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NFL divisional: A weekend of upsets

The Cardinals to host NFC title game. That is not a misprint. Eagles, Ravens and Steelers round out Final 4. I am so over McNabb and Warner.

By Jim Buzinski
Outsports.com

Who the hell knows who will win the conference title games? Certainly not me, after I went 1-3 in both playoff rounds for a grand 2-6 record picking playoff winners.

NFC
Philadelphia (11-6-1) at Arizona (11-7): Raise your hand if you thought the Cardinals would host the NFC title game. Anyone with their hand raised is lying. The Eagles won by 28 when these teams played Thanksgiving night. This game will be indoors and that helps the Cardinals’ passing game. I see the Eagles’ blitz scheme being confusing enough to force a turnover or two. Eagles 27, Cardinals 20.

AFC
Baltimore (13-5) at Pittsburgh (13-4): The Steelers won both games, by three in overtime and four on a last-second disputed touchdown. That’s how close this matchup is. The Steelers are a little fresher and I still expect Ravens rookie QB Joe Flacco to make a big mistake. Steelers 14, Ravens 10.

Eagles QB Donovan McNabb has been a better player since being benched.
Who knows anything? If Eagles fans and the Philly media had the power, Andy Reid would have been fired and Donovan McNabb cut on Nov. 23, after the Eagles dropped to 5-5-1 following a 36-7 loss to the Ravens. A year ago, Giants fans would have had the heads of Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin following a crushing late-November home loss to the Vikings. We know how the Giants’ saga turned out; will the same hold in Philadelphia? It just shows that we are all pretty clueless when it comes to predicting how a season will end, and are very quick to demand changes even before the season plays itself out.

Blah: I can’t remember an NFC title game that has less appeal to me. I just don’t think these teams are the two best in the conference; they just got hot at the right time. The Cardinals looked like garbage the last half of the regular season, while the Eagles tied the Bengals and McNabb got benched. To now think one of them will be in the Super Bowl is mind boggling.

Normally, the playoffs sort things out properly, even when there are upsets; in the NFC at least, this is not the case. I call this a fluky matchup and that’s why it is so unappealing (I realize Cardinal and Eagle fans will vociferously disagree, so feel free to comment below). The AFC game is much more interesting to me and I can accept the winner as being the best in the conference.

Annoying: The more I see of McNabb, the less appeal he has. He is still whining about being benched back in November. Get over it, dude. It was the smartest move Reid ever made as coach and it totally reignited the team. McNabb is not some deity above reproach; he’s a quarterback who was awful until his coach made a tough but necessary call. It certainly got McNabb’s and the team’s attention. Yet, there was McNabb again this week complaining about the unfairness of it all; zip it.

On the other hand, the Cardinals are quarterbacked by the even more annoying Kurt Warner, who thinks non-believers are going to hell. I hope God is wearing green next week and knocks Warner senseless. A shame both QBs can’t lose, but McNabb doesn’t shove his religion down your throat like Warner, so I will hold my nose and tepidly root for Philly (Now, if Warner gets hurt and playboy Matt Leinart takes over, I’ll be for Arizona).

Weird: This is the first time since the NFL expanded the playoffs in 1990 that both top seeds are out this early. It’s also the first time the top three seeds in the NFC are out this soon. It will also be the first time in a non-strike season since 1979 (the Los Angeles Rams) that a nine-win team in the regular season makes the Super Bowl (either Philly or Arizona).

Don’t score first: All four teams that scored first this weekend lost.

Bye, bye: Three of the four teams that had byes lost. I think it’s a case of the teams in the league being evenly matched and has nothing to do with being rusty from an extra week off. Tennessee, Carolina and New York all scored first, and lost, while Pittsburgh fell behind 7-0 and won; if rust was a factor, the opposite results should have occurred. Any coach or player will still want a bye, but being a wild card team no longer is a major handicap. The NFL playoffs have officially become a crapshoot.

Lousy coaching: The Giants lost the game to the Eagles in a stretch from the middle of the second to the middle of the third periods. They had four drives that reached the Eagles’ 28, 21, 22 and 29-yard lines and resulted in only two field goals.

I was stunned by the awful play calling that occurred on those drives. The best running team in football suddenly got pass-happy with a quarterback, Eli Manning, who was not playing well. The Giants threw eight passes and only ran three times inside the Eagles’ 30 in that period. The worst came when New York had a first-and-5 at the Philly 21 inside two minutes of the first half and threw two incomplete passes and a four-yard dump-off. They had to settle for a field goal. I never understand why coaches get away from what’s been working. It doomed the Giants and allowed Philly to stay close and get its offense in gear in the second half.

By the way, the Giants really missed Plaxico Burress and his ability to draw double coverage. With Plax likely facing jail time, a bigtime wideout will be New York's biggest need heading into next season.

Déjà vu: I watched the Ravens’ 13-10 win over the Titans with a huge Tennessee fan who kept mumbling, “It’s 2000 all over!” He was referring to the 2000 season, the last time the Titans were a No. 1 seed. That year they also played the Ravens and that year they also dominated statistically. But both years ended in excruciating losses to Baltimore (24-10 in 2000 and 13-10 this season). On Saturday, the Titans committed three turnovers inside the Ravens’ 20 and lost star running back Chris Johnson to an ankle injury; he missed the second half.

The Titans gained 180 more yards than the Ravens, which is the third-largest spread for a losing team over a winning team in playoff history. The second-biggest spread was, you guessed it, Titans-Ravens in 2000 (the largest spread was Pittsburgh in its 1994 AFC title game loss to San Diego).

Prescient: I was right about the Titans in Week 9, when the media was slurping them up as the next great thing in the NFL. I wrote this when Tennessee was 8-0:
The 2008 Titans remind me a lot of a team I rooted for in the 1990s – Marty Schottenheimer’s Kansas City Chiefs. Both teams had retread QBs who were efficient but shaky, a solid running and stout defenses and regular season records that were greater than their play on the field. But both teams kicked way too many field goals, which left their opponents in the game and got breaks on turnovers that are dangerous to rely on.

I get a sense that the Titans will mirror the Chiefs in the playoffs – all of sudden, the potential interceptions will not be dropped, the lack of a scoring punch will be fatal and a one-and-done will be the result.


Bad timing: Chargers safety Eric Weddle is one of the hottest players in the league, but he had a ghastly four-minute stretch late in the third and into the fourth period. First, he had a punt go off his head, recovered by the Steelers. Pittsburgh did not score on the drive (they got stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the 1), but they did run off large amounts of precious time. On the next Steelers’ series, Weddle committed pass interference in the end zone, setting up a Steelers touchdown that pretty much iced the game.

Domination: In the third period, the Chargers ran one offensive play and had the ball for 17 seconds; never seen anything like it. They threw one interception and had the punt bounce off Weddle’s head. Why couldn’t they have been so boneheaded a week earlier when they beat my Colts in OT?