A game for the Birds – The Pundit projects an Eagles win in his NFC Championship Preview

While pondering how the Eagles vs. Cardinals game will go down, I hit a few bumps on the objective road I attempt to navigate. (Editor’s note: Oh, right, Objective Road…that intersects with Corny Cliche Lane, right?) Number one: I really want the Eagles to win. Number two: I really can’t imagine the Cardinals making the Super Bowl. I mean, I can’t fathom it. It’s this odd combination of their regular season, and the, ahem, shoddy past of the organization.

Try as I might, I just can’t foresee the Eagles losing. Which is probably not a good thing.

By the way, has this felt like the longest friggin’ week ever to anyone else? The Giants game seems like a lifetime ago. I think it’s because all I can really think about right now is football, and much of the city seems to have the same mindset. To any aspiring criminals out there – I suggest planning heists for Sunday, say between three and seven. Should go down without a hitch.

But don’t wear red. ‘Cuz on Sunday, that’ll get ya beat. The preview after the jump.

Don't even think about it, buddy.

Don't be tryin' to steal anything around here wearing those colors, buddy - Philly ain't havin' none of it this week.

Listen, with an explosive Cardinals offense, it’s tough to tell how this game will go. If the Eagles decide to blitz like madmen and Kurt Warner handles it, the Cards are gonna put some points on the board. If the Eagles manage to get to Warner and hit him early…and often…and hard, they’ll keep the Cardinals in check. I would imagine Jim Johnson will try to bracket Fitzgerald, and probably stick Asante Samuel to the opposite side. Also, I don’t think he will blitz as unconsciously as some people think; rather, I think that he’ll pick his spots, and draw up well-disguised blitzes that keep Warner on his toes.

Really, the constant threat of the blitz might be as effective against Warner as the blitz itself. Why? Because at some point, if you blitz steadily, he will beat it. He’s still sharp, and he can get the ball out quickly. But if he’s looking for a blitz that isn’t coming, you may get him to hurry throws he doesn’t need to, hopefully tossing the ball into coverage. Than, when you do blitz, you may catch him off guard. That’s the key defensively – keep Warner off-balance. If the Eagles keep him guessing, manage to get pressure on him when they aren’t blitzing, and contain Fitzgerald, I think they keep them under 20 points. (Editor’s note: Oh, is that all?) I’m not too concerned with their running game – I think our front seven will control the line of scrimmage.

Yeah, he's pretty good...

Yeah, he's pretty good...

Now to the offense, where against this Cardinals defense, the name of the game is simple – protect the friggin’ football! Sure, the Cardinals have been stopping the run, but it’s not like the Eagles have had much success running it lately anyway. At this point, the running game is basically there to keep the defense honest and to obtain more managable third-downs.

But do you really think McNabb will turn into Jake Delhomme and throw five picks? Don’t you see him giving the suddenly vaunted Cardinals secondary headaches with his ability to buy more time in the passing game with his legs? If Donovan protects the ball, the Eagles will score points. Simple as that.  I don’t think the Cardinals are going to be able to apply any more pressure than either the Giants or the Vikings did. I don’t envision them blanketing our receivers for a full 60 minutes. Oh, and one other thing:

Westbrook is due.

Take away the 71-yard screen pass, and it’s been tough sledding for Westbrook this offseason: 38 carries for 74 yards, and four catches for 12 yards. Uck. 42 touches for 86 yards, with the exception of the screen? Not what you would call “vintage Westbrook.”

Has he been beat up? Yup. Do teams game plan around him like crazy? Yup. Do you think he uses that as an excuse?

Nah. Not his style.

I don’t care what his injury status is right now. On Sunday, if he’s on the field, he will make plays for this offense. Even if he only makes one or two, they’ll be big. And if the Cards sell out to stop him, I think Donovan will torch them.

DeSean Jackson has to make a few plays, also. As always, they’ll probably need to find creative ways to get him the ball. The Cards will probably keep a few sets of eyes on DeSean, which may free up other guys, but he’s a playmaker. We need a few highlights from Mr. Jackson this week.

All that being said, quarterback play will be the key to this game. Not really a huge surprise given the offensive philosophies of these teams. Still, I don’t think it will be a stat thing – rather, a winning play thing. What’s a winning play? Kurt Warner burning the Eagles on a blitz for a long touchdown throw? A winning play. McNabb buying time with his legs and converting a long third-down with his arm, as in his play to Jason Avant on third-and-twenty against the Giants? A winning play.

Winning plays don’t always show up on the stat sheet, but you know when a guy makes one. Sometimes they’re obvious, like above. Other times, they’re subtle, like a quarterback avoiding a sack by dumping the ball off to a back, or simply throwing it away instead of forcing a throw into coverage. So sometimes, a winning play is taking the play that is not a losing play, i.e. taking the sack, or throwing the interception. The guy who does that for his respective team will get the victory.

But what else will factor into this game? For one thing, the Eagles will have the advantage in special teams, specifically in their return game. I think that will translate into some easy points for the Birds. Also, Brian Dawkins is playing like a man on fire right now – look for him to send an early message to one of the Cardinals receivers and/or backs with a big hit.

Do you think the NFL would fine him if he wore his cape?

Do you think the NFL would fine him if he wore his cape?

Gotta give the Cardinals a slight advantage playing at home, though it’s not like the game is being played at Lambeau or anything. Don’t look for Boldin to fall apart like he did the last time these two teams played, but don’t expect him to be 100 percent, either. Keep an eye on Steve Breaston, though – he could be a big factor for the Cards. Keep that same eye on Jason Avant, Brent Celek and Correll Buckhalter – if they are stepping up and making plays, the Eagles offense will be brutally difficult to stop.

Intangibles? Hey, the Eagles have been here before, many times. The veteran leadership on this team should have them focused and ready to go. Business as usual. For the Cards, they may have the chip on their shoulder, but they also haven’t been here before, with the exception of guys like Warner, Edgerrin James, etc. So you wonder if, deep down, a lot of their guys aren’t just a bit satisfied with their season already. I’ll tell you this – it doesn’t matter if the Eagles were left for dead, and suddenly were given a new lease on football life. Many of these guys have already been to the NFC Championship game – they want that Super Bowl trophy. You can’t tell me that Jon Runyan, Tre Thomas, Westbrook,  Buckhalter, McNabb, Dawkins, Sheldon Brown, and David Akers, amongst others, aren’t hungry.

They want this. We want this. Damn I’m pumped.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for:

Drum roll, please…

Okay, so that was a rhetorical request, really. But thanks...

Okay, so that was a rhetorical request, really. But thanks...

My official prediction: Eagles win, 27-17. McNabb will protect the ball, and the Eagles defense will frustrate and bruise Warner. Fitzgerald will be kept reasonably quiet, though it’s insane to think he won’t make at least one Sportscenter catch. The inability of the Cardinals to run against the Eagles defense will keep them in very obvious and long third-down attempts. The Eagles will remain balanced, running the ball with a bit more of success, but the key to the game will be McNabb making plays with his arm and legs. Special teams will keep the Eagles winning the field position battle, and should translate into some easy points.

Ohhhhh, baby. I can’t wait. Battle of the Birds. We got this one, baby – back to Tampa!

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