NFL Championship Round Preview
Super Bowl XLIII? Forget that. The best NFL games of the year are usually the Conference Round matchups. Over the past decade, the AFC title game has been called the “real” Super Bowl. But the gulf between the two conferences has closed somewhat, giving us two high-quality games to handicap this Sunday.
Philadelphia at Arizona
University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET, FOX
Philadelphia: 11-6-1 SU, 12-6 ATS, Under 7-10-1
Arizona: 11-7 SU, 11-7 ATS, Over 12-6
The Eagles fly into the NFC title game as one of the hottest teams in the league at 6-1 SU and ATS in their last seven, all coming after QB Donovan McNabb was benched in Week 12 at Baltimore. This is roughly the same path the New York Giants took to Super Bowl XLII; last week, the Eagles (+4) turfed the defending champions 23-11 at Giants Stadium.
Arizona is also on a roll at 3-0 SU and ATS, starting with Week 17’s victory over the Seattle Seahawks and continuing with playoff wins over Atlanta and Carolina. Those three games included heavy doses of running, as Edgerrin James saw significant action for the first time since he was benched in Week 9. This was in many ways a return to form for the Cardinals; they ran the ball heavily in the first two weeks of the season, when they started off 2-0 SU and ATS before getting a little pass-happy with Kurt Warner (96.9 QB rating) at the controls.
Last week’s 33-13 dismantling of the Panthers (-10) also included something we’re not used to seeing from the Cards this year: strong defense. Arizona forced QB Jake Delhomme into five interceptions and one lost fumble, a definite improvement for a Cardinals team ranked No. 23 in the league against the pass during the regular season. However, it should be noted that the Panthers offensive line was worn down and vulnerable after a long season, leaving Delhomme exposed in the worst game of his NFL career.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, ousted the Giants last week despite a pedestrian effort on offense. The New York defense has certainly outperformed Arizona’s over the course of the season; this was the No. 9-ranked unit in terms of efficiency against both the run and the pass. It’s reasonable to expect Arizona to have more trouble than the Giants did containing McNabb now that he has the benefit of playing indoors, sheltered from the swirling winds and freezing cold of New Jersey.
The Eagles are 4-point favorites (-115) on Sunday with a total of 47. Philadelphia is also 2-1 to win the Super Bowl, while Arizona has the longest odds of the remaining foursome at 5-1.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS
50% chance of snow, 20 degrees, light winds
Baltimore: 13-5 SU, 14-4 ATS, Over 9-8-1
Pittsburgh: 13-4 SU, 10-7 ATS, Over 9-8
It’s still winter back on the East Coast. Heinz Field will be a mess, which is fitting football weather for these two defensive juggernauts. These two AFC North teams have already met twice this year; the first game actually went over the posted total of 34.5 in a 23-20 overtime home win for the Steelers (-6), while December’s rematch in Baltimore was a more familiar 13-9 final, with Pittsburgh (+3) once again prevailing thanks to a last-minute touchdown. The total was 34 points.
With the rubber match returning to Heinz Field, the Steelers are back to laying six points (-105) with a total of 34. But the Ravens are even hotter than the Eagles at 7-1 SU and ATS in their last eight – the Pittsburgh loss was the only blemish during that span. The Steelers are 6-1 SU and ATS in their past seven, with the lone defeat coming in Week 16 against the same Titans team that Baltimore eliminated from the playoffs last week.
The Ravens have been statistically superior to Pittsburgh in just about every way this year. They have the better offense and special teams, but the Steelers rank No. 1 in the league in defensive efficiency, with Baltimore right behind at No. 2. Power running could very well be the difference Sunday in the snow; in this aspect, the Ravens are ideally equipped with 260-pound fullback Le’Ron McClain handling the ball in short-yardage situations. Pittsburgh got a surprising 146 yards from Willie Parker last week against the Chargers, but Parker’s forte is speed, and Baltimore has a stronger run defense than the Steel Curtain.
The Ravens are 4-1 to win the Super Bowl compared to 8-5 for the Steelers. And yet it’ll be no surprise if we have an all-Wild Card matchup in the big game. Parity indeed.