Keeping in mind my promise not to make any predictions about the actual outcome of the games, a few thoughts on the upcoming weekend’s NFL games:
I don’t really believe in concepts like lucky T-shirts, or sacred gameday rituals for fans, and I don’t even believe that the cheesesteaks I’ve been making every week since the Cowboys game actually help the Eagles win – I just like cheesesteaks. But, honestly, I couldn’t have been happier to have Bill “0-4 picking the spread last week” Simmons picking against the Eagles in this morning’s column. His logic is fairly flawless – who wants to bet on the road underdog that everyone is betting on? Brian Westbrook has looked pretty limited in the playoffs other than the big play against Minny. Kurt Warner isn’t going to suck as bad as Eli or Tavaris the last two weeks. But still – that pick has me feeling better.
Seems like the Ravens are pretty banged up, with a lot of their defensive players on the ‘questionable’ injury list. Against a fast, hard-hitting Pittsburgh team, that cannot be a good thing.
Here are, to me, the key points of the games:
Which Kurt Warner are we going to see? Back in his heyday with the Rams, one of Warner’s most notable traits was his courage under fire. He would stand in the pocket, willing to take an absolutely vicious hit, if it meant he held the ball long enough for his receiver to break free and the pass to be the right one. When he started getting gunshy, especially during his stint in New York, he was throwing balls early, and poorly, and throwing far too many picks. The last couple weeks, he’s looked pretty good, but he also hasn’t faced a team that gets pressure on the QB quite like Jim Johnson’s D can. When the Eagles blitz, and they will blitz, will Warner be able to stand up to the pressure and hold the ball long enough to let Fitzgerald and Boldin get down the field to make plays?
Speaking of which, what are the Eagles going to do to try and prevent Fitzgerald from killing them like he did Carolina last week. Seems to me that the full box-and-one strategy is in order here – zone defense with Sheldon Brown sticking to him like white on rice. See if Boldin is really healthy, and try to make them beat you on the ground, especially with the D line playing so stoutly against the run the last two weeks.
On the other side, it will be interesting to see if McNabb’s mobility allows him to escape pressure and make better plays than Delhomme did last week. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that he won’t play anywhere near as bad as The Snake did, but there’s a long way there in between ‘better than Jake’ and ‘good’. The Arizona front 4 got good push into the Carolina backfield last week, and Delhomme responded…poorly. Can the Eagles O handle it better?
Along those lines, what will Westbrook give the Eagles? I maintain that he is the single most important offensive weapon in the league, even if he’s not the best player – he is more important to what they do than any other single player on any other O. Just the threat of him helps them slow down opposing pass rushes, and keeps players stacked in the box, which opens up the deep threat. So he has to be on the field, even if it’s mostly as a decoy.
In Pittsburgh, I think the only question about the Pittsburgh O is Willie Parker. He looked great last week, a real return to his form of a couple years ago, when he was displacing The Bus as their #1 guy. Was that a mirage against a San Diego D that really was what their record said they were? Or, instead, is he finally healthy again? If he’s back to 100%, it’s hard to see Baltimore winning that game.
But if they’re going to, Joe Flacco is going to have to make some plays. He’s definitely capable – for a rookie, he’s playing remarkably well so far in the postseason . He makes good plays with his feet, and throws well on the run, important keys to avoiding the blitz pressure of players like James Harrison and Troy Palomalu. The Ravens are not a running team right now, but McGahee is going to have to make enough 3-5 yard rushes to keep them from getting in lots of third-and-8’s.
The weather report for Pittsburgh on Sunday is a high of 28, with an 80% chance of snow and winds around 10 mph, enough to make kicking very tricky in the Ketchup Bottle. This game will almost certainly feature one or two big special teams plays, either a kick runback, or a really bad punt, something along those lines. And I’m going to go all John Madden on you and say that the team that makes the most big plays, and can keep from turning the ball over, will probably win this game.