens out-gained the Steelers, and out-scored them -- at least, on offense. LB LaMarr Woodley returned a fumble for a TD to help Pittsburgh win. 

THE VERDICT: We’ve all heard the old saying around the NFL that it's hard to beat a team three times. To that, I say, "Well, duh". it's hard to beat good teams one time, and if you're facing them for the third time it means they're in the playoffs, which pretty much guarantees they're a good team. But it's extra hard when both the earlier games were nail-biters which could've easily gone the other way. It will likely be the same type of game, and will come down to one crucial play or factor. My guess is, that factor could be fatigue -- and a scheduling snafu. The Ravens have played 17 straight weeks because they were forced to take their bye in Week 2 due to Hurricane Ike hitting Houston. Even had they played the Texans then, rather than Week 10, they would have played only nine straight, while Pittsburgh's only at one. Baltimore's D seemed a step slower last week, but they were playing on short rest (six days after their victory over the Dolphins). This week, they'll have extra rest (eight days), but I think the season's toll -- combined with the Steelers freshness -- will make a slight difference.

The pick: STEELERS 20, RAVENS 17

 

LAST WEEK: 2-2

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