What Happened to Carolina? (and Championship Sunday Preview)
Before we jump into championship Sunday let’s set the record straight: Vegas definitely knew something the rest of us didn’t last weekend. About Arizona. And yes, about Carolina.
On a weekend when there were three road underdogs with realistic chances to win outright (that would have been Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Diego…), oddsmakers had Carolina favored by margins unseen since the Patriots-Giants Super Bowl. The Panthers were 10-point favorites, and even more striking, had moneylines ranging up to minus-500 (meaning a bettor had to lay $500 to win $100).
In the encyclopedia of sports wagering those kinds of lines are entrenched in “sure thing” territory.
So what happened? Bettors either parlayed or teased their choice road team (likely the Ravens or Eagles) with Carolina. By halftime in Charlotte they were all royally screwed. And Vegas snickered. Gotcha.
In hindsight, the crux of the matter is that on a weekend rife with varying parlay and teaser potential, Vegas made it impossible for bettors to stay away from the Panthers. Their silent pitch being Go ahead, throw Carolina into that Baltimore/Pittsburgh parlay, it’s just going to pad your winnings if you get through the Ravens-Titans game … or … If you like Philly and Pittsburgh to win outright just tease those Carolina points down and now you have a robust three-teamer, whaddya have to lose?
Between Tennessee’s well-documented lack of discipline on the field and the Giants’ glaring inability to generate offense through the air post-Plax, Vegas was aware that Baltimore and Philly — both six-seeds — were more than capable of bumping the odds-on favorites. So they slyly made Carolina the runaway favorite of the weekend (Pittsburgh had the closest comparable moneyline, at minus-260), and the bettors lapped up the Kool-Aid.
The most obvious question now is how could they have known the Cardinals were going to pull one of the great shockers in playoff history? Here are a few theories, some combination of which undoubtedly fueled the deception.
1. We didn’t look closely enough at the first Arizona-Carolina meeting. Much like the playoff game, Arizona dominated Carolina for two-plus quarters in the earlier meeting. Down 17-3, the Panthers got back in the game midway through the third quarter with a six-play, 80-yard drive that included four runs. The game was tightly contested the rest of the way. The Panthers tied it at 17; the Cardinals retook the lead but ultimately fell 27-23. Kurt Warner (35-49, 381 yards, two touchdowns) had his way with the Carolina secondary while the maligned Arizona run defense held the Panthers to 113 yards on the ground, 40 below their season average. Chris Collinsworth — on “Inside the NFL” — was the only talking head to point this stuff out in the week leading up to the playoff game. Nobody listened.
2. We didn’t take into account the fact that Arizona found itself in a familiar position: with nothing to play for in December. The difference being the Cardinals are historically FINISHED by the beginning of December. How odd it must have been to take the field on meaningless Sundays down the stretch with nothing to play for until, umm the franchise’s FIRST HOME PLAYOFF GAME SINCE 1947! With that said, can you really blame them for a 2-2 finish that included a 40-point blowout loss in blizzardy New England? After that game did Kurt Warner give a tear-jerking speech about how nothing matters until the playoffs? Could the simple explanation be that a talented team in a talentless division simply couldn’t summon the necessary motivation with such a momentous game on the horizon? These questions will haunt me always.
3. We didn’t realize that Carolina’s finish was not as impressive at it seemed. The Panthers went 3-1 in December, starting with the “bandwagon” Monday night game against Tampa Bay. You know, the game they ran all over a 9-3 Bucs team on a national stage, and everyone (including yours truly) hopped on the bandwagon, unaware that Tampa was terrible. That was followed by a 30-10 spanking of a Denver team we found out was in the midst of the worst collapse in league history. After that was the flexed Sunday night showdown with the Giants, a contest in which the Panthers blew an 11-point lead and lost in overtime. In their season finale against the Saints they watched a 23-3 lead evaporate and had to scramble in the final minute to pull out a 33-31 victory that preserved the NFC’s second seed. That’s what you call writing on the wall.
4. The Carolina players sipped the same Kool-Aid Vegas was pushing on the gamblers. We’re 8-0 at home, we’re rested. We’ve always gone to at least the NFC Championship Game every other time we’ve been in the playoffs. We should have beaten the Giants a few weeks ago and are a week away from settling that score. THIS IS OUR YEAR. Hook, line and sinker.
