Six Pack of Observations: Cardinals heading to the Super Bowl

Here are six quick-hit observations from the Cardinals’ 32-25 win over the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

1. Just keep doubting them – the Cardinals will just keep winning.
Let’s run through everything the Cardinals weren’t supposed to do this postseason, shall we? They weren’t supposed to stop Michael Turner or beat the Falcons in the first round. They weren’t supposed to win on the road or stop the Panthers’ dynamic running game in the second round. And then even when they did accomplish those things, they weren’t supposed to beat the Eagles because Philadelphia would finally pressure Kurt Warner like he hadn’t been the previous two weeks. Yet the Cardinals did beat Philly on Sunday, and they did so even though adversity stopped by in the third quarter and smacked them square in the mouth. (More on that next.)

2. The Cardinals did something Sunday that they hadn’t done much of all season – battle adversity.
When the Eagles scored a go ahead touchdown with just over 10 minutes remaining in the game to take a 25-24 lead in front of a stunned Arizona crowd, the Cardinals could have easily crumpled in the final quarter. Philadelphia had just scored 19 points in a matter of nine minutes, were starting to pressure Warner with more ease and had seized all momentum. But the Cards answered with a 14-play, 72-yard drive that took 12:07 off the clock and culminated in a Tim Hightower 8-yard touchdown run. They added the 2-point conversation on a pass reception by Ben Patrick and even though there was still plenty of time left on the clock at 2:53, you got the impression that the Eagles were cooked. Granted, ‘Zona benefited from a non-pass interference call on a 4th and 10 attempt to Kevin Curtis on the final drive, but the Cards had already capitalized on the most pivotal moment in the game by taking the Eagles’ best shot and answering back.

3. The Eagles only played 19 minutes of this game…
…had they played the entire game, they probably would have won. Something that got overlooked by many pundits in the week leading up to the contest was that this was the third straight road game for Philadelphia. It’s hard to win on the road as it is, nevertheless three straight weeks. It’s why most sixth seeds don’t make it to the Super Bowl. That said, had the Eagles played the entire game as well as they did in the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, they would have won. Granted, that’s an obvious statement since they scored 13 points and limited the Cardinals to –1 yard of total offense in that third period – but look deeper. In that third quarter, Jim Johnson finally was able to dial up the right pressure on Kurt Warner, Andy Reid was finally able to get the tired Arizona defense on their heels and Donovan McNabb finally was hitting receivers in stride and striking for big plays. (None bigger than DeSean Jackson’s wild 62-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth.) The Eagles essentially only executed their game plan for 19 minutes of this game and yes, the Cardinals had a lot to do with that. But Philadelphia also got in its own way more times than not by dropping passes, failing to execute Johnson’s blitzes and McNabb misfiring on a handful of passes. Were the Eagles tired? They didn’t necessarily show it if they were, but don’t overlook the fact that this team had to do a lot just to make the playoffs and then a lot just to get to Glendale on Sunday. And that could have factored into how they played.

4. Larry Fitzgerald.
What else can one say that hasn’t already been said? He’s amazing, spectacular – exceptional. With all due respect to the Texans’ Andre Johnson, Fitz is the best receiver in the NFL and the adjustment he made on Kurt Warner’s under throw on a 62-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter was incredible. He’s one of the few receivers in the league that consistently goes up to get the ball at its highest point and never lets it get to his body. He’s the best.

5. Who the hell is Brent Celek?
Non-Eagle fans go ahead and raise your hand if you knew who Celek was before the game. I knew who he was, but I had no idea he could be a game-changer. The second-year tight end out of Cincinnati was the perfect complement to DeSean Jackson and Kevin Curtis in that he worked the seams and gave Donovan McNabb a solid, reliable target the entire game. He also freed Jackson and Curtis up by clearing out the Cardinal safeties, which had to adjust to him being a legitimate target as the game wore on. What a game by the youngster who has no doubt made Eagle fans forget L.J. Smith.

