The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens 23-14 on Sunday night to win the AFC Championship and advance to Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 in Tampa Bay, Florida. The Steelers #1 ranked defense was the difference and Troy Polamalu’s interception and subsequent 40-yard return for a touchdown all but out the game out of reach with just under 3 minutes to play.
The Steelers defense harassed Ravens rookie Quarterback Joe Flacco all game long. Flacco, who had led his team to 2 playoff victories to get to the AFC Championship Game, was exposed as a rookie who still has much to learn about how football is played in the NFL. Flacco completed only 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards. He threw 3 interceptions, 2 in the 4th quarter which destroyed all chance of the Ravens pulling off the improbable upset win in Pittsburgh.
Hines Ward summed it up best: “It was a typical, hard-hitting, physical game. It’s the way every Baltimore-Pittsburgh game is. Sometimes guys get hit so hard. you don’t know if they’re going to get up. They say defense wins championships, well, we have the No. 1 defense. And they’re the reason we’re really going to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers have now won 2 out of the last 4 AFC Championship Games. Ben Roethlisberger will get a chance to play in his 2nd Super Bowl in only his 4th year in the NFL. In Sunday’s game, Roethlisberger completed 16 of 33 passes for 255 yards. He connected with Santonio Holmes on a 65 yard touchdown pass minutes into the 2nd quarter to give the Steelers the early 13-0 lead, but most importantly, Roethlisberger did not throw any interceptions. Roethlisberger led the Steelers on efficient drives that also resulted in 3 field goals for kicker Jeff Reed.
Despite trailing early, the Ravens never gave up. Baltimore cut the Steelers lead to 6 points right before the end of the 1st half on a 3-yard touchdown run by Willis McGahee. McGahee’s 2nd touchdown of the game – a 1-yard plunge in the 4th quarter – cut the Steelers lead to 2. The Ravens had their chances later in the 4th quarter, but Flacco’s inopportune interceptions brought an end to the Ravens run.
The Pittsburgh-Arizona Super Bowl match-up is an interesting one. Cardinals Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt was the Steelers Offensive Coordinator when the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2006. After Bill Cowher retired following the 2006-7 NFL season, the Rooney family and the Steelers elected to go outside the organization and hire Mike Tomlin as the Head Coach. Whisenhunt saw this as a snub by the Steelers, and he decided to leave to take the Arizona Cardinals Head Coach position. Fellow long-time Steelers assistant Russ Grimm also left the Steelers and is now Whisenhunt’s top assistant in Arizona. In taking the Steelers to a Super Bowl appearance in just his 2nd year, Tomlin is doing something that Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher couldn’t do for the Steelers organization.
It should be an interesting match-up in 2 weeks in Tampa. The Steelers are currently favored by 6-7 points on most boards, but the Cardinals have been winning despite being the underdog in 2 of their 3 playoff games. Will that streak continue? Only time will tell.
The injury bug could play a major role in this weekend’s NFL Conference Championship Games.
On the positive side:
For the Arizona Cardinals, wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who missed last week’s victory over the Carolina Panthers with an injured hamstring, has been able to practice all week and is expected to play on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Boldin will not be 100%, but he should be able to run his normal pass routes and play a vital role in making the necessary possession catches. His presence will also take some pressure off of Larry Fitzgerald, who was expected to get double or triple coverage if Boldin did not see action.
For the Philadelphia Eagles, Brian Westbrook has been dealing with a knee injury all season long. Westbrook practiced on Friday for the first time all week and is expected to play a full game on Sunday. He will not be limited by the injury and was able to play with the pain last week in the victory over the Giants.
On the negative side:
The Ravens will be hurting on the road at Pittsburgh. Cornerback Samari Rolle is listed as doubtful after he suffered an injury in the Ravens win over the Titans last week. Pro Bowl Linebacker Terrell Suggs is listed as questionable with a sprained right shoulder. He has had the shoulder in a sling or wrapped to his body all week. He did have an MRI during the course of the week and has improved each day, but will likely be a game-time decision. He has never missed a game in his 6 years with the Ravens. Wide Receiver Derrick Mason is also listed as questionable with a knee injury. This has bothered Mason all year and he has not missed any playing time, so he is expected to suit up and be ready to go.
