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Monday, January 19, 2009

Turnovers Key in Arizona, Pittsburgh Wins: Recap of Conference Championship Weekend

The Super Bowl matchup is now set, the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers will battle it out in Tampa Bay in less than two weeks. Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt will have the honor in facing his old team with the Vince Lombardi Trophy on the line (Whisenhunt was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh before taking the Cards' head coaching job two years ago).

How these two teams did it yesterday? Simple, they minimized mistakes and were able to force some turnovers on the other side of the ball. Arizona's veteran QB Kurt Warner will be headed to his third career Super Bowl (1-1) while Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger his second (1-0).

Philadelphia Eagles 25, Arizona Cardinals 32

This game was an offensive explosion, which surprised, once again, countless amounts of NFL fans and "experts" (I don't like using that word, but that's what they are called). Most NFL followers, including me, had doubted whether or not Warner and all-pro WR Larry Fitzgerald would have the connection they had made the previous two weeks. But, Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 152 yards and three TD's (all in the first half) throughout the game as Asante Samuel and Brian Dawkins struggled to stop the Arizona passing attack which went for 267 yards (ARI: 369 total yards).

Philadelphia did more of the same when they had the ball. Despite being down 24-6 at the half, Donovan McNabb got his team together and made a late surge, scoring 19 unanswered points in the third and fourth quarter, taking the lead for the first time after a 62-yard bomb to rookie WR DeSean Jackson. Philly led 25-24 with 10:45 to play after a David Akers failed extra point and a failed 2-point conversion (after the 62-yard pass). McNabb threw for 375 yards and three TD's (Philly gained 454 yards on offense) but his first half INT was a costly mistake.

Arizona was poised to win the game, and on their very next possession, Kurt Warner put together a 14-play, 72 yard drive which took 7:52 away from McNabb and got him out of his groove. The drive was capped with an 8-yard pass from Warner to '08 fantasy stud, Tim Hightower; a TD machine this season. The successful two-point conversion for Arizona made it a seven-point game, 32-25, and the bandwagon jumpers went crazy!

Philadelphia's offense got two more chances to even the score before time ran out, but were unsuccessful. McNabb got a solid start to the drive with a couple of short to medium passes to Jackson, TE Brent Celek and RB Brian Westbrook, but four straight incomplete passes on first and 10 gave the ball back to Arizona with under two minutes remaining. A quick three-and-out on defense put the Eagles in position for a ver deep pass of, lets see, 91 yards. With :09 to play, McNabb's short pass play with a couple laterals failed and Arizona went on to win the game as the time expired.

In just his second season as the head coach, Ken Whisenhunt has taken the Arizona Cardinals to their first-ever Super Bowl. Had it been one year earlier, they would've been playing in their very own stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Either way, Arizona will cherish this moment for a lifetime.

Baltimore Ravens 14, Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Ah, the other BIG game this past weekend. Perhaps the matchup that has received all the attention (east coast bias, huh?). Pittsburgh was favored by six points, but that didn't bother Baltimore any. Number one defense versus the number two defense, that's what this game was all about and the victory could've gone either way.

Pittsburgh got the ball first and was able to drive down the field thanks to a big play from reliable veteran WR Hines Ward, which put the Steelers in field goal range. Jeff Reed's 34-yard field goal capped a 7-play, 55 yard drive and gave Pittsburgh the early 3-0 lead. The key in the very long first quarter was the defense for Pittsburgh. Baltimore's rookie QB Joe Flacco had just two passing yards and Baltimore had just 17 total yards and zero first downs in quarter number one. The Ravens four first quarter possessions; punt, INT, punt, turnover on downs. Pittsburgh; FG, punt,

FG, fumble. BAL 0, PIT 6.

It really wasn't until the end of the first half when Baltimore's offense started producing. A three-play, 66-yard drive, in which just 1:02 elapsed from the game clock was capped by a 65-yard pass from QB Ben Roethlisberger to WR Santonio Holmes. The TD extended Pittsburgh's lead to 13-0 with about 14 minutes to play in the opening half. With just under three to play, Baltimore cut the lead in half with a three-yard TD run for Willis McGahee. Matt Stover's extra point made it a 13-7 ball game.

Poor clock management at the end of the half on Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin's part sent the two teams into the locker room with a close six-point game. With Hines Ward out with a knee injury and Big Ben shaken up after being hit several times after passes, Baltimore stole the momentum just before the half. Fortunately for Baltimore, Pittsburgh failed to put more points up after what should've been an easy, wide open TD catch for 6 foot 4 rookie WR Limas Sweed. Sweed dropped the pass and Pittsburgh failed to get any points from it. Another fine example; what looked to be an easy TD pass to Holmes was ruled incomplete and Pittsburgh settled for a FG. One more thing; Pittsburgh got a gift-call on what was apparently a roughing the punter called on Baltimore. Punter Mitch Berger was awarded the Academy award for his acting and Pittsburgh was given the ball back deep inside Baltimore territory. What does Pittsburgh do? Nothing, not even three points.

Baltimore fails to capitalize on the momentum early in the second half, punting on their first three possessions. Pittsburgh manages three points off another Jeff Reed field goal, this one from 46 yards out. On their other two third quarter possessions Pittsburgh punted, as well. BAL 7, PIT 16 at the end of three.

Early in the fourth, however, Baltimore pulls within two on Willis McGahee's second TD of the day (this one from 1-yard out). After the TD, Flacco just seemed to fold under pressure. Pittsburgh's defense continued to bring the heat and Flacco just collapsed in the pocket. The Ravens' last three possessions looked like this; INT, fumble, INT. In the final six or seven minutes of regulation, Flacco and the offense had seven plays, gaining just 43 yards.

The game was virtually over when Flacco's second--of three total--interception was run back for a 40-yard TD by all-pro SS Troy Polamalu, who was all over the field all game long, like usual.

Despite the spectacular play by the home team, not all was good in the final minutes of play in Pittsburgh. A very big collision between Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark and Baltimore's Willis McGahee sent Clark to the sidelines with wooziness and McGahee off on a stretcher with extreme neck pain (as it was later categorized). McGahee was released from the hospital earlier today, however, after spending the night in a Pittsburgh hospital. He seems to be ok.

Finally, Flacco was picked off once more to end his horrendous night in Pittsburgh. The Steelers held on to advanace to their 7th Super Bowl appearance in the 43-year SB history. Only Dallas (8) has more appearances than Pittsburgh as the Steelers look to capture their NFL-record 6th title against Arizona on February 1st, 2009 in Tampa Bay, Florida.

I can't wait.

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