Note: the quotes in this article are fictional.
Philadelphia @ Arizona (+3)
In an unlikely matchup in the NFC Championship, the No. 4-seeded Cardinals host the No. 6-seeded Eagles in the cozy climes of Arizona's University of Phoenix Stadium. Few expected Arizona to advance to the NFC title game, much less play host to it, but the sudden resurgence of the Cardinals defense, coupled with losses by the NFC's top three seeded teams, will bring the Eagles to Glendale.
"If there was a turning point to our season," says Ken Whisenhunt, "then it would have to be one of the numerous blowouts we suffered on the East Coast this year. One of those was our 48-20 loss to the Eagles on Thanksgiving, and fittingly, after the 'Thanksgiving Day Massacre,' I had to 'talk turkey' with my team and challenge them to stop playing like chickens. They responded; it just took a few weeks. For now, though, we've exorcised the 'albatross' of playing on the East Coast, just in time for a potential trip to Tampa."
"No one expected the Cardinals to be here. That's what Jake Delhomme said after finding an Arizona defender in his passing lane five times. But we're taking our success in stride. And 'in stride' is exactly how our defenders intercepted those passes. I'm not sure what was going on in that head of Delhomme's, but I know what was happening on that head of his - a bowl cut."
"If anyone fails to take us seriously now, then they've got another thing coming. We avenged one of those East Coast losses by jumping on the Panthers early and forcing them to go to their hurry-up offense in the second quarter. Delhomme may have a bionic elbow, but his vision is far from super-human. Suffice it to say he made a 'spectacle' of himself. It was very noble of Delhomme to apologize to his teammates for his play, and it was also a nice gesture when Steve Smith apologized to Ken Lucas for punching the wrong person."
After compiling a 9-6-1 regular season record that just did get them into the playoffs, the Eagles have reeled off two convincing wins to reach their fifth conference title game in 10 years. Donovan McNabb has led the charge and has quieted the rumors about his future as an Eagle, earning the praise of Andy Reid, who called McNabb "one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL" after their win over the Giants.
"I've seen and heard it all this season," says McNabb. "First, my head coach benches me earlier in the year; now, he's got nothing but love for me. Coach Reid's gone from saying 'take a seat' to saying 'take a seat, on my lap.' It reminds me of my mother's, and it also seats four."
"As an athlete in such a sports-religious city such as Philadelphia, I'm used to going from crucified to deified in just a matter of weeks, or, in some cases, days. If I don't lead us to a win over Arizona, I'm sure all the bad-mouthing and slanderous words will begin anew, and that's just from my mom defending me on her web site."
Philadelphia can learn a lot from last week's Panthers/Cardinals game, specifically by watching film of the Panthers and then doing the exact opposite. The Panthers got very little pressure on Kurt Warner, and their coverage of Arizona's receivers was nonexistent, so nonexistent that by halftime, the Panthers' front office was already trying to trade up in the 2009 draft for a cornerback, or two.
One would expect the Eagles to unmercifully pressure Warner, and that would probably be a wise strategy. But Arizona has played so far in the playoffs like they've been one step ahead of the competition. They definitely knew what the Panthers' intentions were. Now, don't listen when someone says Arizona, who played last Saturday, had an extra day to prepare for the Eagles, who played on Sunday. That's simply not true; the Cards didn't know they were playing the Eagles until Philly won, Sunday evening.
Ken Whisenhunt and his staff know their first order of business is to make sure Warner has time to throw. If Warner doesn't have time, then the Cardinals really have no "Plan B." Arizona will have to commit the extra man or two to protect Warner. When the Eagles blitz, they'll need to get to Warner quickly, because there's likely single coverage behind it. And one man cannot check Larry Fitzgerald.
Offensively, Philadelphia needs a big game from Brian Westbrook. He's done little on the ground in Philly's two playoff wins, but the Eagles really need him in the passing game. First of all, as a big-play threat. Second of all, as an outlet for McNabb, who's likely to face some blitzes of his own. I think the Cardinals feel they can cover Philly's wide receivers man-to-man, so some of their blitzes may come from their linebackers. This is when Westbrook coming out of the backfield could be critical.
In the climate-controlled interior of University of Phoenix Stadium, the weather will be conducive to offensive production, which is a treat for fans who enjoy high-scoring games. That weather will also be conducive to FOX sideline reporter Tony Siragusa wearing shorts while he sandwiches rendezvous with stadium food vendors between his quirky sideline observations. Oh, the horror! Philadelphia wins, 30-23.