6. How can you not love Adrian Wilson?
Because the Cardinals have been bad for so long, Wilson has often been known as just an underrated playmaker on a brutal defense. But now that the Cards are heading to the Super Bowl, general football fans can start to appreciate just how good the eight-year veteran is – and how loyal. When Wilson was set to become a free agent at the end of the 2004 season, he could have signed with numerous teams dying for a playmaking safety and a natural born leader. But as Joe Buck and Troy Akiman noted during the broadcast, Wilson never contemplated signing with another team and reached a modest five-year, $21 million contract with the Cards. Now he’s being rewarded for his contributions to Arizona’s franchise by having the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl. If you can’t root for a guy like that than you won’t be able to root for anybody.

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NFL Week 8 Primer

Eli ManningSunday’s Best: Giants (5-1) at Steelers (5-1), 4:15 PM ET
Does a matchup get more physical than this? The biggest news surrounding this game on the injury front is that Willie Parker is expected to return to the Steelers’ backfield this week after missing last Sunday’s win over the Bengals after aggravating his knee injury. He faces a tough front seven of the Giants, who bounced back last Sunday against San Francisco after being embarrassed on Monday night football two weeks ago in Cleveland. New York’s defense complied six sacks, forced four fumbles, intercepted two passes and held the 49ers to 2 of 10 on third downs. One thing to note is that the Steelers were manhandled by an Eagles team early in the season that runs a similar defensive scheme as the Giants do. Expect the G-Men to game plan against the run while blitzing Ben Roethlisberger early and often. Pittsburgh’s banged up offensive line is ranked 28th in sacks allowed, which doesn’t paint a pretty picture for Big Ben this weekend. Still, expect a Steeler defense pumped for the opportunity to stifle Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs and the rest of New York’s explosive offense.

Upset Watch: Falcons (4-2) at Eagles (3-3), 1:00 PM ET
Bragging alert: I’ve called the last four upset-watches and five of the first seven this season. And if Martin Gramatica wasn’t awful, I would have nailed the Saints over the Broncos in Week 3 as well. I’m going out on a major limb this week in calling a Falcons upset over the Eagles. Not only is Philly a 9-point favorite, but the Eagles are also 9-0 under Andy Reid coming off the bye. But I’ve bought hard into the Matt Ryan hype and happen to believe Atlanta is better than what people are making them out to be. They trust Ryan to make throws in the passing game, can run the ball with Michael Turner and have beaten two quality teams in the Packers and Bears in their last two games. For them to walk away with a win on Sunday, however, the defense will need to step up. Donovan McNabb is shredding opposing defenses and will likely have Brian Westbrook, Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis back from injuries. But the Falcons have moved the ball well this year, are protecting Ryan (which will be huge this week against Jim Johnson’s blitz-happy defense) and are coming off a bye themselves. They have a lot of momentum after the win over the Bears and have been a more physical team under first-year head coach Mike Smith. A win might be out of reach, but at the very least, I’m calling for a Falcons cover.

LaDainian TomlinsonIntriguing Matchup: Chargers at Saints, 1:00 PM ET
Both of these teams were highly regarded as playoff contenders in preseason – if not Super Bowl contenders. But both of struggled with inconsistency so far and the Saints will be without Reggie Bush for the next 3 to 4 weeks. LaDainian Tomlinson has not looked like the same MVP back he’s been in recent years, but QB Philip Rivers has more than picked up the slack. Which one of these teams can get back on track this week playing overseas in London? Chances are, the winner might be able to save its season while the loser could start to fall off the playoff radar. (Especially New Orleans, who now plays in a surprisingly tough NFC South.)

Other Notable Games:
Cardinals (4-2) at Panthers (5-2)
Had it not been for the Giants-Steelers game, this matchup might have been the best the NFL had to offer this week. Each team is starting to make some noise, but both have also looked incredibly bad at times this year (see the Cardinals effort against the Jets and the Panthers against the Buccaneers).

Buccaneers (5-2) at Cowboys (4-3), 1:00 PM ET
No Tony Romo again for Dallas – will Monte Kiffin’s defense eat Brad Johnson alive?

Colts (3-3) at Titans (6-0), 8:30 PM ET Monday
The Monday night matchup is a great one. Can Peyton Manning turn around the Colts’ misfortunes this year against the surprising undefeated Titans?

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