Conference championship game scouts

Do you prefer a couple of passing attacks going after each other or a knockdown, drag-out fight of brute defense? Sunday's conference championship games offer hope for both in different games.

Philadelphia Eagles (11-6-1) at Arizona Cardinals (11-7)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 3:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 1/18/09
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver, Chris Myers)

SERIES


114th meeting. The series is even, 54-54-5, including a split of two postseason games. The Eagles have won five of the last seven meetings, including a 48-20 win over the Cardinals in Week 13 in Philadelphia. Donovan McNabb threw a season-high four touchdown passes in the win. The Eagles intercepted Kurt Warner three times.

KEYS TO THE GAME

The Eagles don't always run the ball well, but their resurgence has coincided with coach Andy Reid's willingness to filter in some running plays even when the ground game isn't producing much. It will all start up front with the Eagles' veteran offensive line trying to cope with a Cardinals front four that has been dominating the trenches in the postseason. QB Donovan McNabb will play a key role and has the experience to alter his counts and prevent Arizona from keying in on the snap. Reid has also become less predictable on the short-yardage situations that haunted the Eagles through most of the regular season.

This is a different Cardinals offense than the one the Eagles held to 260 yards and 12 first downs on Thanksgiving. With RB Edgerrin James forcing defenses to respect the ground game, it has improved pass protection and opened up play-action for QB Kurt Warner. James will be a big factor Sunday because the Eagles have the pass rush to hammer Warner if he is backed into long passing situations. Philadelphia also has a deep group of corners to sick on the Cardinals' receivers. It will be interesting to see how Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson chooses to game plan against WR Larry Fitzgerald, who chewed up Carolina's zone coverage for 150 receiving yards in the first half last Sunday.

KEY INJURIES

Eagles: RB Brian Westbrook (knee) aggravated the injury last Sunday but will play.

Cardinals: WR Anquan Boldin (hamstring) didn't practice much but has vowed to play; with TE Stephen Spach (knee) out, Leonard Pope will start.


FAST FACTS

Eagles CB Asante Samuel is tied with former Patriots teammate S Rodney Harrison in leading active players with seven career postseason interceptions. The all-time record is nine, held by Charlie Watters, Bill Simpson and Ronnie Lott.

The Cardinals are the first 9-7 team to play host to a conference championship game.


INSIDE THE CAMPS

Eagles:

The Eagles' run game hasn't been very effective in the playoffs, as they've averaged just 2.5 yards per carry in their playoff wins over the Vikings and the Giants.

A big part of the problem has been the health of running back Brian Westbrook. He's been playing with a sore knee that has prevented him from practicing during the week for much of the season. In the five games since registering back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against the Arizona Cardinals and the Giants, Westbrook has averaged just 2.8 yards per carry.

"Our running game?" offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "It's not very good right now. We have to get better. There are several different factors that come into play there, and I think we'll get better there."

Mornhinweg acknowledged that Westbrook's health is an issue.

"He's been banged up all year," he said. "He's had very little practice all year. You can go on and on and make a lot of excuses for our running game, but we don't do that. We try to make our corrections and get better and move on quick and get to the next game."

Cardinals:

Turnovers have played a huge role in the Cardinals' postseason performance, and some adjustments on both sides of the ball are part of the reason.

The Cardinals committed two turnovers in their two playoff games, but their opponents have nine, including seven interceptions. There are a couple reasons for the favorable ratio.

On offense, the Cardinals have become more committed to the running game. They managed to gain enough yards on the ground to keep teams honest, and it has opened up the play-action plays.

Because linebackers and the secondary have to respect the run, quarterback Kurt Warner is freezing them with play-action and he has had plenty of time to throw. Less pressure has equated to fewer turnovers.

Defensively, the nine forced turnovers are a result of better play along the front line and a secondary that has learned how to play together.

