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NFL Championship Weekend Pre-Game Analysis: Philadelphia at Arizona

Philadelphia Do’s and Don’t’s:

Do knock the stuffing out of Kurt Warner. Yes ... I'm repeating myself ... AGAIN. Neither Atlanta nor Carolina listened to me and see what happened to them. Props go to Mike Florio at PFT who reminded the world of 12/01/2002 ... the day the Eagles showed the world how to stop Kurt Warner.

Do pay close attention to the common mistakes that Atlanta and Carolina made on offense against the Cardinals. Atlanta ran 24 times and threw the ball 40 times. Carolina ran the ball 15 times and went to the air 35 times. That equates to 2 key mistakes made by each of Arizona's postseason opponents thus far: 1) Forfeiting any chance at winning the time of possession battle; 2) Stepping away from what they did best (which was running the football). Don't go all pass happy (HINT ... that message is for Andy Reid), but at the same time, don't give up what you do best. So incorporate those screens to Westbrook and Buckhalter ... but let them run it up the gut too.

Do make use of DeSean Jackson in every aspect of the passing game. That means, let him run quick slants, let him run some out patterns, and definitely let him just sprint downfield a few times. Arizona has some talented DBs (read: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), and moving your most talented WR to different spots throughout the game will enable him to keep the secondary guessing.

Don’t let Larry Fitzgerald get you down. He WILL make some phenomenal catches throughout the game, even if you have 5 guys covering him. So WHEN he makes those catches, pat him on the ass and compliment him ... but only after you've tackled him HARD. The other key is to force all of his catches to be tough grabs ... do NOT leave him wide open (like Carolina did all day long).

Don’t let Donovan McNabb forget the benching. Dude has been playing with a massive chip on his shoulder since the Baltimore game. He should have carried that chip since the T.O. drama unfolded in Philly ... but he didn't. Now that he is carrying it, don't let him forget it ... as long as it's there, McNabb will remember that he has something to prove ... and it can only be proven with a victory on February 1, 2009.

Arizona Do’s and Don’t’s:

Do keep the motivation up. Nobody expected you to win against Atlanta 2 weeks ago, let alone be hosting the NFC Championship game. You were underdogs at home to Atlanta and were 9.5 point underdogs to the Panthers. After two impressive wins, you are at home again, and AGAIN are underdogs to the Eagles (by 3.5 points). If that's not locker room board material, I don't know what is.

Do keep on executing your playoff game plan. On offense you have mixed it up quite a bit, and actually ran the ball 15 more times than you passed it last week! The shift away from a pass-heavy offense has befuddled opponents thus far. On defense, the incredible showing thus far has everyone drawing comparison's to the transformation that the 2006 Colts defense went through between the regular and post seasons. Stick to the game plan this week ... it's worked so far, why shouldn't it work again?

Do watch the Redskins/Eagles game from December 21. Washington played a very effective scheme against the Eagles. Even if the receivers hadn't dropped a half-dozen of McNabb's passes, the Skins were the only team to effectively contain McNabb and his offense after Week 12.

Don’t expect Larry Fitzgerald to have the same game this week as he did last week, especially if Anquan Boldin isn't back in the lineup. Philly has one of the best (if not the best) secondaries in the NFL. There will not be many (or potentially any) wide gaps for Warner to find Fitz through this week. The only way to create the mismatches is to spread the ball around early.

Don’t ignore either Edge or Tim Hightower. Last week Edge had 3 more carries than Timmy, but finished with 19-yards less. That's OK. The youth/experience 1-2 punch will serve you well in trying to wear down Philadelphia's front seven. If each back runs at least 15 times at the Philly D, those guys will be dead tired in the 4th quarter.

Key Matchups:

When Philadelphia has the ball
Rookie WR DeSean Jackson vs. Rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Both young men were highlighted by Armin in his Rookie Year End Report, although Jackson didn't make the top-10 for his side of the ball. Cromartie, on the other hand, was the #3 defensive rookie, by Armin's standards. These two young stars will definitely go head-to-head at least a few times on Sunday, and the outcome could very well hinge on whether Jackson beats Cromartie for a TD, or whether Dominique out-leaps DeSean for an INT.

When Arizona has the ball
QB Kurt Warner vs. DEs Trent Cole and Darren Howard
This was actually a tough call, because the WR/DB matchups will be solid as well when the Cards have the rock. However, in order for the receivers and the secondary to have a chance to battle it out, Kurt Warner will have to be able to get the ball downfield. Trent Cole and Darren Howard, however, have other plans for the future spokesperson for Depends. The two DEs combined for 19 sacks on the season, and they have a coordinator in Jim Johnson who has a PhD in bringing the pressure on opposing QBs. If Warner can avoid the pressure, it will be a tiring day for the Eagles secondary. If, however, Warner is reminded of that cold Philly day in December 2002 when he was sacked 8 times and picked off twice ... well then I guess the Eagles will be going to Tampa.

The product endorsements will never end ...

Intangibles:

Start Time
So I made a mistake last week. Okay, I made many mistakes last week. However, the one I'm thinking about is when I focused so much attention on Arizona's poor performances on the East Coast. What made it a mistake was that I ignored the fact that all of the Cardinals games out east in the regular season had 1 PM start times, whereas last week's game was in primetime. As one of the Fox commentators noted (sorry, can't remember which one), Kurt Warner has a fairly elaborate and intricate routine on gamedays, which involves studying game film, going over the playbook, time for personal reflection, as well as other components. A 1 PM game on the East Coast translates to a 10 AM game out west, thus compressing the time that Warner has to prepare for kickoff. So, the question for this week becomes: will a 12 Noon kickoff time give Warner enough time to go through his normal routine?

Injuries
Yes, this is a cliché intangible. However, I'm only using it in reference to two players: Anquan Boldin and Brian Westbrook. The extent to which each athlete, and therefore able to perform to the best of his ability, will determine how effective his offense will be. At the same time, both teams have proved themselves capable to win without these star players. But this is no ordinary game, this is the Conference Championship ... and both defensive units will be out for blood. Arizona needs Boldin to play at full strength and Philadelphia needs a solid showing by Westbrook.

Sum Picking Arizona Playoff Games
I have now picked the Cardinals to lose each playoff game, and have been wrong twice. Will the opposite of my prediction occur again? Look down to see what I say ... and you may want to place money on the exact opposite result.

Final Score Prediction:
Philadelphia's defense powers the way to another attempt at the Super Bowl: 27-13.

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