EAST RUTHERORD, N.J. - Oh, goody. It’s the “Waaah, Waaah, Waaah, Nobody Believed In Us Bowl…” brought to you by the National Football Conference.
In the green corner, thanks to their 23-11 Divisional Playoff win Sunday over the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, we have the Philadelphia Eagles.
At one point this season, they were 5-5-1. Franchise hood ornament Donovan McNabb had been benched (deservedly) and he and coach Andy Reid were being ridden out of Philly on a very wide rail.
When everyone turned their back on them (including those who picked them to win the Super Bowl, ahem), they went 3-1, took the back stairs into the playoffs with their 9-6-1 record, won a pair of games and are now 60 minutes from a Super Bowl berth.
“Y’all didn’t believe in us!” reminded Eagles rookie wideout DeSean Jackson as he paraded toward the visitor’s locker room at Giants Stadium.
Yeah, right, stupid us. You guys were so formidable in that tie with the Bengals, how’d we ever let our faith waver?
In the red corner, we have the champions of the Triple A NFC West, Arizona Cardinals. This is a 9-7 team that, at one point was 7-3, before banging in disinterested beginning November 23. Arizona allowed 56 points to the Jets in September, and 37, 48, 35 and 47 in games against non-division opponents in November and December.
“Not a lot of people have had very nice things to say about us, or (have) given us much of a chance, and we're working hard to try to earn some respect,” said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt after his team walloped the Panthers 33-13.
And they should be working for respect, given the lay-down efforts a clearly talented team turned in down the stretch. That’s about a month of consumer fraud perpetrated on those who bought tickets to watch the Cardinals listlessly play against teams like the Patriots, Vikings and, yes, the Eagles, who clubbed Arizona 48-20 on Thanksgiving.
Now, ignoring the indignation of these teams, it’s worth noting once again that — in the NFL — it ain’t how long your team is hot, it’s when.
The top-seeded Giants, second-seeded Panthers, third-seeded Falcons and fifth-seeded Vikings are all playing golf while the NFC Championship comes down to the fourth seeded Cards and sixth-seeded Eagles, both of whom had to bottom out before finding themselves in the nick of time.
The Giants got cold at the wrong time, staggering through December with a 1-3 record. Now they find themselves wondering what exactly happened.
“I’m in disbelief right now,” said Giants tight end Kevin Boss. “I thought we were playing well enough to make another run. I know we prepared well for this game. We just didn’t play well offensively.”
No, they didn’t. The Giants blew chance after offensive chance on Sunday. Eli Manning’s first quarter pick thrown to Asante Samuel set up the game’s first touchdown. They went 3 for 13 on third down. They went 0 for 2 on fourth down in the fourth quarter including a puzzling fourth-and-inches quarterback sneak by Eli Manning that got stuffed when Brandon Jacobs, the 265-pound human locomotive, was in the backfield. They missed two field goals, they went 0 for 3 in the red zone and they failed to score a touchdown.
Blame it on Plaxico’s Glock, blame it on the wind, blame it on karma, but the Giants were flatter than a manhole cover and — even though they were the best team in football most of the season — they’ll watch the Super Bowl from their couch just like the top seed in the AFC, the Tennessee Titans.
It took a team that was turning into a punchline less than two months ago to usher New York out of the playoffs.
Eagles owner Jeff Lurie was asked how heavily he doubted his team when they were 5-5-1.
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“It didn’t look good at 5-5-1, but I was so sure we were better than 5-5-1 team,” he said. “What I never doubted was the quality of our coaching and the character of our players. There were a lot of close games we lost and you have to win those. But the fact they could come back from so many heartbreaking losses early in the season is remarkable.”
McNabb, who’s going to his fifth NFC Championship in 10 NFL seasons, is the touchstone for that resilience.
“He’s such a good leader,” said Lurie. “(Success) takes coming back from tough losses. It’s what every team is faced with.”
When asked about the change in his game since being benched against Baltimore, McNabb keeps saying he’s not playing any differently. Then he says he is, at least in terms of attitude.
“(It changed) after the Baltimore game (November 23) believe it or not,” he said. “We talked as a team. After the Cincinnati game (a 13-13 tie on November 16) we realized guys were pressing too much and that included myself. As a team we need to get back to guys flying around, supporting each other. We just fed each week off of that. We’re a much better team when we’re loose.”
It seems that, in order for a team to get loose, it has to play with blinders on, shutting out the negativity it brought upon itself. Some teams rally together when things are going bad. Others splinter.
“We stick together,” said Eagles linebacker Trent Cole. “We didn’t give up, we didn’t get bent out of shape and we kept fighting until something broke.”
What broke was the rest of the NFC. While the Eagles and the Cardinals got themselves fixed. And now these once-broken toys are meeting to see which one gets to the Super Bowl.
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