Say that again. The Eagles visiting the Cardinals for a spot in the Super Bowl?
Well, believe it, because next Sunday, the long-downtrodden Arizona Cardinals will host Philadelphia in the NFC championship game. A franchise that had one playoff victory in 61 years before this month against a team that barely sneaked into the postseason.
Philadelphia ensured that strange matchup Sunday by eliminating the defending champion New York Giants in the first 23-11 final in NFL history. Arizona did its part with a stunning 33-13 rout at Carolina on Saturday night.
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"I know it is going to be a great atmosphere and it is going to be electric," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "The home-field advantage is huge for us because we don't have to travel."
The Eagles do have to go cross-country, but they are flying high after road playoff wins at Minnesota and the Meadowlands. Remember, Philly needed Tampa Bay and Chicago to lose, then to beat Dallas on the final weekend of the season just to get in, and all that happened.
"In the locker room, there was so much energy in there. We were ready to play early in the week," quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "The city of Philadelphia is buzzing; this team is buzzing."
Pittsburgh and Baltimore are buzzing, too. The Steelers (13-4) were the only home team to win this weekend, beating San Diego 35-24. Seeded second in the AFC, they will play their division archrivals, the Ravens (13-5), who knocked out No. 1 Tennessee 13-10 on Saturday.
"What else would you expect, us and the Ravens," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "It would be big if it was a scrimmage. This is for the AFC championship."
The Eagles are 3-point favorites at the Cardinals, while the Steelers are picked by 5 by the oddsmakers.NFC
The early game next Sunday features a franchise that has made a habit of getting this far in this decade. It will be the fifth NFC title contest in eight years for the Eagles (11-6-1); they went to the Super Bowl only once, though, losing after the 2004 season to New England.
"This team, we have a lot of unity," said high-priced cornerback Asante Samuel, whose early interception led to a touchdown. "We stick together and we know what we have to do to execute. We're playing consistent."
That's exactly how the Eagles performed on Thanksgiving night, when they blitzed the Cardinals 48-20 at Philadelphia. But this game is in University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals (11-7) are 7-2, including a wild-card win over Atlanta.
Experience might not be such an advantage for the Eagles, either. Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner led the St. Louis Rams to the 1999 championship and lost the 2001 NFL title game to New England. Running back Edgerrin James had plenty of postseason work when he was with the Colts.
And Whisenhunt won a Super Bowl as an assistant coach with the Steelers after the 2005 season.
This weekend's results meant that a team with nine wins in the regular season will be in the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1979 season, when the Los Angeles Rams got there, only to lose to the Steelers.AFC
Expect brute force versus brute force when the Ravens and Steelers put their defenses on the field.
Also expect lots of jawing, maybe even some taunting, and all kinds of highlight hits from two teams that despise each other.
Baltimore is on a roll, with two impressive road wins in the postseason: 27-9 at Miami, and then the resilient performance against the Titans in which the Ravens forced three turnovers.
There won't be any nerves on either side, nor any lack of familiarity, naturally. Pittsburgh swept Baltimore during the season, 23-20 in overtime and 13-9. Those games were filled with close calls, clutch plays and immeasurable animosity.
Pittsburgh's offense looked great against San Diego, with a balance of running and passing and clock domination. Then again, the Chargers' defense isn't quite what Baltimore brings.
"It's about playing a physical football game and causing turnovers," said Ravens safety Ed Reed, the only unanimous choice for the All-Pro team. "In crunch time like this, ball security is huge on either side of the ball."