Eagles eye Cinderella playoff run

Published 2:35 am Friday, January 9, 2009

Justin Tuck chuckled when he was asked if the Philadelphia Eagles are this year’s version of the New York Giants, a low-seeded wild-card team that can go all the way.

‘‘The Giants from last year are in that locker room over there,’’ New York’s Pro Bowl defensive end said, nodding toward the large space 100 yards or so down the hall from the room at Giants Stadium where he was talking.

‘‘The team in Philadelphia,’’ Tuck said, ‘‘is the Eagles of this year.’’

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The scene sets a compelling second-round NFL playoff matchup, the third meeting of the season between the defending champions and their NFC East rivals from 90 miles down the New Jersey Turnpike.

As Philadelphia is trying to do this year, New York had to win three road games before upsetting unbeaten New England 17-14 in Arizona in the Super Bowl.

The Eagles and Giants, who will play at 1 p.m. EST on Sunday, split their two games this season with Philadelphia handing New York its only home loss, 20-14 on Dec. 7. It was a game that some of the Eagles think was their best this season, and the Giants consider one of their worst. It came the week after Plaxico Burress, the Giants’ main receiving threat, shot himself accidentally in the leg and was suspended by the team for the rest of the season.

What also makes it compelling is the nature of the NFC East, probably the consistently best division in the NFL for the last 25 years. It has had eight teams in the playoffs the last three seasons and, from 1990-1992, had three teams win Super Bowls: the Giants, Washington and Dallas.

Philadelphia is the only division team without a Super Bowl victory — Dallas has five and New York and Washington three each. But for most of this decade, with Donovan McNabb at quarterback, the Eagles have been consistently good — losing to New England by three points in the 2004 title game, reaching four conference championship games and missing the postseason just twice.

The Eagles (10-6-1) enter having won five of six, including last week’s 26-14 first-round victory in Minnesota. New York, by contrast, finished 1-3 after an 11-1 start, although its only December victory — over second-seeded Carolina — clinched home-field advantage for the playoffs.

In any case, the familiarity makes this a chess match between Reid and Giants coach Tom Coughlin as well as the tacticians: offensive coordinators Kevin Gilbride of the Giants and Marty Mornhinweg of the Eagles and defensive coordinators Jim Johnson of Philadelphia and Steve Spagnuolo of New York, who honed his skills as the Eagles’ linebackers coach for eight years.

But expect something new.

‘‘The guys all know each other and everybody knows each other’s jersey number and all that bit,’’ says Reid, whose team lost 36-31 to New York in Philadelphia on Nov. 9. ‘‘But every game is different and if you come in saying you know the New York Giants, I think you make a huge mistake. … Every game there is a little different and Spags will have something different for us and we will have a little something for him and Gilbride and Jim, the whole deal.’’

‘‘There is always that little extra change you put in.’’


The other games are rematches, too: Baltimore at Tennessee to start the weekend late Saturday afternoon followed at night by Arizona at Carolina. After the Eagles and Giants square off Sunday, San Diego will be at Pittsburgh.


Baltimore (12-5) at Tennessee (13-3)

Look for a low-scoring game between teams who emphasize defense and running.

The Titans beat the Ravens 13-10 on Oct. 5 with Kerry Collins engineering a late 80-yard drive for Tennessee’s only touchdown that was sustained by a dubious blow-to- the-head penalty on Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs.

That was the third straight loss for the Ravens, who were 5-11 last season. But Baltimore has won 10 of 12 since as rookie QB Joe Flacco has matured, 260-pound Le’Ron McClain has emerged as a power running back and the defense, led by Ed Reed, has become an offensive force.

Defense? Baltimore had five takeaways last week against a Miami team that tied for the league lead with just 13 giveaways. One of the TDs came on a 64-yard interception return by Reed, who has four scores on defense this season.

‘‘It’s just natural at this point,’’ Reed said. ‘‘You want to score. We talk about it on defense, we do it in practice.’’

Collins has been careful with the ball, too, and it’s one of the reasons he’s starting ahead of Vince Young, the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 2006. He threw just seven interceptions, only three more than he had against the Ravens in the 2001 Super Bowl when he was with the Giants.

It helps that the Titans have run so well. They’re sixth in the league in yards rushing behind the tandem of Chris Johnson, the only rookie to make the Pro Bowl, and LenDale White.

‘‘They’re both really good,’’ Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. ‘‘Each has a unique strength. Everybody wants to talk about how one guy runs outside and one guy runs inside, but when you watch the tape and you find they’re both capable of really carrying the full load of their offense in kind of a similar way.’’

San Diego (9-8) at Pittsburgh (12-4)

Despite the eight losses, the Chargers are legitimate.

They were 4-8 and all but out of it when they started playing like the team that went to the AFC title game last season and was one of the preseason favorites in the conference.

Four straight wins combined with three straight losses by Denver at the end of the season gave them the AFC West title. And then they beat Indianapolis 23-17 in overtime, their fourth victory in their last five meetings with the Colts.

But they’ve always had trouble on the East Coast, including an 11-10 defeat in Pittsburgh in November, the only game with that score in the NFL’s 89 seasons.

‘‘It’s a late game,’’ coach Norv Turner said, a reference to the struggles of West Coast teams in 1 p.m. East Coast starts. ‘‘When I went back and looked at the first Pittsburgh game, we were on the East Coast and there were a lot of good things that we did in that game.’’

San Diego may not have LaDainian Tomlinson, who has a torn tendon in his groin, but it will have Darren Sproles, who had 328 all-purpose yards against the Colts.

The Steelers, on the other hand, will have Ben Roethlisberger, who was carried off with a concussion in the final regular-season game but has been practicing all week. The key may be how well he’s protected by an offensive line that has been Pittsburgh’s weak link all season.

It hasn’t been a good season for Roethlisberger. A year after throwing 32 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, he has had just 17 TDs and 15 INTs. In that wacky win over San Diego, he threw for 308 yards, yet the offense got only three field goals.

‘‘The big thing is we can drive up and down the field, but we have to be able to put the ball in when we get down there,’’ he said.

Arizona (10-7) at Carolina (12-4)

The Cardinals are the only team that wasn’t supposed to be here, 4-7 outside the weak NFC West and 0-5 in the Eastern time zone.

But they upset Atlanta last week because Kurt Warner made fewer mistakes and more big plays than Offensive Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan, and their defense was unusually stout.

The turning point was Darnell Dockett’s disruption of a handoff early in the second half that popped the ball into the hands of Antrel Rolle, who returned it for a touchdown in a 30-24 win.

‘‘Instead of having guys trying to individually make plays, we had a bunch of guys that were focused on playing team defense,’’ coach Ken Whisenhunt said. ‘‘That’s what we’ve talked about.’’

The Cardinals’ offense will have to be at full throttle if Arizona hopes to beat Carolina. Warner, who threw for 381 yards in a 23-17 loss in Charlotte, has the best receiving trio in the NFL: Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Boldin, however, is nursing a hamstring he pulled on a 71-yard touchdown catch last week and will possibly have to play on a slippery field. There’s a 40 percent chance of showers in Charlotte on Saturday.

Carolina took advantage of its bye week to heal up. Starting defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis should be back and so should rookie Jeff Otah, the starting right tackle on offense.