Ah, Championship Sunday, my second favorite football Sunday of the season. My favorite is Week One. For awhile, I could never decide if I liked Week One or Championship Sunday better. Week One after all is the first week of football games that count after a long, six-month wait. On the flip side, Championship Sunday provides (in my opinion) the last true day of football for the season. I’ve always felt that Super Bowl Sunday felt more like an event than a game, so I’ve always treated Championship Sunday as the last real week of the season. Don’t even get me started on the Pro Bowl.
Then on Sunday, I decided that my favorite football Sunday is that of Week One. I love Championship Sunday, but unless my favorite team (the Rams) are involved, it’s just two games I’m watching with no rooting interest. Week One however, includes a new beginning for the Rams and the rest of the league. It doesn’t get much better than that.
With that said, I was pumped for the conference title games on Sunday. My only hope was that the games would be good, and I won in that respect. And both games went the way I expected as far as game play, although the NFC Championship game didn’t yield the result I expected.
I was pretty sure the Eagles would find a way to win on Sunday. So imagine my surprise when they fell behind 24-6 in the first half. I couldn’t believe how poorly their defense played in that half. As the Cardinals were marching up and down the field in the first half, I started writing this recap in my head, coming up for reasons why the Eagles lost. For starters, they didn’t seem to realize that wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is the Cardinals’ best offensive weapon. He scored not one, not two but three first half touchdowns. Hey Eagles, maybe you want to get some players on him! That was all I kept thinking as Warner and Fitzgerald hooked up for completions time after time. I couldn’t believe this was the same defense I watched swallow up the defending Super Bowl champion Giants just a week ago.
But then, something happened in the second half. A light bulb must have gone off in someone’s head and they thought, “Hey Fitzgerald can’t hurt us if he doesn’t get the ball.” And with that, the Eagles consistently put pressure on Warner and the Cardinals were forced to punt on their next three possessions. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ offense managed to finally get their offense going and somehow took a 25-24 lead with a little more than 10 minutes to play. Everything looked like it was going the Eagles way, they got the lead, the defense hadn’t allowed the Cardinals to get anything going, Philly was headed to Tampa, right?
Not exactly. Football is all about making adjustments, and the Cardinals did just that on their next drive. They recognized that the Eagles’ constant pressure was taking away their big play capability, so they went with shorter, quicker passes and let their receivers pick yards after the catch. As a Rams fan, I was treated to watching Warner serve as the ringmaster of the “Greatest Show on Turf” for a few seasons, and he’s got a very quick release. With that release, the Cards were able to “dink and dunk” their way down the field. The Eagles’ “D,” which had been so good for all of the second half was collapsing at the worst possible time. But they were still nursing a one-point lead and had the Cardinals in a 3rd down and eight yards to go situation at the Eagles eight-yard line. If they could hold them to a field goal, they’d be down just two with a little less than three minutes left. Plenty of time for McNabb to get the Eagles down into field goal range.
Unfortunately, the Eagles were unable to keep Cards’ running back Tim Hightower from taking a short pass from Warner and scampering eight yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Inexcusable. The Eagles can’t allow a touchdown there. Not after the offense worked so hard to get the lead. Despite the time left, I didn’t feel very confident that McNabb would be able to get the team down the field or another touchdown. If all they needed was a field goal, I like their chances, but their attack is so hot and cold, it’s tough to believe they had one more touchdown drive in them. Sure enough, Philly could only get as far as Arizona’s 47 before the drive stalled. An incomplete pass from McNabb to Kevin Curtis sent Arizona to the Super Bowl. And yes, that was pass interference; I’m not sure why it wasn’t called, but the Cardinals deserved to win that game. Despite the fact they almost blew an 18-point halftime lead.
What can one say about Kurt Warner? He looked frustrated and beaten down after the Eagles stopped him and the Cards’ attack for the third straight time in the second half. But on their last drive, he showed why he’s a two-time MVP and a Super Bowl MVP. He coolly led his team on a 14-play 72 yard game-winning drive without throwing an interception. All in a day’s work.
So, the Cards are going to the Super Bowl. Who would have thought it? Certainly not me. Like I said, the game went like I thought it would, there’d be a few lead changes and a good amount of points scored. I just thought the other birds would be the ones flying down to Tampa. Congratulations, Arizona and good luck in the Super Bowl.
A couple of thoughts before we get to the AFC title game if I may:
*Not a banner day for David Akers. After making his two field goals, he sends a kick-off out of bounds and then on the next Eagles touchdown, he misses the extra point! I couldn’t help but wonder if he was shaken up a bit after getting run into after nailing the extra point after the Eagles’ first TD. If he makes that extra point, then the Eagles don’t have to go for two on their third touchdown, and they’re up by three on the Cardinals game-winning drive. Since the Cardinals scored a touchdown, it didn’t really matter, but it’s always interesting to see how things would have played out if Akers had taken care of business.
*I wasn’t crazy about the Cardinals blasting Queen’s “We are the Champions” after the game. Technically, they are the NFC champs, but I feel that song is better served after winning the whole thing. To me, their job is only half finished. But, that’s just me.
As for the AFC Championship game, I expected the opposite of what we saw in the NFC title match; a tight, defense-oriented game where one mistake could make all the difference in the world. And, that’s exactly what we got. Unfortunately, it was the Ravens who made all of the big mistakes.
Heading into Sunday’s game, the Ravens’ defense played extremely well and rookie quarter back Joe Flacco was never forced to do too much. I felt the Steelers were going to win this game, and mainly because I knew they were going to force Flacco to make some plays. The Ravens’ “D” is good, but not invincible and once Pittsburgh was up by two scores (16-7), I felt Baltimore was in big trouble. I’m not sure the Ravens would have gotten on the board again, if they weren’t helped out by that pass interference call that put the ball on the one-yard line. They were in field goal range, but I think that’s a good as it was going to get for the Ravens.
Despite how badly the Ravens’ offense looked, they were still in the game late in fourth quarter, thanks to their defensive efforts. The Ravens were only down by two points with seven minutes to go and a punt return got them decent field position at their own 39. Unfortunately, that’s where the Ravens’ big mistakes happened. An inexcusable unnecessary roughness call, pushed Baltimore all the way back to their own 14-yard line. And this wasn’t a ticky-tack call, the penalty occurred deep in the bench area. I don’t know how anyone can take such a stupid penalty with the Super Bowl on the line.
Anyway, we saw what happened next. Pinned deep in Ravens’ territory and desperate to make a big play, Flacco heave-hoed the ball right into the hands of Polamalu, who the interception for a touchdown, which put the nail in the Ravens’ playoff coffin. Talk about a game going according to plan.
The Ravens have nothing to be ashamed of though. They went for five wins last year to the AFC championship game this year. They have a good, young quarterback who is only going to get better. If their defense holds up, I think they’ll be a playoff contender next season too.
As for the Steelers, what can you say? They’re a complete team and have a great chance to win their second title in four seasons. At first glance, they’re my Super Bowl pick, but we’ll look at that decision in more detail closer to the big game.
Enjoy this upcoming football-less Sunday if you can. I know I’m going to have trouble doing so.
What did you think of the games? Were you surprised by the Cardinals winning? Who do like in the Super Bowl? Feel free to comment below.
Joe Dyton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..