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Winners getting it done on defence

All the finalists are rock-hard

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Week in and week out, more points are being scored in the NFL than ever before. But that doesn't mean one of the game's oldest clichés -- that offence sells tickets while defence wins championships -- isn't still true. All the proof you need is in three of the four teams still standing.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles ranked first, second and third, respectively, in total defence during the regular season. In points allowed, they were first, third and fourth.

The Arizona Cardinals, the ugly stepchild of this year's final four, ranked 19th in yardage and 28th in scoring, but all they've done in two playoff games is force nine turnovers.

All four defences were directly responsible for punching their teams' tickets to next Sunday's conference championship games.

The Steelers allowed 44 yards of San Diego offence in a 43-minute span, and held Darren Sproles to 15 yards on 11 carries as they steamrolled the Chargers, 35-24.

While protecting a fourth-quarter lead, the Eagles stopped Eli Manning on fourth-and-inches and later stuffed Brandon Jacobs on fourth-and-two, eventually winning 23-11. The Cardinals allowed the Panthers to score an opening-drive touchdown, and then forced five Jake Delhomme interceptions, a Delhomme fumble, a turnover on downs and four punts on Carolina's next 11 drives in a 33-13 runaway.

And the Ravens, despite being nearly doubled in total yardage, forced three key turnovers to edge the top-seeded Titans, 13-10.

Some will say that the defences got some help from opposing quarterbacks -- we're looking at you, Jake and Eli -- but championship defences are born by capitalizing on the other team's mistakes.

The Ravens and Steelers have done that all season. The Eagles have been doing that since American Thanksgiving. The Cardinals decided to start doing that as a New Year's resolution. And whoever does that next week will win a trip to Tampa.

Some random observations from divisional playoff weekend:

"ö When the Eagles travel to Arizona and the Ravens fly to Pittsburgh for Championship Sunday, it will mark a second straight week of regular-season rematches in this post-season.

Philadelphia coach Andy Reid decided to start Donovan McNabb at quarterback against the Cardinals in Week 13, only four days after benching him in Baltimore.

 

The Eagles demolished the Cards, 48-20, haven't looked back, and Reid looks like a bearded genius.

In two bitterly fought divisional matchups, the Steelers have beaten the Ravens by a total of seven points. In Week 4, it was a 23-20 overtime triumph, while in Week 15 it was a controversial replay review that lead to a 13-9 win.

"ö Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker had just the kind of game the Steelers needed from him, carrying 27 times for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Most of Western civilization will be shocked if Parker has anywhere near that yardage total next week against Baltimore, but the Steelers would be smart to make sure that the number of carries is similar. Pittsburgh can also take some cues from what Tennessee was able to do with Chris Johnson, who rushed 11 times for 72 yards before leaving with an ankle injury.

"ö The third quarter of the Pittsburgh-San Diego game was one of the most statistically bizarre periods ever played. Total plays: Pittsburgh 24, San Diego 1. Time of possession: Pittsburgh 14:43, San Diego :17. Total yards: Pittsburgh 122, San Diego 0. And no, this game was not played by two teenagers on an Xbox 360.

"ö Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco deserves all the praise he's been given for getting through his first two playoff games without being sacked or turning the ball over. But eventually he's going to need to do more to win a game for Baltimore. He's completed only 44 per cent of his passes in the playoffs, and that just isn't going to be good enough against a Steelers defence that will make it a priority to take away the Ravens' running game.

"ö In the end, the Giants looked like a team that was missing Plaxico Burress. Sunday's loss was their fourth in their last five games, and the lack of a big-play receiver was glaring in several of those defeats. Detractors will point to last year's Super Bowl run, when Burress caught only seven passes in three of the playoff games (he had 11 catches in the NFC title game) as proof that the Giants can win without him. But the Giants will certainly be looking to upgrade at receiver between now and the start of training camp.

"ö There are playoff surprises, there are playoff shockers, and then there are the Arizona Cardinals. Has a team ever looked so bad in the second half of the season and so good in the playoffs? If the Cardinals pull off yet another upset -- speaking of which, how can a team be a home underdog twice in the same post-season? -- they will have to be considered the most surprising Super Bowl participant ever.

"ö With a handful of head coaching jobs still vacant, general managers must have been scrambling to set up interviews with Fox analyst, and former Cowboys fullback, Daryl "Moose" Johnston when he offered the following advice to the Panthers after the Cardinals had extended their second-quarter lead to 27-7: "You've got to get in at halftime and you've got to make some adjustments."

Divisional playoff awards

Offensive player of the week: Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona. Despite the absence of Anquan Boldin, the other half of the best wide receiver tandem in the league, the Panthers' secondary continuously lost track of Fitzgerald. The 6-foot-3 superstar set the tone early, when he leapt over two defenders for a 41-yard gain. Fitzgerald's 29-yard touchdown catch late in the first half turned the game into a rout, and he finished with 166 of Arizona's 220 yards through the air on eight catches.

Defensive player of the week: Jim Leonhard, SS, Baltimore. Maybe Leonhard was tired of hearing all year about the greatness of his fellow safety, Ed Reed. Whatever the reason, the former Buffalo Bill was in the middle of the two biggest plays of the game in Nashville. His recovery of a LenDale White fumble at the Baltimore 15-yard line and his fumble-inducing hit on Alge Crumpler at the Ravens' 6 took at least six Tennessee points off the board. Leonhard also returned a punt 29 yards to give the Ravens a short field as they drove for a field goal.

Special teams player of the week: Santonio Holmes, WR, Pittsburgh. San Diego punter Mike Scifres held the Colts to six return yards on his six punts in the wild-card round. On his first punt yesterday, a 53-yarder, Holmes brilliantly took it 67 yards for a game-tying touchdown. A honourable mention goes to Ben Roethlisberger, whose left-footed pooch kick on the previous drive -- when it looked like the Steelers might be gambling on fourth-and-8 -- pinned the Chargers inside their own 10-yard line.

avisaper@gmail.com

 

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2009 C1

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