SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Every week, NFL teams compile thick statistical dossiers for their own use and for distribution to the media. There are play-by-play sheets and week-by-week statistics, miscellaneous factoids and an update of each player's season to date. By this point of the season, the books are an inch thick and make for fascinating, although occasionally misleading, reading.
The book distributed by the Cardinals has something that doesn't make sense on just about every other page. The ups-and-downs this team has traveled are amazing. Just trying to figure out what was going on with running back Eggerin James was a two-coffee process. In an eight-game stretch from Nov. 2 - Dec. 21, James carried the ball a total of 11 times. In two games in the playoffs, he has totaled 36 carries. (The talk among those who have followed the team much more closely this season, and know some of its secrets, is that James blew off a Monday team meeting following a seven-carry game at Carolina on Oct. 26, and the coach just benched him, going with Tim Hightower until that proved a temporary solution.)
Anyway, if you study the game sheets from the Cardinals this season, one possible pattern for the NFL Championship game emerges -- and it's one the Eagles like very much. If you believe that defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is going to be able to give fits to Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, it is how things could go.
In the Thanksgiving game against the Cards at the Linc, the Eagles began the game with 21 straight points, thanks in large part to a pair of Warner interceptions. Warner was not sacked in the game, but he was pressured consistently.
An oddity? A combination of short week and long travel, which is the excuse both teams have used to explain the 48-20 final score? OK, but two games later, in Glendale, Ariz., the Vikings took a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. There was a punt return for a touchdown by Minnesota, a Warner interception that led to another and a fumbled reception that brought a third.
That isn't to say the Cards have not turned things around and played well in their two postseason games, but Warner hasn't been sacked yet in the playoffs. He's still thrown one interception in each game.
I thought the Eagles would beat the Vikings and had no feel for the Giants' game (although I picked the Eagles), but I think this game could really be a convincing win for the Eagles. That's based almost solely on how well the defense is playing. I don't think Arizona will be able to score many points and I think they will give some away.
Johnson has an eight-man rotation going on a defensive line right now that is playing at a very high level. Stewart Bradley and Akeem Jordan, when the Eagles go to a nickel package, are doing a great job at linebacker. Johnson said all along he thought the defense would come together and then it would start making plays... getting sacks, forcing fumbles, getting interceptions. That's the way it has happened. It's fun to watch.
In the paper on Sunday, I picked the game 34-13 and that's really the way I feel about it. Nothing a writer or a fan -- or even a player -- says matters, but if you study the books, this is a mismatch.
I do not approve of gambling, but if I did, I would lay the points. The spread has been inching upward, fluctuating from 3 to 4 points during the week. I also do no approve of gambling on the over-under, either, but the number in this game, 47 or 48, depending where you are, is tempting. The score I picked is right on 47, but the under is still tempting. As the Eagles' defense has improved, the under has been the play in six of their last seven road games. (Of course, with Arizona, the over has been the number in four of the last five. No kidding. The Cards have allowed an average of 28 per game over that span.)
With some trepidation, if I did approve of gambling, I would lay the points in the other game, too. It really is time for Joe Flacco to have a rookie game and the Steelers are just the team to force that out of him. Would love to see John Harbaugh get the win, but like the Cardinals, I think the Ravens are a little overmatched. The over/under of 34 in that game, I wouldn't even begin to touch. If I even approved.