Friday, January 16, 2009

Didinger: Eagles Can't Take the Cards Lightly

If you don't know who Ray Didinger is, then get to knowing! He's a hall of fame sports writer, who primarily has written about and covered the Eagles for many years. He's an expert analyst, who breaks down film every week and knows the game as well as anyone. On top of that, he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, as I've met him and had a chance to talk with him a few times.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

By Ray Didinger Contributor

Five things to ponder leading up to Sunday’s NFC Championship game between the Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals:

1. The Cardinals cannot be taken for granted.

It is rather alarming to hear Eagles fans already talking about the trip to Tampa. You would think most of them would make the connection between Tampa and title game overconfidence. Remember January 19, 2003? Remember Buccaneers 27, Eagles 10.

It seemed like there was no way the Eagles could lose that game. Frigid conditions. Final game at the Vet. An opponent the Eagles had already beaten during the regular season. A Duce Staley touchdown on the opening drive. And then… well, you know what happened.

The moral of the story is not to take any opponent lightly in a one-and-done scenario. It is hard to do considering how awful the Cardinals were at the Linc on Thanksgiving night. The Eagles crushed them 48-20 and it could have been worse. They coasted for most of the second half and still finished with 32 first downs (two short of the club record) and 437 yards in total offense.

The Cardinals took some hellacious beatings this season, including a 56-35 loss to the New York Jets and a 47-7 humiliation at the hands of the New England Patriots. They allowed the staggering total of 426 points so they hardly fit the description of a normal post-season team. But the fact is they’re still very much alive and feeding off the scorn of the critics. (Cris Collinsworth called them the worst playoff team in NFL history).

The Cardinals are a dangerous team at the moment. If I were Andy Reid, I wouldn’t even show my players the film of the Thanksgiving game. Instead, I’d keep re-running the tape of the Cardinals last two games: the 30-24 wild card win over Atlanta and Saturday’s 33-13 upset of Carolina. What the players will see is the Cardinals are a different team now.

After the last game, defensive end Antonio Smith said: "We ain’t no pushover. We ain’t going to take it from anybody.”

Are the Eagles listening?

2. How have the Cardinals improved?

Much like Reid, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt has started to run the ball more and brought needed balance to the offense. During the regular season, the Cardinals ranked dead last in the league in rushing. When they lost to the Eagles at the Linc, they ran the ball just 10 times for 25 yards.

In their playoff wins, however, the Cardinals actually outrushed the Falcons and the Panthers, two of the league’s top rushing teams. Against Carolina, the Cardinals ran the ball 43 times for 145 yards. They dusted off Edgerrin James, who hardly played at all in the regular season, and he ran for 73 yards in the win over Atlanta. Rookie Tim Hightower had 76 yards on 17 carries, a 4.5 yard average, against Carolina.

The running game has brought another dimension to the Arizona offense and that’s the play-action pass. Quarterback Kurt Warner threw eight play-action passes against the Panthers and hit all eight of them. That’s what happens when you have the kind of balance – 20 rushes, 19 passes in the first half – that Arizona had in Carolina.

Defensively, the Cardinals are attacking the line of scrimmage and that aggressive approach seems to suit players such as Smith, linebacker Karlos Dansby and tackle Darnell Dockett. The key play in the win over Atlanta was Dockett’s strip of a Matt Ryan handoff which safety Antrel Rolle scooped up and returned for a touchdown.

3. The key to beating the Cardinals is…

Stay cool on offense, bring the heat on defense. The biggest danger for the Eagles is if the offense gets over-anxious or careless. The Arizona defense forced nine turnovers in the wins over Atlanta and Carolina. The Cardinals are 10-0 in games in which they finish on the plus side of the giveaway-takeaway battle.

So while the climate controlled conditions may tempt Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb to chuck the ball all over the lot on Sunday, they need to be smart and patient. They cannot force the ball into tight spots, especially around rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He had four interceptions in the regular season (and returned them for a 32.3 yard average) and two more in the wins over Atlanta and Carolina.

On defense, the key is getting pressure on Warner. The Eagles did a good job when they faced him the last time. They only sacked Warner once, but they were in his face all night and forced him into three interceptions. Warner is a deadly accurate passer, but he cannot move at all. He’s a stationary target in the pocket so Jim Johnson can scheme his blitz packages accordingly.

It might be a little tougher this time around, however. The Cardinals pass protection has improved due in part to the running game. The play-action threat is something the Cardinals didn’t have in the regular season, but that – combined with Warner’s quick release – has kept the quarterback pretty clean (only one sack) in the two playoff wins.

4. Larry Fitzgerald is the best receiver in football.

At 6-3, 220-pounds with the leaping ability of an Olympic high-jumper and the velvet-soft hands of a concert pianist, Fitzgerald is a unique weapon. He’s one of those receivers who is never really covered. Even if you have a defender – or two – in perfect position, Fitzgerald can jump right over them and rip the ball away.

When Anquan Boldin (hamstring) was scratched last week, you would have expected the Panthers to load up their coverage on Fitzgerald – and they tried. However, offensive coordinator Todd Haley did a very nice job of moving Fitzgerald around, putting him in motion and sometimes lining him up in the slot which made it difficult for Carolina to key on him. The result: Fitzgerald had eight catches for 166 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown.

The Eagles pass defense has been very good (third in the NFL this season). The average quarterback rating for their opponents was 72.9 and their completion percentage was 54.1 which means every throw was a struggle. Eli Manning certainly felt that last Sunday. But Fitzgerald is a threat to break a game open on any play. He had two touchdowns on five receptions in the loss on Thanksgiving.

5. This week, the X-factor is…

Boldin’s hamstring. If he is able to play – and play full-speed – the Cardinals have enough firepower to move the ball even against the stout Eagles defense. Boldin had one of his worst games in the loss at the Linc. He had five catches, but he dropped at least three other balls that hit him right in the hands. For Boldin, that’s an aberration.

The 6-1, 217-pound Boldin is a perfect compliment to Fitzgerald, who is a classic down the field receiver. Boldin works the shorter routes and uses his strength and run-after-the-catch ability to turn five-yard passes into 30-yard gains.

Boldin is listed as questionable for Sunday, but it would be a shock if he didn’t play. After suffering through five thankless years of losing, he is not going to miss the chance to play in his first NFC championship game. The question is, how long will his hamstring hold up?

The Cardinals already suffered one loss: tight end Stephen Spach, a former Eagle, whose blocking was a big part of their rejuvenated running game, went down with a knee injury in Carolina and will be sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs.

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