One of the more surprising injuries involves the Ravens’ Safety Ed Reed. He is bothered by a knee injury that limited him in practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Reed is expected to play a full game on Sunday, but you hate to see one of your defensive stars come up with an injury before one of the biggest games of the season. The Ravens will need Reed and his NFL-leading 9 interceptions at the top of his game if they expect to pull of the upset in Pittsburgh on Sunday.
The NFL’s Conference Championship Games are this Sunday. Are you ready to find out who is going to make it to the big game on February 1st? Here are the match-ups:
NFC – Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, January 18th at 3:00 PM EST
AFC – Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, January 18th at 6:30 PM EST
I’m going with the all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl. The Phillies just won the World Series in October 2008, so why not another team from Philly (or Pittsburgh – aren’t all Pennsylvania cities the same anyway?) winning the Super Bowl in February 2009?
Check out the ESPN crew’s picks here. Everyone likes the Steelers at home, but the group is divided in the NFC.
The Steelers won both contests against the Ravens during the regular season. Although both games were close, I’m looking for the Steelers Willie Parker to run wild on a tired Ravens defense and numerous mistakes from the Raven’s rookie QB Joe Flacco who will end up losing the game for Baltimore.
Philadelphia’s defense is just playing too well right now. While Arizona has played well at home and found a resurgent running game with Edgerrin James, I don’t think they have what it takes to put up enough points to win the game. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb and RB Bryan Westbrook each emerged from the Giants Divisional Playoff victory with no significant injuries, and that means the 2 will be ready to go off in Phoenix. Look for a 31-17 victory for the Eagles and a 2nd shot at the NFL title for McNabb.
Good luck – stay warm – and enjoy some exciting NFL action this weekend!
The New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles will face off in the divisional round of the playoffs on Sunday afternoon. It’s a much different feel for the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants in 2008-9. During the 2007-8 playoff run, the Giants needed 3 road playoff wins just to get to the Super Bowl to go up against the undefeated and highly favored New England Patriots. This year, the Giants come in as the #1 seed in the NFC, with a 12-4 record and a 7-1 record at home. The Giants need just 2 home playoff wins to advance to a 2nd consecutive Super Bowl. The only problem – the Eagles are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now.
Ever since Head Coach Andy Reid benched Donovan McNabb at halftime of the Eagles 36-7 loss to the Ravens, the Eagles have won 5 of 6 games, including a 44-6 drubbing of the Dallas Cowboys on the last game of the season to secure a playoff berth and last week’s 26-14 win over the Vikings in Minnesota where the Eagles defense kept the Vikings scoreless in the 2nd half and proved why they have the 3rd best defense in the NFC. The biggest win during that stretch, however, probably came on December 7th – with a 20-14 win over the Giants at the Meadowlands – the Giants only loss at home this year. In that game, the Eagles were able to control the clock (35 minutes to 25 minutes) as Bryant Westbrook rushed 33 times for 131 yards and a score. The question is, will the Eagles be able to do that again. In the first meeting between the 2 teams in Philadelphia, the Giants defeated the Eagles 36-31 in a back and forth game. Westbrook only had 26 yards rushing and the Giants kept McNabb under 200 hundred yards passing, although he did throw 3 touchdown passes.
Although the Giants will be playing without play-making wide receiver Plexico Burress, the team is as healthy as its ever been this season. The Giants three-headed rushing monster will be in full force and affect on Sunday. Brandon Jacobs – ready. Derrick Ward – ready. Ahmad Bradshaw – ready. When those 3 get locked in – look out. And with a cold and blustery forecast, a solid, bruising rushing game in the windy confines of the Meadowlands is always a good recipe for success.
It should be a good game to watch. There is an intense rivalry between the 2 teams. The Eagles know the Giants and the Giants know the Eagles. You have the McNabb-Manning match-up. The Jacobs-Westbrook match-up. And you have 2 great defenses. Get ready for some grind-it-out, in-your-face football at the Meadowlands on Sunday. Enjoy…