Arizona Cardinals 32, Philadelphia Eagles 25
The story of this game was Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley out-coaching Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Aside from the third quarter, Haley was one step ahead of Johnson's blitzes all afternoon. Those who know Haley from his days as the receivers coach in Dallas can see that he has a far more authoritative demeanor on the sidelines. He'll be the hottest head coaching candidate on the market this time next year…assuming he doesn't get a new job before then.
Haley's best move on the day was utilizing a two-tight end set late in the contest to help neutralize Philly's blitz. Anquan Boldin wasn't a big fan of it – Fox cameras caught the receiver bickering with the play-caller – but it was wildly successful.
I continue to be shocked – shocked – at how springy Edgerrin James looks.
One Cardinals lineman who has been good for several years but has never received proper recognition is Reggie Wells. His mobility is a big part of Arizona's run-blocking scheme.
Brian Westbrook did not look like his usual self at all Sunday.
We talked about this a few months ago: one of the biggest differences in this Eagles offense down the stretch was Brent Celek replacing L.J. Smith in the lineup.
Maybe this is a cheap shot, but….do you think Andy Reid will one day be remembered not only as the Eagles head coach, but also as the NFC Pro Bowl team head coach?
Donovan McNabb had some accuracy issues in this game, and who knows, maybe it would have been a different outcome had all his passes been on target. But overall, I thought McNabb played well in the postseason, particularly in extending the play when he had to. Keep in mind, Philly's offense had a lethargic rushing attack in the three playoff games, and the front five was, at times, inconsistent in pass protection.
Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie might be the biggest factor in Arizona's stunning turnaround. The first-round rookie is almost a shutdown corner already (he gave up a few catches to DeSean Jackson in this game, though none of them were because of terrible coverage).
Another Cardinal who has really upped his game is Karlos Dansby. Once known for his maddening inconsistency, Dansby is now primed to earn a huge long-term contract this offseason.
Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Baltimore Ravens 14
I want to make one thing clear: I liked this game. That said, I can't remember ever seeing such a boring championship round contest. Thanks to a litany of incompletions and penalties, this game lasted nearly four hours! Good thing CBS wasn't showing 60 Minutes afterwards….otherwise Jim Nantz would have had to start the promos early in the third quarter.
No need to get too complex in the analysis here: the Steelers won because they're the better club. They've beaten the Ravens three times this year. Ben Roethlisberger is more experienced than Joe Flacco. Willie Parker, when healthy, is better than Willis McGahee or Le'Ron McClain. And the Pittsburgh defense was healthier than Baltimore's unit, and therefore, more consistent.
Speaking of Ravens defensive health, it needs to be recognized that this secondary was without three original starters: Chris McAllister (Pro Bowler), Samari Rolle (former Pro Bowler, and now a reliable veteran) and Dawan Landry (rising star). The reason Baltimore held everything together for so long was a.) leadership from Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and company; b.) the brilliance of Rex Ryan and c.) the play of the front three.
Speaking of Ed Reed….he's a great player, but Phil Simms gave him a break Sunday. Reed was terrible in run support, showing a true hesitation to be physical. A lot of people believe he's a hard hitter, simply because most great safeties are hard hitters. But the fact of the matter is, Reed is below average in this department.
Some thoughts on the Steelers….
Why do Pittsburgh fans make the booing sound when Heath Miller catches a pass? The name "Heath" does not have a super natural bass tone to it. The supportive booing cheesr are a grossly overplayed cliché as it is. Stop it, Steeler fans.
Limas Sweed made a play or two in this game, and he may prove to be a fine receiver one day. But the third-round rookie showed some real football character flaws when he laid on the field in embarrassment after dropping what was a surefire touchdown pass. Sweed's unwillingness to get up cost the Steelers a valuable timeout.
They didn't play great Sunday, but the right side of Pittsburgh's line – guard Darnell Stapleton and tackle Willie Colon – both deserve a world of credit for proving doubters wrong all season and correcting so many of their weaknesses.
A story that I hope develops over the next two weeks – and I'm sure it will considering Ken Whisenhunt was the Steelers offensive coordinator last time this team went to the Super Bowl – is that under Bruce Arians, Pittsburgh's offense has truly evolved into a pass-first system. Ben Roethlisberger, and his preternatural ability to extend the play, is the primary reason why.
For more from Andy Benoit, visit www.NFLTouchdown.com