So props to Vegas for pulling the curtain over our eyes, for teaching us another harsh lesson only the NFL playoffs can substantiate. It’s time to file that one away and move on.
Here are the championship picks.
NFC Championship: Philadelphia Eagles (11-6-1) at Arizona Cardinals (11-7)
Since we’ve already dissected and possibly gotten to the root of Arizona’s unlikely rise to the cusp of a Super Bowl berth, this pick is easy, right? I’m afraid not. It’s evident that — other than Collinsworth — nobody sufficiently broke down the tape of the first Arizona-Carolina game, which as we are now aware contained valuable clues that could have foreshadowed things to come.
We would be remiss to do the same with the Eagles, particularly given the 48-20 hurting they put on Arizona in November. The naysayers would indicate that was a wholly different Cardinals team, and they may be right. Just consider that 1) Arizona was a week removed from a valiant effort against the then 10-1 Giants, 2) the Eagles were in total disarray and were accordingly booked as underdogs at home, and 3) the game was played on Thanksgiving night. In other words, both teams entered that game with something to prove.
An argument could be made that the Cardinals were actually peaking going into that contest (they were 5-2 over their last seven, losing only to Carolina and the Giants). The Eagles sprung out to 21-0 lead and never looked back. Donovan McNabb threw for 260 yards and four touchdowns and Brian Westbrook scored four times (twice on the ground).
Westbrook’s health was in question throughout the beginning part of the week leading up to Sunday’s title game, but he practiced Friday and is apparently ready to go. The rematch surely won’t be another blowout, but what happened in the first game can’t be discounted.
Each week there has been a trendy pick that ends up backfiring. It was Atlanta in the wild-card round and San Diego in the divisional round. This month the Cardinals have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that not only did they belong in the playoffs, but they were actually a lot better than their record indicated (as opposed to a lot worse…). The coming together of their defense has been the primary reason they’ve won a pair of games this postseason.
The difference this week is the Cardinals D is about to meet its match in the Eagles, who have been playing Super Bowl worthy defense since December. In a game that figures to feature a decent amount of scoring, the NFC title will come down to the unit that can make a big play to stall the opposing offense’s momentum. The nod goes to Philly in that respect, and with it will come a second NFC championship five years.
Eagles 29 Cardinals 23
AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens (13-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4)
A common misconception is that when divisional rivals square off for a third time in the playoffs, and one squad has taken the first two, it’s nearly impossible for the favored team to complete the trifecta. While that rationale was validated with the Giants-Cowboys divisional playoff last year, in fact only seven of 18 teams that dropped both regular season games to an opponent came back to win the third in the postseason.
If Baltimore wants to become the eighth, it will need a greater offensive showing than it submitted last week against Tennessee. Led by Joe Flacco, the Ravens offense was bottled up by the Titans defense, gaining only 211 total yards. Baltimore won the game in the same fashion that every team with no business winning a playoff game prevails: by taking care of the ball, committing fewer penalties and forcing huge turnovers.
The Ravens defense, traditionally stout, did a lot of bending against Kerry Collins, giving up 391 total yards. It made up for it by inducing three Tennessee turnovers in the red zone. The Baltimore D knows that if it allows the Steelers to move the ball like it did the Titans, Pittsburgh will turn those possessions into points.
As for the Baltimore offense, it’s all well and good they have only turned the ball over once in the playoffs. Yet it’s no secret that they struggled to move the football against Miami and Tennessee, the NFL’s 15th and seventh-ranked units. Pittsburgh’s defense is on the next level, tops in the league in total defense, pass defense and points allowed.
When the teams last played in December the Ravens could only muster 202 yards of total offense, and failed to reach the end zone. I expect a similar game this time around. The Steelers will be able to run the ball some, opening up their play action down the field. The Ravens offensive game plan will be similar: stay true to the run in the hopes of catching the Steelers in the wrong blitz package so Flacco has a chance of connecting with Derrick Mason on a deep ball.
Both offenses are known to use trickery, but in three combined games these playoffs we have yet to see a flee-flicker or reverse pass. With the top two defenses in the league set to do battle — and both in love with the blitz — expect some schoolyard plays and a handful of field goals. Just don’t expect the Ravens to replicate their performance from last week. Steelers move onto to XLIII.
Steelers 16 Ravens 12
Last Week: 3-1