At the beginning of the 2008 season, I think anyone would have given the Steelers a shot at making the Super Bowl, with one of the better quarterbacks in the game and one of the best defenses. The Ravens would have had an outside shot, considering they have a new coach and a rookie quarterback. I think the Eagles would have been given a similar chance to the Ravens, considering the inconsistency of the team over the last few years and some of the internal issues they have been deaing with recently. Of the four teams still in it, the Cardinals are the team least likely to have been given much love as a Super Bowl contender at the beginning of the season.
So, here we are, about to enjoy a couple of unexpected, but imminently watchable matchups tomorrow.
Eagles versus Cardinals -- The current line here has Philadelphia by 4. This is actually a reasonably significant line for the Eagles going into Arizona. This line tells me there is a feeling that the Eagles have a tangible advantage over the Cardinals. I'm not so sure. Behind quarterback Donovan McNabb and head coach Andy Reid, Philadelphia has plenty of playoff experience. While this is Ken Whisenhunt's first turn in the playoffs as a head coach, he was Bill Cowher's offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh for three years and helped the Steelers to a win in Super Bowl XL, so he has dealt with playoff pressure, too. McNabb's matchup with Cardinals' QB Kurt Warner should be a good one. The Eagles have all-purpose weapon running back Brian Westbrook, rookie phenom wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and a defense that has found its purpose during the post-season. The Cardinals have one of the best wide receiver tandems in the game in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and running backs Tim Hightower and Edgerrin James have found their game during the post-season. The Cardinals' defense has also played well in the post-season.
The over-under on this game is 47. I have a feeling that total points for the game could end up at 50+, especially if Boldin is able to play. The Eagles' defense will have to be on top of their game to win this one, considering the variety of weapons Warner has at his disposal. Even without Boldin, I think the Cardinals will come out firing and play with a chip on their shoulders again, being underdogs at home. The CBS experts are split, three going with the Cardinals and two plus SPIN going with the Eagles. I'll go against the line and take the Cardinals in this one.
Ravens versus Steelers -- The current line for this one is Pittsburgh by 6. Six points may be a bit generous, considering this could turn into a literal knock-down drag-out sort of game, with two of the best defenses in the game going at each other tooth and nail to get to the Super Bowl. Can the Ravens' unflappable rookie quarterback Joe Flacco stand up against the pressure sure to be brought by the Steelers' stellar defense? Can savvy veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger stand tall in the pocket, avoid throwing mistakes and only scramble when necessary? He could find himself on the move quite a bit against a Ravens' defense that is good from the defensive line to the defensive backfield. Pittsburgh's offensive game planners will have to be careful to mix it up to keep the Ravens' defense off balance. Linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed are the keys to the Ravens' defense. Flacco is the mastermind for the offense, and he will have to be on his game to try to get his team enough points to win, but also to avoid mistakes in what is likely to be a defensive struggle of monumental proportions. Wide receivers Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Nate Washington, as well as tight end Heath Miller, will be primary targets for Roethlisberger, but the Steelers must also establish their running game to be able to effectively move the ball, as they did last week against the Chargers with running back Willie Parker. Flacco has wide receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton as his primary targets, and Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee to feed the ball to in the ground game.
This should be a great game. The over-under is at 34, which is a good number. If the total is over, it won't be by much. The Steelers at home by 6 represents a tangible advantage. However, three of six CBS experts and SPIN are picking the Ravens. Both teams will be trying to play the same kind of game -- ball control, no turnovers, and just enough points to win. I think this game will be won by the team that makes the least mistakes and which forces mistakes by the other team. Who will do it? I'll take the Steelers.
Good luck to each of these teams and their fan bases. Whichever teams win, we should be in for an exciting Super Bowl matchup.