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Conference Championship Picks

January 17th, 2009

OK, let’s start off with an admission of the obvious: I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about here. I’ve been thoroughly befuddled by this NFL season since at least week one (and probably a good bit before that) and things simply aren’t coming into any clearer focus for me as the playoffs wear on. OK, sure, I went 2-2 both straight up and against the spread last weekend. On the surface, that ain’t bad considering three road teams came out of the weekend with wins, something that never happens in the divisional road. But there’s also the fact that I went into the weekend certain of exactly one thing: that the Carolina Panthers would crush the Arizona Cardinals. And we all know how smashingly well that predication worked out. So the one thing I “knew for sure” was a bust and two thirds of the stuff I outright guessed at worked out. I assume you’ll understand when I tell you I’m not inclined to do my touchdown dance here. (Or I wouldn’t be if I had a touchdown dance.) So how will conference championship weekend come out? I wouldn’t be able to answer that with any degree of certainty if this weren’t the penultimate weekend of play in the most topsy-turvy NFL season to which I have ever been witness. Which it is. So what the hell do I know? I’ll offer my guesses, such as they may be. If you’re smart, you’ll look for the actual outcomes to be precisely the opposite of what I predict. And all of this, of course, is just a long way of saying here’s what not to expect.

Philadelphia (-3.5) at Arizona
You know, on one hand, I have no reason (or OK, very little reason) to anticipate that Donovan McNabb will have as poor a showing in this game as Jake Delhomme had last Saturday night. On the other, I’m acutely aware of the fact that I was here a week ago saying there was no way Delhomme would fare as poorly against Arizona as Matt Ryan had in the wild card round. And my reasoning on the Delhomme thing was solid: He’s a veteran; Ryan’s a rookie. I’ve got nothing like that on which to hang my expectation that McNabb will play better against the Cardinals D than Delhomme did. That said, there are a couple of factors to consider. One is that McNabb is a better quarterback than Delhomme. Maybe much better or maybe only slightly better. But better. The other is that it remains hard to believe that an Arizona defense that ranked 22nd in the league against the pass through the regular season (giving up 221 passing yards a game, 7.2 per attempt and allowing 36 passing TDs while logging just 13 picks) has managed to reinvent itself so dramatically in the post-season (202 yards per game, 5.3 per attempt and three TDs to seven picks). And if, as I suspect, a cardinal can’t change its plumage, then you have to anticipate at the very least that Arizona will at some point revert to form and perhaps that the Cardinals are due for an outright horrible showing that drives a statistical correction. If the Cardinals can’t keep up the pace on pass D, it could be a very good afternoon for McNabb. Of course, if the Cardinals really have changed, it could spell trouble for the Eagles. Brian Westbook was a non-factor in the Meadowlands last weekend. And while you’d have to be a fool not to attribute that at least in part to the Giants defense, there’s also the fact that Westbrook has been playing hurt. There’s no reason to expect he’ll be the deciding factor against a Cardinals D that’s stopped the run about as well as the Giants D, particularly if the Cardinals’ offense is in high gear. Kurt Warner and the gang can put up points on you, and it’s hard to stick with the run when you’re working hard to keep up. So what is one to anticipate? I’m not sure. But I’m guessing the Eagles pass rush puts enough pressure on Warner to force a few mistakes and keep the game within reach for McNabb. And while I’m hardly certain, I’m willing to venture that the Cardinals defense really can’t keep up the pace for a third-straight week. That will give McNabb a chance to win the game and I have to think he’ll pull it off, if late. I’m thinking the Eagles score the go-ahead touchdown on the final meaningful play of the game, winning by a point.

Baltimore (+5.5) at Pittsburgh
If I’m gonna be wrong about just one of this weekend’s games (which is hardly a given; I might easily be wrong about both) I want it to be this one. Because if I’m right about this one and wrong about the other, that would mean a Pittsburgh-Arizona Super Bowl. And that would be me rooting for the Cardinals, which would suck, because a) I don’t want to root for the Cardinals (not that I want to root against them, mind you; it’s just that I have a complete inability to feel passionate about the Cardinals or anything remotely connected to the state of Arizona, which seems to me a rather pointless place, a geographic, sociological and political afterthought that should remain neatly hidden away in the corner of whatever desert it’s neatly hidden away in); and b) the Cardinals aren’t winning that matchup, which means I’d go in to Super Bowl XLIII essentially guaranteed to end up on the losing team’s side of things for the fourth year running, and that would be a class A drag. That’s a long way of saying I don’t foresee any outcome to this game other than a Steelers victory, though I sure hope I’m wrong. You know, under other circumstances, I might point out that the Ravens are a heck of a football team and note that it’s hard to beat a good team three times in a season (Pittsburgh narrowly won both regular season meetings). But the circumstances at hand, the ones that matter, are this: the Ravens are playing for the 18th consecutive weeks (during which time the Steelers have had not one but two bye weeks, one in the regular season and one in the first week of the playoffs); the Ravens are coming off a divisional round game at Tennessee that was absolutely brutal; and the Ravens are dealing with serious injuries to key players. I’ll believe you can win a game under those circumstances when I see it. And while I’d love to see just that, what I expect to see is a hard-fought game that ends in a three-point Pittsburgh victory.

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