NFC Champ Preview

Glendale, AR - The Philadelphia Eagles are no strangers to playing in the NFC championship game. They're making their fifth appearance in eight seasons, but this trip was highly unexpected.

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It's not as surprising as the Arizona Cardinals getting there.

In one of the NFL's most improbable conference title games, the Eagles and the Cardinals look to continue their astonishing postseason runs on Sunday in Glendale, Ariz. as they compete for a spot in the Super Bowl.

Oddsmakers from Online Sportsbook have made the Eagles –4 point spread favorites for Sunday’s game against the Cardinals. Current NFL Public Betting Information shows that 60% of more than 23,538 bets for this game have been placed on the Eagles -4.

Philadelphia (11-6-1) and Arizona (11-7) met on Thanksgiving, but few could have predicted that would be an NFC championship game preview. The teams entered that matchup at Lincoln Financial Field headed in opposite directions.

The Eagles had fallen to 5-5-1 after a 36-7 loss at Baltimore in which five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb got benched for the first time in his career. The Cardinals came into the game 7-3 and were on the verge of clinching their first division title in 33 years.

Arizona never got in the game, though, as Philadelphia jumped to a 21-0 lead en route to a 48-20 victory. McNabb completed 27 of 39 passes for 260 yards and a season-high four touchdowns, and has been carrying the team ever since.

That victory provided a spark for the Eagles, as they won four of their last five regular season games, outscoring opponents by an average of 23.0 points in those wins.

Philadelphia still needed help in Week 17 to make the playoffs, and it has taken full advantage of its opportunity.

The Eagles trounced Dallas 44-6 in their regular-season finale to clinch the No. 6 seed, then beat Minnesota 26-14 in a wild-card game before defeating the New York Giants 23-11 in last Sunday's divisional game.

"We knew we had to go out and get it done," Eagles defensive end Trent Cole said. "We have a lot of confidence. We had some tough times this year, but we were given new hope with the wild card."

While that Thanksgiving win got Philadelphia's season back on track, Arizona's loss led to an awful late-season finish for what is historically one of the league's worst franchises.

The Cardinals dropped four of their last six regular season games. Their only wins in that span came against St. Louis and Seattle - teams which combined for a 6-26 record - and they were outscored by an average of 24.3 points in those losses.

Although it won the weak NFC West and had won only two playoff games in their history prior to this season, the Cardinals have been at their best in this postseason and now become the first No. 4 seed to host a conference championship game.

They had been the only NFC team not to play in one since the 1970 merger before pulling off a win few saw coming. Arizona traveled to Carolina for last Sunday's divisional game as a 10-point underdog, but raced to a 27-7 halftime lead en route to a 33-13 win over the Panthers, the league's only unbeaten team at home in the regular season.

"Not many people had very nice things to say about us and didn't give us a chance," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We believe in ourselves. I like being the underdog, and we're going to continue to be the underdog."

Arizona will be the underdog again, as oddsmakers list the Eagles as 3 1/2-point favorites.

The Cardinals are 7-2 at home this season, including a 30-24 win over Atlanta in the wild-card round, but Philadelphia is not going to be intimidated.

After winning just three road games during the regular season, the Eagles have had no trouble playing away from Philadelphia in the postseason. They've already won at the Metrodome, where the Vikings were 6-2 during the regular season, and at Giants Stadium, where New York was 7-1.

Philadelphia had success at Minnesota and against the Giants thanks to a swarming, suffocating defense.

The Eagles have forced five turnovers and allowed 322 passing yards in the postseason. Philadelphia had the league's third-ranked defense during the regular season (274.3 yards per game), and has allowed just four TDs in the past six games.

"We're going to be close in every game because we aren't going to give up those type of big plays and hopefully that gives the offense confidence to make whatever call they want whenever they want to call it because they trust us not to give up a lot of points," Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins said.

Shutting down Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald may not be as easy.

The Cardinals thrive on big plays behind Kurt Warner and Fitzgerald. They hooked up for a 42-yard touchdown in Arizona's wild-card win and a 29-yard TD last week.

The Eagles, though, did a solid job of slowing down Warner and Fitzgerald in their Thanksgiving meeting. Warner threw for three touchdowns but also had three interceptions, while Fitzgerald was held to five catches for 65 yards, though he did score twice.

Last week, Fitzgerald set a team playoff record with 166 yards receiving even though Warner was missing one of his deep threats in wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

Boldin, nursing a strained left hamstring, returned to practice this week and said he will play Sunday.

While Arizona relies on its high-scoring offense, the Cardinals defense has surprisingly stepped up in the playoffs. Arizona was 19th in total defense during the regular season (331.5 ypg), but has limited its two playoff opponents to an average of 259.5 yards.

The Cardinals held Atlanta's Michael Turner, the No. 2 rusher in the regular season, to 42 yards and Carolina's DeAngelo Williams, the league's No. 3 rusher, to 63 yards. Arizona also intercepted Jake Delhomme five times last week, and has forced nine turnovers in the playoffs.

"We feel like we're a solid defense," Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "We have some guys out here who can make plays. It's just a matter of putting it all together for 60 minutes on Sunday. If we can do that, the sky's the limit."

Arizona had no answer for Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook on Thanksgiving, though, as the versatile running back rushed for 110 yards on 22 carries and scored a career-high four touchdowns - two rushing and two receiving.

Westbrook hasn't been much of a factor on the ground in the playoffs, as he has rushed for just 74 yards on 38 carries. He did come up with a big play in the fourth quarter of the wild-card win, though, scoring a 71-yard touchdown off a screen pass.

NFC Championship Top Betting Trends:
All games in this series since 1992
ARIZONA is 11-11 against the spread versus PHILADELPHIA since 1992
PHILADELPHIA is 13-10 straight up against ARIZONA since 1992
14 of 22 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games over the last 3 seasons
PHILADELPHIA is 1-0 against the spread versus ARIZONA over the last 3 seasons 
PHILADELPHIA is 1-0 straight up against ARIZONA over the last 3 seasons 
1 of 1 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
All games played at ARIZONA since 1992
ARIZONA is 6-5 against the spread versus PHILADELPHIA since 1992
ARIZONA is 7-4 straight up against PHILADELPHIA since 1992
7 of 11 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
NFC Championship Key Player Injuries
[CB] Jack Ikegwuonu IR - Knee - 08/27/08
[OG] Max Jean-Gilles IR - Fibula - 11/28/08
[OG] Shawn Andrews missed last game doubtful - Back - 01/11/09
[OL] Mike McGlynn IR - Hamstring - 01/06/09
[OT] King Dunlap IR - Ankle - 12/26/08
[WR] Greg Lewis missed last game "?" - Foot - 01/11/09
[WR] Jason Avant injured last game "?" Sunday vs. Arizona - Knee - 01/11/09
(!) [WR] Anquan Boldin missed last game "?" - Hamstring - 01/10/09
[LB] Ali Highsmith IR - Knee - 11/03/08
[LB] Clark Haggans IR - Foot - 12/20/08
[TE] Ben Patrick missed last game "?" - Knee - 01/10/09
[TE] Stephen Spach missed last game, "?" - Knee - 01/12/09

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Posted: 1/15/08 12:50AM ET

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