Each team had their own way of getting here - but make no mistake. All of these teams earned their spot. They had their struggles and problems throughout the year, but they proved they belonged as they advanced through the postseason.
Only the Steelers have had the good fortune to have played only one game thus far, having earned a first round bye. This could be seen as an advantage. Or not. The other teams that had earned a first round bye are now preparing to watch the games on TV this weekend, just like I plan to do.
These teams have a few things in common, some of which have been mentioned more than a few times:
There are three bird-themed teams playing this weekend.
The teams with the top three defenses in the NFL are playing this weekend.
And one interesting thing (well, to me, anyway) to note: The Cardinals are kinda Pittsburgh south. Their head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, is a former Steelers offensive coordinator. Their assistant head coach and offensive line coach is Russ Grimm, who held these positions for the Steelers. And their dynamic receiver, Larry Fitzgerald is a product of Pitt.
What does all that mean? Nothing. Just something I felt like noting.
As for the games, I think that my record of picking the playoff games so far tell a lot about which way I am leaning. I was 1-3 in week one with my picks, being right only on the Eagles game. I was 2-2 this weeekend, correctly picking the Eagles and Steelers.
So I think I'll keep with that strategy.
Eagles / Cardinals
The early game matches The Eagles and The Cardinals. Both teams had nine regular season wins and had impressive wins in their second playoff matchups - Philadelphia defeating the defending Super Bowl champ Giants and Arizona defeating the favored (and home team) Carolina Panthers.
So both of these teams are up and running and ready to go. As has been the case often in these playoffs, this game is a rematch. As I'm sure most of you reading this know - the Eagles beat the Cardinals 48-20 on Thanksgiving evening.
I expect an Eagles win again this time, but I don't see it being such a wide margin. In my mind, the Eagles need to pressure Kurt Warner and force the Cardinals to play the game on the run. I think that the Eagles will control the running game, so the Cards need to get their passing game going in order to win. Anquan Boldin is expected to play this weekend, so that means that the Eagles will have an extra deep threat to worry about.
If I was the Cards, I'd run an offense that had a lot of 5 to 7 yard dump passes, with the occasional long pass. This might be able to disrupt the Eagles a little bit, as they will surely be blitzing and this would enable Warner to get rid of the ball more quickly.
For the Eagles, I think it's pretty simple. Do what you did last week - run enough to keep the defense honest and go to your strength. Pass the ball around, in that patented Donovan McNabb style - using all your receivers and finding Brian Westbrook when things get tight. With that defense, if you score 20-24 points, you will more than likely win.
Final Score: Eagles 31, Cardinals 20.
Ravens / Steelers
This is the third time that these two teams are meeting this season. The Steelers won both matchups, and you can bet the Ravens hate hate hate to have to admit that. The Steelers probably love to say this. It's pretty safe to say that these two teams hate each other. It's amazing how a lot of hate can make a game so damn interesting.
I've heard all the moaning from Bart Scott about how Hines Ward is a dirty player. They'll say that he put a cheap shot on the Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers, breaking his jaw and ending his season. See this for your own look. It looks like a totally clean hit to me.
My favorite part of that is the other videos that come up. "Hines Ward Jacks Up Ed Reed!" or "Hines Ward Destroys Bart Scott" - no wonder the Ravens hate him. I'm sure it ticks them off to no end to have an offensive guy who applies crushing hits. Too bad.
When I hear this, I think of Rashard Mendenhall - whose season was ended after a crushing hit from Ravens All-World linebacker Ray Lewis. Then there was all the chatter of bounties from Terrell Suggs. Whether or not any of this is true is immaterial. The Ravens defense means business. But the Steelers boast the NFL's number one defense. So the Ravens have one more thing to stew about. And another distraction.
Then there's all the hand-wringing about Santonio Holmes' game-winning score in the 13-9 Steelers win. The Ravens, especially Lewis, will tell you that it wasn't a touchdown. Well Ray - that pass to Todd Heap...against the Titans...you know, the one that enabled you guys to make it to this game...the one that has been all over the internet because everyone thinks it was a crap missed call...yeah, that one...
So they're even. If Holmes' TD was a bad call, so was the Heap catch. Let's not talk about either of these two plays anymore. Old news.
Last week, the Ravens defense gave up more ground than Napoleon Bonaparte's Louisiana Purchase. The Titans shredded them, gaining 281 passing yards and 116 rushing yards.
By contrast, Pittsburgh gave up 308 passing yards - 41 of them in the early stages of the first quarter and 62 more in garbage time at the end of the fourth quarter. But the eye-opener is the 15 total rushing yards. Darren Sproles went from 105 yards to 15. That's two less than the Steel Curtain gave up in Super Bowl IX.
The Ravens are a defense-first, second and third team. If their offense gives them anything, that is usually enough. Pittsburgh knows this. But the Steelers are bit more balanced than that. Willie Parker scored two touchdowns and gained 146 yards rushing last week, in perhaps his second healthy game of the season. Add Ben Roethlisberger's 17 of 26 passing for 181 yards and a TD, and you've got enough points for a win.
The Steelers struggled to get 20 and 13 points in the first two games. Points will be at a premium again this week. I just think that the Steelers are more likely to score points.
Final Score: Steelers 30, Ravens 17.