Defensive ends Antonio Smith and Darnell Dockett have made plays that changed the course of the two playoff games. End Bertrand Berry has sacks in each game, and nose tackle Bryan Robinson has been a force inside.

The emergence of rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has given the team a high-end cover corner, something it has lacked for years. He has interceptions in each of the playoff games, as does nickel corner Ralph Brown.

Brown's plays give coaches the option of keeping Antrel Rolle at free safety instead of dropping him down to cover the slot receiver.


Baltimore Ravens (13-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:30 ET
GAMEDATE: 1/18/09
SURFACE: Grass
TV: CBS (Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf)

SERIES


28th overall meeting — The Ravens trail the regular-season series, 16-10. The Steelers won the only postseason meeting, beating the Ravens 27-10 in the 2001 season. The Ravens lost both meetings with the Steelers this season. Santonio Holmes' controversial touchdown catch with 43 seconds left in the game — it was unclear whether the ball broke the plane of the goal line — won the Week 15 game for Pittsburgh.

KEYS TO THE GAME

On the road, in the cold and with a rookie quarterback under center against the Steelers' top-ranked defense, Baltimore must get its power running game going from the outset. The Ravens averaged 107.5 rushing yards in the two regular-season meetings, which was commendable against a defense that allowed an average of just 80.2 per game. RB Le'Ron McLain is expected to play despite an ankle injury, but Willis McGahee could be called on for increased snaps. What Baltimore cannot afford is to fall behind by more than a score and ask Flacco to lead a comeback. The Steelers' pass rush is too good, although Flacco certainly has the arm to hurt Pittsburgh vertically if given the time.

The Steelers' offense has taken on a different look with RB Willie Parker healthy. That has allowed QB Ben Roethlisberger to work better off play-action, and he took several more downfield shots than normal last Sunday. As dangerous and opportunistic as the Ravens' defense can be, it struggled with Titans speed RB Chris Johnson before he was injured last Saturday. And Baltimore is coming off a very physical game that could lead to backups getting increased snaps in place of OLB Terrell Suggs and CB Samari Rolle, which could force coordinator Rex Ryan to alter his schemes a bit.


KEY INJURIES

Ravens: WR Derrick Mason (left shoulder) will play despite not practicing much the past month; Rolle (groin) and Suggs (shoulder) are likely to be game-time decisions.

Steelers: C Justin Hartwig (knee) will start; SS Troy Polamalu (calf) will play, but was limited in his coverage last Sunday.

FAST FACTS

Flacco is the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two postseason games.

In the previous 18 times a team has won two regular-season meetings and then met again in the playoffs, 11 times the team has completed the three-game sweep.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Ravens:

With his right arm in a sling, linebacker Terrell Suggs said he doesn't know whether he can play in Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh.

"I have never missed a game here," Suggs said Thursday. "So, I definitely don't want to start with the AFC Championship. Come Sunday, we'll see."

After practice, he came off the field without his arm in a sling. During his interview with reporters, he couldn't describe the injury or detail the results of his MRI.

It's uncertain whether Suggs is in tremendous pain or whether this is some ploy to throw off the Steelers.

While Suggs is unsure whether he'll play, his teammates are not.

"You would have to strap him down for him not to play in this game," Ravens free safety Ed Reed said.

Suggs, who was selected to his third Pro Bowl, led the Ravens with 8.0 sacks and finished third on the team with a career-high 102 tackles.

He injured his shoulder in the first half of Saturday's divisional playoff game when tackling quarterback Kerry Collins. After landing on top of Collins, Suggs immediately grabbed toward his right collarbone.

The injury sidelined him for the entire second half.

Suggs said he has been rehabbing the shoulder four to five times a day and it is feeling better. On Wednesday, he seemed to be in discomfort when taking off his shirt, using only his left arm. His right arm just hung to the side.
As for Sunday, Suggs was continually noncommittal.

"I really can't honestly answer the question," he said. "It would be really unfair to tell you guys one thing right now and do another on Sunday."

