The combatants in tomorrow's conference championship games know each other pretty well. Zapruderizing these four teams won't reveal much we didn't already know. Sometimes, pride and vengeance do more to determine the winner than figuring how to generate a pass rush or control the ball on the ground.
That's why I'm picking an Arizona-Baltimore Super Bowl.
First, the NFC.
For a team that, despite its pummeling of Dallas in the regular season finale, needed help from Chicago and Tampa Bay stumbles just to get into the playoffs, the Eagles are making it pretty difficult to bet against them. For the second time in a month, they strutted into the Meadowlands last Sunday and punked the defending world champions, bullying them around on both sides of the ball. They drank Eli Manning's milkshake and guzzled the potent Giant running game, while Donovan McNabb looked nothing like the guy Andy Reid benched at Baltimore in November.
My big question with Philadelphia is consistency. While the Eagles have looked unstoppable at times (the two visits to New York, the 48-20 spanking of Arizona on Thanksgiving night), they also have a habit of laying rotten eggs on the road (the November tie at Cincinnati, the December loss at Washington). I'm still not sold on their ability to string together enough champion-caliber performances to win the Lombardi Trophy.
I haven't exactly been kind to the Cardinals this year. Face it, they tanked at New England in Week 16 - since they had already clinched the NFC East title, they apparently decided they didn't need to put in an effort on a snowy Foxboro Sunday. Those guys needed to look in a mirror.
Perhaps they did, and decided to start playing like a division champion. The return of Edgerrin James to the starting lineup probably helped, too, giving the running game a little spark to go with a potent passing attack opposing defenses had been able to camp out on. After disposing of Atlanta in the wild card round, the Cardinals overcame their season-long Eastern Time Zone phobia and pounded Carolina (go ahead, say Jake Delhomme gave that game away, but the Cardinal defense squashed that two-headed Panther ground attack, too).
Last Saturday night's performance was that of a team throwing an upraised middle finger at its critics (much like the Giants delivered last season). That kind of attitude goes a long way in the postseason. Therefore...
CARDINALS 24, EAGLES 20.
On to the AFC...
At 6:30 p.m., in Heinz Field, we get gangsta. Bloods vs. Crips. Biggie's posse vs. Tupac's posse. Those flatbed carts will be wearing out paths to the infirmary.
Given that the Steelers and Ravens have played twice this year, with one game decided on an overtime field goal and the other on a controversial fourth-down touchdown pass in the final seconds, there will be blood. And animosity.
Why am I picking the sixth-seeded Ravens to equal the Steelers' memorable 2005 playoff run? Because these teams are pretty even, and the Ravens are too good a team to lose to anybody three times in one year.
Not that I pick against the Steelers easily. Their offense, which hasn't always shown up this season, arrived with a bang against San Diego. Allowing the Chargers one offensive play the whole third quarter...it's hard to imagine a more dominant offensive performance. And the defense still refused to allow an opponent 300 yards, even when the Chargers hit a couple of big plays against the prevent in the fourth quarter,
Not that being outstatisticked bothers the Ravens any. Tennessee had almost twice as much yardage, but when Baltimore needed big hits, they got'em. When they needed first downs in the fourth quarter...got 'em. When they needed mistake-free football from Joe Flacco against a powerful defense...you know the drill.
The University of Miami's current team could use the attitude The U's alums in Baltimore play with. Ray Lewis may be eight years older than he was when he acquired his first world championship ring, but the fire still burns - he's not just a veteran yapping for the cameras. Ed Reed has never seen a pass he didn't think he could pick off. As a team, this defense plays with the intensity and the arrogance of those classic late '70s/early '80s Raiders teams.
Historically, the Steelers have encountered some tough luck when they've hosted the AFC championship game. And they'll face it again tomorrow night, hosting the only NFL team capable of beating them the way they've played down the stretch. If they had even split in the regular season, I'd probably be picking Pittsburgh. But when the pit bull has a chip on its shoulder...
RAVENS 16, STEELERS 13.