Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Who Will Advance to the Super Bowl?

This was the play that won last year's Super Bowl.

On Sunday, we will find out which two teams will be playing in this year's Super Bowl.

One thing we know for sure is the survivors of the conference championship games will not be the teams who met in last year's Super Bowl. The New England Patriots did not qualify for the playoffs, and the New York Giants lost to Philadelphia last weekend.

With the frigid, snowy weather the northern portion of the United States has been experiencing, it's only natural for fans to wonder what kind of impact the weather will have on the games.

The weather should not be a problem in Arizona, where the current forecasts call for sunny conditions and temperatures in the mid-70s Sunday afternoon. But the NFL might wish it had reversed its schedule and permitted the Steelers and Ravens to play in the afternoon instead of the evening. Snow is a 50% possibility in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon and evening, but, obviously, it will be warmer during the day (predicted high near 27°) than it will be after the sun goes down (the predicted low for Sunday night is 14°).

NFC Championship
Philadelphia (9-6-1) at Arizona (9-7-0)
3 p.m. (EST), FOX

They say defense wins championships. If that is so, the Eagles may emerge from the showdown with Arizona as the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl.

But first, let's take a brief look at the offenses.

The offensive statistics appear pretty even. However, the Cardinals have a statistical advantage at quarterback. Arizona's Kurt Warner led the NFC in QB rating (96.9) while Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb was 10th in the NFC in that category (86.4). Warner also led the NFC in completion percentage (67.1%) while McNabb was ninth (60.4%).

McNabb managed to finish fourth in the league in passing yards (3,916), although he still trailed Warner (4,583). And Warner accounted for more passing TDs than McNabb did, 30-23. It's worth pointing out, though, that McNabb's longest pass completion (90 yards) exceeded Warner's longest (79).

But, when you think about it, it probably isn't too difficult for Warner to excel when he has receivers like Larry Fitzgerald (NFC's leader in receiving yardage with 1,431, tied for first in receiving TDs with 12, league leader in receptions with 96), Anquan Boldin (ninth in the NFC in receiving yardage with 1,038, third in receiving TDs with 11, second in receptions with 89) and Steve Breaston (11th in the NFC in receiving yardage with 1,006, 12th in receptions with 77) as targets.

As far as interceptions were concerned, the two were fairly even. Warner threw 14, McNabb threw 11.

Sixteen running backs in the NFL ran for at least 1,000 yards this season, but none played for the Cardinals or the Eagles. In fact, no 1,000-yard rusher remains in the playoffs following the elimination last weekend of the Giants, Panthers, Chargers and Titans, all of whom did have running backs who cracked the 1,000-yard barrier. Of the running backs who are still playing, Brian Westbrook of the Eagles came the closest to 1,000, with 936 yards. Arizona's top rusher was Edgerrin James with 514 yards.

Turning our attention to defense, the Eagles may be one of the few teams in the NFL that can travel to Arizona with the confidence to shut down the Cardinals' passing game.

During the regular season, Philadelphia held opposing QBs to a 54.1% completion rate while restricting those signal-callers to a 72.9 passer rating — and the Eagles had to face Eli Manning and Tony Romo twice, not to mention a game against Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.

The Eagles routinely held teams under 200 yards passing, giving up an average of about 182 yards/game. And the Eagles' foes averaged about 18 points per game, while the Cardinals gave up nearly 27 points per game.

Clark Judge of CBS Sports observes that the Eagles are on the brink of a trip to the Super Bowl for the fifth time in eight years and suggests that this time "it's more satisfying," given the obstacles he's had to overcome.

When the Eagles faced the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night, Philadelphia picked off Warner three times en route to a 48-20 victory.

I don't think it will be that high scoring again, but I think the same team will prevail.

My prediction: Philadelphia 21, Arizona 17.

AFC Championship
Baltimore (11-5-0) at Pittsburgh (12-4-0)
6:30 p.m. (EST), CBS

This may seem almost sacrilegious to Pittsburgh fans, but, at the quarterback position, I see almost no daylight between Roethlisberger and Baltimore's first-year phenom from Delaware, Joe Flacco.

Flacco was 10th in the AFC in QB rating (80.3) while Roethlisberger was 12th (80.1). Roethlisberger did outgain Flacco through the air, 3,301 yards to 2,971, and passed for more TDs, 17 to 14.

Flacco's completion percentage was slightly better than Roethlisberger's, 60.0% to 59.9%, and Flacco did a slightly better job of avoiding interceptions, throwing 12 picks to Big Ben's 15.

But Roethlisberger may have more potent weapons for receivers in Hines Ward (seventh in the AFC with 1,043 yards, tied for sixth in TDs with seven, ninth in receptions with 81) and Santonio Holmes (821 receiving yards, tied for 15th in TDs with five). Flacco's top receiver was Derrick Mason (eighth in the AFC in receiving yards with 1,037, tied for 15th in TDs with five, 10th in receptions with 80).

Like their NFC counterparts, the Steelers and Ravens do not bring 1,000-yard rushers into the AFC championship game, but the Ravens' Le'Ron McClain was eighth in the league in rushing with 902 yards and Willis McGahee contributed 671 yards. Pittsburgh's top rusher was Willie Parker with 791 yards and Mewelde Moore chipped in 588.

The Ravens did a slightly better job of scoring than the Steelers did this season, averaging 24.1 points per game to 21.7 points per game, but that edge appears to be offset by Pittsburgh's performance on defense. The Steelers yielded only 13.9 points per game while the Ravens allowed 15.3.

Both quarterbacks may be able to throw the ball efficiently, provided the weather doesn't play a significant role. Baltimore allowed opposing QBs to complete 60.6% of their passes while the Steelers permitted a 63.4% completion rate. And the Ravens picked off 26 passes while the Steelers intercepted 20. Neither team allowed opposing QBs to throw for over 300 yards at any time this season. But the Steelers only permitted 156.9 passing yards per game while the Ravens allowed 179.7.

And both defenses kept opponents from gaining four yards per carry or better. Baltimore gave up 3.6 yards per carry while Pittsburgh allowed 3.3.

Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun says "Bring on the Steelers," but I say, be careful what you wish for. During the regular season, Pittsburgh edged Baltimore in Pittsburgh, 23-20, then won the rematch in Baltimore, 13-9. I think the Steelers will make it a three-game sweep.

My prediction: Pittsburgh 20, Baltimore 14.

No comments: