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NFL just a great, big guessing game

Nostradamus couldn't have seen this wacky stuff coming

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Al MICHAELS, the longtime play-by-play voice of Monday Night Football, and more recently Sunday Night Football, is fond of summing up the collective wisdom of NFL observers in three simple words: "Nobody knows anything."

 

He doesn't mean it as an insult to the intelligence of the millions of people who listen to his dulcet tones every week. He's simply pointing out that every season is filled with the kind of wacky, who-woulda-thunk-it developments that not even Nostradamus would have been able to foresee.

For example, who could have predicted that the Philadelphia Eagles -- a team that needed the Oakland Raiders to fly across the continent and beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a meaningless game for Oakland -- would find themselves one win away from the Super Bowl?

Oh, you called that one? Then how about the fact that a team with only nine regular-season wins is hosting the NFC Championship game? Yes, the Arizona Cardinals, who lost games by 28, 21 and 40 points in the final five weeks of the season, who had gone 61 years since hosting a playoff game, are one home win away from the Super Bowl.

And if you had all that figured out, there's no way you could have seen the Baltimore Ravens coming. After a 5-11 season, Baltimore brought in a new head coach whose NFL resumé consisted of nine years as a special teams co-ordinator and one year as a defensive backs coach.

Then they drafted a quarterback from the University of Delaware, whose athletic department's biggest claim to fame is having its mascot, a blue hen chicken named YoUDee, inducted into the mascot hall of fame in 2006. Yet here the Ravens are, one win away from the Super Bowl.

The only sign that the Earth still is in fact spinning on its axis and orbiting around the sun can be found in Pittsburgh, where Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has staved off impeachment by changing his last name to Steelerstahl for the week. The Steelers are playing in their seventh AFC Championship game since 1994, and are two wins away from becoming the first franchise to win six Super Bowls: One small dose of sanity in a crazy league.

With that, we offer some things worth watching on Championship Sunday, with the reminder that this is the NFL, where nobody knows anything.


Philadelphia at Arizona (Sunday, 2 p.m.)

The NFC Championship game should be a fascinating cat-and-mouse affair between the high-pressure, blitzing Eagles defence and the savvy Kurt Warner and his Cardinals offence. If the Eagles (11-6-1) send safety Brian Dawkins and others after Warner, it will leave receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in single coverage. The gamble could pay off with sacks, fumbles and interceptions aplenty. Or, it could lead to some big numbers in the box score for the talented pair of wideouts.

In two playoff games, the Cardinals (11-7) have shut down two of the best power-rushing attacks in football. But unlike Atlanta's Michael Turner and Carolina's tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, Philly running back Brian Westbrook is at his best outside the tackles. Westbrook had 110 of the Eagles' 185 rushing yards, and scored four touchdowns, in Philadelphia's 48-20 win over the Cardinals in Week 13.

How can the Cardinals win? Probably by maintaining their newfound commitment to the running game, which will at least keep the Eagles' defence honest, and by continuing to turn every mistake by the opposing offence into a turnover.


Baltimore at Pittsburgh (Sunday, 5:30 p.m.)

Someone should keep an eye on Ray Lewis to make sure his head doesn't explode while getting hyped up for this game, which will rival the Beatles, Elvis and U2 combined in the big-hit department. As if playing in the AFC Championship game isn't motivation enough, the Ravens (13-5) still feel like they were robbed by a bad instant-replay decision in the second regular-season meeting of this nasty rivalry.

Everyone knows that both defences are as good as it gets, so the onus will be on each offence to protect the football and make one or two game-changing plays.

The Steelers (13-4) have a decided edge at quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger, who has led his team to a Super Bowl. Joe Flacco has exceeded all expectations for a rookie quarterback, but he'll need to improve on his first two playoff performances for the Ravens to have a chance.

The difference in the game could be Willie Parker, running behind a rejuvenated Steelers offensive line. If he can duplicate the success Tennessee's Chris Johnson had last week against the Ravens, Pittsburgh will be running all the way to Tampa.

Online picks: 2-2 last week; 53-33 season

avisaper@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2009 C6

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