Got both games right today, but it was close in both!
Eagles versus Cardinals -- In the first two-thirds of the second half, it looked like the Cardinals would let this one slip away. Arizona built a 24-6 lead in the first half, with three touchdown passes from Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald and a 49-yard field goal from Neil Rackers in the last moments of the second quarter. But, it was apparent the Eagles had made some good adjustments at halftime,coming out to score 19 unanswered points to take the lead 25-24 in the fourth quarter. When it counted most, Warner held it together and drove his team down the field to make the game-winning score, an 8-yard pass to running back Tim Hightower, who did some great running after the catch and twisted and turned his way into the end zone. With the score at 30-25, Arizona went for the 2-point conversion, with Warner throwing a bullet to tight end Ben Patrick to put the score at 32-25, forcing the Eagles to score a touchdown to either tie the game or go ahead with another 2-point conversion. It would stand up as the final score, as the Cardinals’ defense held, taking over on downs. After punting out of bounds and pinning Philadelphia inside their own 10, the Cardinals snuffed out the Eagles’ last play, a desperation attempt at a hook-and-ladder play that ended with a turnover.
Eagles’ QB Donovan McNabb actually outpassed Warner, making 28 of 47 throws for 375 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception. McNabb was put on the deck twice by Arizona pass rushers. He threw to nine different players, with wide receiver Kevin Curtis getting four catches for 122 yards and wide receiver DeSean Jackson catching six for 92 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Brent Celek had a great day, with 10 catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. All-purpose weapon Brian Westbrook wasn’t much of a factor in this game, with 45 rushing yards on 12 carries and two catches for 26 yards. McNabb and running back Correll Buckhalter combined for 52 yards on six carries, giving the Eagles a total of 97 rushing yards. Kicker David Akers made field goals of 45 yards and 33 yards in the first half. Akers was 2 for 3 on the day overall on field goals and also missed an extra point attempt.
Warner had one less interception (0 on the day) and one more touchdown pass, that TD pass representing the difference on the scoreboard. He was 21 of 28 for 279 yards and four touchdowns. He also was put on the deck twice. Warner threw to eight different players and caught a pass himself for four yards. Fitzgerald, the offensive star of the day for Arizona, led the way among those catching passes, with nine catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin had four catches for 34 yards. On the ground, running backs Edgerrin James and Hightower combined for 106 yards on 27 carries. The Cardinals are truly fortunate to have a talent like Larry Fitzgerald playing for them. The guy is a human highlight reel. If Kurt Warner doesn‘t have him to throw to, obviously, Arizona doesn’t even get this far, much less win this game. He is only one piece of the puzzle, pieces which also include Warner, Boldin, James, and Hightower, as well as others on both sides of the ball, but he is a critical piece.
Kudos to the Eagles, who had to scrap their way into the playoffs and were close to making a one-point lead hold up to make their way to the Super Bowl. As for the Cardinals, they have turned an up-and-down regular season into the team’s first trip to compete for the NFL’s ultimate prize, the Lombardi Trophy.
Ravens versus Steelers -- Leading up to this game, anyone who had anything to say about this year’s third meeting between these two teams knew it was going to be brutal. And they were right. Hard hits, nasty blocks, tough words bantered back and forth, some post-play shenanigans. In other words, everything you would expect in any meeting of bitter AFC North rivals. Both teams endured some frightening moments late in the fourth quarter when Steelers' safety Ryan Clark leveled a hard shoulder hit on Ravens' running back Willis McGahee, who had just caught a pass over the middle. McGahee was taken off the field on a cart, and Clark ended up on the sidelines being checked out by Steelers’ trainers. Clark, who had eight tackles on the day, was credited with a forced fumble as McGahee lost the ball when he was hit. Late word was that McGahee is experiencing significant neck pain, but does have feeling and movement in all his extremities.
During the half-time updates, CBS’ injury report was longer than during any game I’ve seen in a while. One of the game’s best blocks was one laid by Steelers’ wide receiver Limas Sweed, who flexed back to make space for tight end Heath Miller on a pass play. Sweed nearly separated Ravens’ cornerback Corey Ivy’s head from his torso. (It reminded me of the block laid by Steelers’ wide receiver Hines Ward on Bengals’ linebacker Keith Rivers on October 19 during the first of two Pittsburgh victories over Cincinnati in the regular season, a block which put Rivers out for the rest of the season with a broken jaw.) Sweed was likely looking to make himself feel a little better after dropping a perfectly-thrown ball from Ben Roethlisberger that would have been a touchdown had Sweed caught it. (Sweed also made a nice play in the third quarter to break up an interception and give Steelers’ kicker Jeff Reed a shot at a 46-yard field goal, which he hit to put Pittsburgh up 16-7). Each team would put another score on the board after Reed's kick, making the final score 23-14.
The team that made the least mistakes was going to win this one, and that team tonight was the Steelers. Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco, who was 13 of 30 for 141 yards, was intercepted three times, one of those returned by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu 40 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Polamalu, who also had three tackles and an assist, again proved to be the final dagger for the Steelers' defense. Flacco, who also was sacked three times, threw to five players, with running back Ray Rice, wide receiver Derrick Mason, and tight end Todd Heap each getting three catches, Rice for 43 yards, Mason for 41 yards, and Heap for 26 yards. The Ravens’ running game wasn't able to get much traction beyond McGahee, who had 60 yards on 20 carries before he was injured, while he accounted for the Ravens’ two touchdowns on carries of 3 yards in the second quarter and 1 yard in the fourth quarter. Four other rushers combined on five carries for 13 yards.
The Ravens defense was in Roethlisberger’s face all night, getting consistent pressure on the Pittsburgh offensive line, hurling blitz after blitz, sacking Roethlisberger four times and putting him on the ground numerous other times. Roethlisberger was 16 of 33 for 255 yards and 1 touchdown, with no interceptions. He threw to eight players, with wide receiver Santonio Holmes getting two catches for 70 yards and the one touchdown scored by Pittsburgh’s offense. Miller had three catches for 62 yards, and Ward had three catches for 55 yards before being lifted from the game with a leg injury. Sweed had two catches for 10 yards. Running back Willie Parker had 24 carries for 47 yards. Three other rushers combined for 5 yards on four carries. Reed had three field goals on efforts of 34 yards and 42 yards in the first quarter and the 46-yarder in the third quarter.
Kudos to the Ravens, who put together a great season behind a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback and who nearly rode one of the league’s premier defenses to another shot at a Super Bowl ring. As for the Steelers, they have two weeks to get ready to go up against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, with a chance to establish the NFL record for Super Bowl victories at six. This will be the second time in the last four seasons the Steelers have made it to the NFL championship, having defeated the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL in 2006.