There is a chance that Suggs would not start and play only in passing situations. Jameel McClain and Edgar Jones could fill in for Suggs as a linebacker in their 3-4 alignment, and Marques Douglas could play defensive end in a 4-3 front.

Suggs will likely wear a harness — like former Ravens pass rusher Peter Boulware did — that would stabilize his shoulder (and help it from slipping out of joint) but also limit his movement.

Suggs seemed skeptical of the harness.

"If they have something that can magically stop me from using my shoulder to tackle somebody ... up until then, I don't know," he said.

Asked to describe the injury, Suggs said he wasn't a doctor. "I messed it up," he said. "They have never seen anything like that."

Asked about the results of his MRI, he said, "I can't remember. I was so distraught when they told me. It's not good. It could be major ligament damage. We just have to wait and see."

Suggs said there is a possibility that he might need surgery after the season. He also mentioned that the injury could worsen if he continues to play.

"It's a big chance that it could get worse especially in this smash-mouth game," said Suggs, who could be a free agent at the end of the season if he isn't franchised again by the Ravens. "We're not playing Indy, we're not playing a finesse team. We're playing a team with the exact identity as us."

Suggs, however, seems more concerned about how this injury could impact his team more than the injury itself.

"If I feel like me being out there will hinder us and that we would be playing with 10 (players), the decision is obvious — I can't go," Suggs said.

In his six seasons with the Ravens, Suggs has built a reputation as being one of the more laid-back players on the team.

He will sometimes sneak into the media room to steal pizza. He is always showing movies on a television screen in his locker, giving out popcorn to teammates at times.

But Suggs was visibly distraught when talking about his injury this week.

"You see his personality and maybe you don't think there is a serious side to him," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "On Sundays, he's all business. In the NFL, durability is just as important as athletic ability. He's got both of those traits."

Suggs acknowledged he would prefer to be talking about cheap shots from Hines Ward and so-called bounties.

"This is game is bigger than all of that nonsense," Suggs said. "This game is that important. It's so important that I would actually consider sitting out to win it."

Steelers:

All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu returned to practice for Pittsburgh Thursday and center Justin Hartwig promised that he will practice Friday and start on Sunday to give the Steelers a relatively clean bill of health for the AFC championship game at Heinz Field.

Polamalu strained a calf muscle in pregame warm-ups last week but played the entire way against San Diego. He missed practice on Wednesday but went full-bore on Thursday.

"He wasn't limited in any way," coach Mike Tomlin said. "He had a pretty good day."

Hartwig mostly watched while in his practice gear Thursday. He injured a knee in the second quarter against San Diego, was outfitted with a brace at halftime and finished the game.

"I know I'll be able to play with my injury," said Hartwig. "I'll be able to go out there and play. I did a fairly decent job in the last game working with what I had. I'm confident that I'll be alright on Sunday."

Hartwig has been a nice upgrade for the Steelers at center after signing as a free agent from Carolina. He's 10 pounds heavier than the Steelers' one-year starter, Sean Mahan, last season and has done a better job against the bigger nose tackles in the league.

"We're being cautious at the end of the week and trying to put him in the best physical shape we can get him in," Tomlin said. "But at the same time be prepared to play. He is a veteran player. We are a few weeks into this thing now. The physical reps he will get tomorrow hopefully will be enough for him."

The Steelers have no experienced center behind Hartwig and would move starting right guard Darnell Stapleton to center if Hartwig could not play or left the game. He's important to the kind of running game the Steelers hope to have against the Ravens, who allowed 72 yards rushing by Tennessee's Chris Johnson in the first half last Sunday before Johnson left for good with an injury.

"Chris Johnson made some people miss and made something out of nothing a couple of times," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "It's encouraging because any time you see anybody gets some yards on the ground against these guys you say, ‘okay, it can be done.' It's tough sledding. They are a great defense. They are tough to run on. We've got to be able to be balanced. Tennessee did a nice job."




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