Philadelphia (-3) over ARIZONA: I’ve resisted backing Philadelphia, but not this week. The Eagles are hot and have essentially won three playoff games in a row if you count the regular-season finale against Dallas, which was a winner-take-all contest. What should sway you toward the Eagles is their pass rush, and their ability to defend the pass in general. They’ve harassed Tony Romo, Tarvaris Jackson, and Eli Manning into submission, and now it is Kurt Warner’s turn. Warner has been solid during two playoff games, with four touchdowns, two interceptions, and 492 passing yards. But last weekend the Cardinals benefited from one of the most spectacular implosions in NFL history, courtesy of five interceptions and a fumble by Carolina’s Jake Delhomme. Though Donovan McNabb (right) can be wild, I don’t envision him turning it over six times against Arizona’s defense, which finished the season 22nd against the pass and 28th in points allowed (26.6). Philadelphia’s offense hasn’t been explosive in the playoffs, but the Eagles have been exceptional on third down and have moved the ball on two good defenses; they have seven field goals, three offensive touchdowns, and one defensive touchdown (and one of those offensive touchdowns, against the Giants, followed an interception returned to the goal line). What this means is that a) Philly’s kicker, David Akers, has been tremendous, and b) Arizona will have to keep McNabb off the field by running the ball, which it has done with surprising success during the first two rounds. That’s unlikely, though — Philly has allowed just 92.1 rushing yards per game. Laying points on the road during the playoffs is risky, but in this case, necessary.
PITTSBURGH (-6) over Baltimore: It’s probably bad business to bet against the Ravens after watching them cause turnover after turnover during the last two weeks. But no one said handicapping NFL games was “good” business, and I’m going against Baltimore, which is suddenly the darling of football fans everywhere. Yes, the Ravens’ defense is extraordinary, and yes, they are — like Philadelphia — a “hot” team. But I sense something strange in this line, because six is a lot of points in a conference championship game between evenly matched teams. In fact, I can come up with plenty of reasons I don’t like Baltimore to cover, and here are three: 1) Joe Flacco has completed just 20 passes in two playoff games; 2) if Baltimore falls behind, are we really expecting Flacco to lead it back against Pittsburgh’s defense?; 3) if Tennessee’s Chris Johnson had played in the second half against the Ravens last weekend, the Titans would have won and all of this would be meaningless. Baltimore had one big strike against Tennessee, and it was a dandy: a 48-yard touchdown toss from Flacco to Derrick Mason in the first quarter. Baltimore had a difficult time running the ball against Tennessee and will find the sledding just as tough against Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense. Steelers quarterback Ben Roeth-lisberger, though often maligned, can make plays, and certainly did so last weekend against San Diego, often at crucial junctures. He also has a stellar group of pass-catchers, and a healthy Willie Parker (left) to run the ball. Pittsburgh will take care of the football and capitalize on its opportunities, something the last two Raven opponents could not accomplish.
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This week's OT cover
OT beat writersMaureen Mullen brings you Red Sox information and insights.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots.
Scott Souza is all over the Celtics.
Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
Mike McDonald takes a look at the humorous side of Boston sports