Cardinals 32, Eagles 25
It may be easy to dismiss the Cardinals' NFC title as flukey, as a result of Larry Fitzgerald putting the team on his back and carrying them to Tampa. But one mark of a championship-caliber team is the ability to take a body bloweven a potential knock-out shotand come back swinging. Largely thanks (again) to Fitzgerald, who broke Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a postseason and still has a game to play, the Cards built a 24-6 halftime lead. And after giving back 19 straight points to the Eagles and sputtering offensively in the third quarter, the Cards showed some mettle. Arizona answered Philly's go-ahead touchdown with a 14-play, 72-yard drive that took almost eight minutes off the clock and culminated not with Fitzgerald's fourth touchdown of the day but instead with Kurt Warner's fourth TD toss, a screen pass to Tim Hightower for the score. While Warner (21-28-279-4) and Fitz (9-152-3) were clearly heroes, don't underestimate the contributions of the ground game: Edgerrin James banged out 73 yards on 16 carries and Hightower added 33 yards on 11 totesincluding key third- and fourth-down conversions on Arizona's game-winning drive. Perhaps more importantly, the Cards' success running the football early helped sell a Ken Whisenhunt special: a flea-flicker that started as a J.J. Arrington sweep, turned into a throwback to Warner, and ended with Fitzgerald in the end zone 62 yards later.
The Eagles have been here beforeclose to the Super Bowlbut upon reaching the NFC title game they usually seem to find the banana peel. This one looked no different as three early drives inside the Arizona 30 netted just six points thanks to a combination of dropped passes, errant throws, and David Akers' first miss in his last 20 postseason attempts. Philly opened the second half with a bit more zest, building on defensive intensity that forced three-and-outs on Arizona's first two possessions. Donovan McNabb started finding his receivers: Kevin Curtis (4-122) with room to run, Desean Jackson (6-92-1) behind single coverage, and tight end Brent Celek a whole lot10 times for 83 yards and two touchdowns, to be precise. However, just when it seemed as if McNabb had removed the monkey from his back the Cardinals' offense returned from the dead to regain the lead, leaving Philly less than three minutes to rally again. The Eagles' final drives looked a whole lot like their early work, with an end result of a turnover on downs and a fumble on their last-gasp scrum.
Fantasy Impact: Brian Westbrook continued his quiet postseason with just 71 yards from scrimmage on 14 touches. Was he just worn down by a full season of work? If so, will Philly try to retain Correll Buckhalter (33 yards on five touches) in the offseason or start working Lorenzo Booker into the mix? The receiving corps seems to have enough weapons to cover for the ongoing lack of a No. 1 guy, and Celek's postseason suggests L.J. Smith has played his last game in an Eagles uniform. But will they bring McNabb back for another run or is close again no longer good enough? Also notable by his lack of appearance in the above recap is Anquan Boldin, who received more face time for his shouting match with OC Todd Haley than his four catch, 34-yard performance. What was Haley supposed to say, "Yeah, we'll stop throwing it to Larry now just to make you happy"? It's clear from both Fitzgerald's contract and his postseason that Boldin is destined to be a second fiddler in Arizona; maybe those trade demands will grumble a little louder this offseason. With Steve Breaston and Jerhame Urban on the roster it's not as if the Cards will be lost at wide receiver.
Steelers 23, Ravens 14
Pittsburgh didn't run the ball particularly well, amassing just 52 yards on the ground with a long gain of seven yards. Ben Roethlisberger completed less than half his passes. When he hit, however, he hit big: Santonio Holmes' 65-yard touchdown catch-and-run, a 45-yarder to Hines Ward before he left with a knee injury, a 30-yard hook up with tight end Heath Miller, even a key 20-yard dumpoff to Carey Davis. Enough of those big plays put the Steelers in position to make Jeff Reed's three field goals, Holmes' long score and a defensive touchdown from Troy Polamalu stand up.
As good as the Ravens' defense played on the day, Pittsburgh's played even better. Not that the Ravens didn't have a modicum of success. Willis McGahee, the Ravens' back of choice on the day, ground out 60 yards on 20 carries and scored on a pair of short runs set up by pass interference calls. McGahee's day ended a little early when he collided head-on with Steelers safety Ryan Clark and was carted off the field with a neck injury. The Steelers' defense also made Joe Flacco look like a rookie, holding him to just 141 yards on 13-of-30 passing and picking him thriceincluding Troy Polamalu's game-clinching pick six.
Fantasy Impact: Ray Rice was the Ravens' leading receiver with three catches for 43 yards. Depending on McGahee's health and status with the current regime, it wouldn't be at all surprising if Rice was Baltimore's lead back heading into the 2009 season. And if Cam Cameron asks Rice to do what LaDainian Tomlinson and Ronnie Brown did for him in San Diego and Miami, respectively, he could make a very interesting fantasy play. Of course, you'd have to wonder if Le'Ron McClain would steal his goal line looks; then again, McClain touched the ball just once in the AFC title game so maybe the Ravens don't view him as the answer. With Ward injured, rookie Limas Sweed saw extended playing time. He dropped a would-be touchdown but made a nice defensive play on another end zone toss that Frank Walker had lined up as an interception. With Nate Washington (3-21) also contributing, it will be interesting to see how the Steelers' receiving corps shapes up heading into 2009. Holmes is obviously an electric playmaker, and Ward certainly isn't getting any younger.