And then there were four. It’s a cliché, sure, but when you think about the four that we have left, it’s actually quite apt. These teams — the Arizona Cardinals, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers — all faced hurdles that seemed, at times, insurmountable. In fact, with five weeks left in the season, all except for the Steelers looked like they had been stuck with the metaphorical fork — and the Steelers themselves were set to begin a hellish stretch in their schedule.
But when January rolls around, success is measured in hours, not seasons, a detail not missed by those teams who’ve found their way into this weekend’s conference champion games. The two NFC teams — the Eagles and the Cardinals — displayed some impressive offensive fireworks as their strong-armed quarterbacks pushed them through the playoffs. And the AFC rivals (who also happen to be bitter divisional rivals) charged into the post-season fueled by two of the NFL’s most brutal defenses. Each team arrives in mid-January with a few sexy stories to tell, but by and large theirs have been campaigns of hardship and perseverance. So, to prepare for the games ahead this Sunday, we have to appreciate what’s already come — in 100 words or less per team, that is.
The NFC Conference Championship: Philadelphia Eagles vs. Arizona Cardinals in Phoenix, Ariz., 2 p.m. CST (FOX)
Matt Leinart starts the season on the bench and stays there. Kurt Warner’s weekly performances assure teammates that old men can QB. ‘Zona can’t win on the East Coast. Edgerrin James wants out: he’s not seeing time or touches. Edge gets touches, and he quiets down. Kurt Warner attributes victories to God’s hand. Arizona clinches a weak NFC west division, enters playoffs at 9–7. ‘Zona goes to Carolina in the playoffs to prove that now it can win on the East Coast. Warner, again, suggests that the big guy upstairs cares about football, and, of course, the Arizona Cardinals.
T.O. appears prominently in stories about the Eagles — still. Westbrook is sore. Eagles at 5–3. Next game: divisional foe Giants win, barely. Next game, Eagles and atrocious Bengals tie; McNabb confused; Eagles’ plummet begins. Week 12, in a 36–7 loss to the Ravens, McNabb is pulled. He’s not happy. Coach Reid seems unsure of his decision. McNabb is reinstalled behind the center’s posterior. Teammates grow “rally beards” — Kevin Curtis admits this hurts his luck with the ladies. Coach Reid says cheese sauce often gets stuck in his beard. But the beards work. Eagles look good again.
BOLD PREDICTION: Philadelphia 35, Arizona 27
The AFC Conference Championship: Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Pa., 5:30 CST (CBS)
Everyone with a typewriter, a blog or an ESPN blazer predicts Baltimore will end the season behind the Steelers and the Browns. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco + rookie head coach John Harbaugh = rough odds. The Browns are awful and the Ravens are not. A midseason dismantling at the hands of the Giants (30–10) leaves people wondering if the Ravens’ veteran defense still has season-long stamina. Yep, it does. Ed Reed is a freak of nature. Joe Flacco manages games — and seems to say all the right things in press conferences. Titans? No sweat. “We want Pittsburgh.”
Pittsburgh is given what’s called the most difficult schedule in recent memory. Three new starters on the offensive line. Will Big Ben get the protection he needs? Big Ben endures 46 sacks, second highest in the league. Hines Ward gets hit very hard, and pops up smiling. Big Ben goes down; Byron Leftwich steps in. Pittsburgh sweeps the division, beating the Bengals, Browns and Ravens twice each. The defense dominates, tallying numbers that earn it the “All-time best?” question. Big concussion for Big Ben. Can the Steelers beat the Ravens three times in one year? Their answer: yes.
BOLD PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 24, Baltimore 13