Baltimore @ Pittsburgh (-5)
The third Ravens/Steelers clash of the season may well be the most emotionally charged, physically demanding, and highly anticipated AFC Championship Game of all time. The hatred between Baltimore and Pittsburgh runs deeper than Jerry Jones' pockets, and the carnage when the dust settles may well resemble the aftermath of a Pacman Jones' foray into a strip club.
"Hey, I believe that's the first time the Cowboys have been mentioned in the playoffs," says Baltimore's rookie head coach John Harbaugh. "But not the last. What's the big deal about guns being pointed at Michael Irvin? Those policemen were just doing their jobs. Now, unlike the Cowboys' situations, the bounties for the AFC title game will be issued by the participating teams, and not law enforcement agencies."
"Did I say 'bounty?' I must have misspoken, because bounties don't exist in the NFL. I'll tell you what does exist - me winking uncontrollably. Anyway, a league directive has informed us to cease using the term 'bounty.' Understand I'm not too fond of their suggested replacement, but Hines Ward is at the top of our 'honey-do list.'"
"Not too many teams are capable of beating the Titans and Steelers on the road in consecutive weeks, but I like our chances to run the gauntlet. Obviously, we've got no problem 'throwing down' the gauntlet. We'll have to make the plays to beat the Steelers. Against the Titans, we made the plays when we had to, as did the official responsible for throwing the flag for delay of game. I've heard of officials 'swallowing' their whistles; I shudder to think where that yellow flag went. But I'm glad it went there."
The Steelers have two wins over the Ravens under their belts already this year, but both were by narrow margins, a 23-20 overtime win in Week 4, and a 13-9 triumph in Week 15. With both defenses playing well and temperatures forecast in the teens, there's reason to believe another defensive struggle is at hand. As epic AFC title games go, this one should easily live up to the hype. It will be a slugfest.
"You darn right it will be a slugfest," says Ben Roethlisberger. "I'd say it would be nice to have famous ring announcer Michael Buffer at Heinz Field for his 'let's get ready to rumble' announcement, but I'm afraid a man in a tuxedo with a noticeably fake tan wouldn't fit well with Steeler fans, and would be pummeled to death."
"Fans can expect a low-scoring affair. And while we're on the subject of boxing, I've been informed that the game will be judged on the '10-point must system.' All we need know to complete the boxing analogy is a crooked judge, and if referee Walt Coleman is assigned to the game, he certainly fits the bill."
"The game will be legendary. Sunday's rematch in chilly Heinz Field will certainly put the 'icing' on what has already been a playoff season of rematches. How's that for a corny play on words? Chris Bermann would be envious."
Like Roethlisberger in 2004, Joe Flacco is in the AFC Championship Game as a rookie. Roethlisberger had 4 turnovers in the Steelers' 41-27 loss to the Patriots. Flacco has yet to turn the ball over in two games this postseason, but has yet to face the stage of such an epic conference final. Turnovers are likely to decide the outcome of Sunday's game, and in a game featuring two brutish defenses, turnovers are inevitable.
Both teams will try early to run the ball. Pittsburgh, with a healthy (at least until he's hurt in the second quarter) Willie Parker, along with backup Mwelde Moore (quoth the Raven?), will test the edges of the Baltimore defense. Will the Steelers have any luck? Nevermore. The Ravens won't find running room, either. With these two disciplined defenses, there will be more gap-filling than on a Minnesota Vikings nautical excursion. So both teams will resort to the passing game, which is the best way to move the ball against the defenses. At least until they get into the red zone. So, the bet way to score a touchdown is on a play over 20 yards in length.
The Steelers will pick on cornerback Fabian Washington, not because he showed weakness against the Titans, but because his name is "Fabian." As for the Ravens and Flacco, why not test the calf of Troy Polamalu? A pump fake or a good play action fake, and the aggressive safety might commit a "snafu," which in the Samoan dialect means "mistake," I believe.
Once the passing starts, that's when the short routes and cold-hardened football will result in lots of big hits across the middle and tipped passes, those that are easily intercepted and returned for scores. Will Ed Reed snatch one of these and make a big return? Maybe, maybe not. In any case, Reed needs to touch the ball as much as possible, so expect him to return a few punts, of which there should be plenty.
What's the bottom line? I think the Steelers and Roethlisberger find success through the air, and turn a halftime deficit into a 22-19 win.