Schein's Nine: Best matchups to watch Sunday

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Adam Schein

Adam Schein hosts the "Sirius Blitz" on Sirius NFL Radio from 11-3 ET. He also co-hosts "Loudmouths" on Sports Net New York every weeknight at 6 ET. He is a weekly columnist, files weekly video reports and makes NFL picks "video style" for

Welcome to Schein's 9 most important matchups for Championship Sunday. 1. Eagles defensive backs vs. Larry Fitzgerald In theory I should mention the great Anquan Boldin who will play and 1,000-yard speedster Steve Breaston. But let's be honest — it is all about stopping Fitz. Eagles safety Quentin Mikell had to laugh when I asked him on Tuesday how you defend Fitz. Mikell quipped, "I don't know. Put three guys on him?" Maybe. Fitzgerald has been a one-man highlight package in the playoffs. He is defying all logic with his incredible play in traffic. But in theory, the Eagles have the players in the defensive backfield to at least slow him down. Asante Samuel is a play-making star. Sheldon Brown is a shutdown cornerback. Mikell has been great. And Brian Dawkins seems like he's been sipping from the fountain of youth with how the safety is back to his Hall of Fame caliber of play. There is no way you can expect the Eagles to shut down Fitzgerald. But if the Eagles can keep him in front of them or keep him out of the end zone, that will be a matchup win. 2. Donovan McNabb vs. Kurt Warner Both of these veterans ooze moxie and have experience in the big games. Both are red hot. But they present very different challenges to the defenses they are facing. In dealing with Warner, it is all about taking him out of his comfort zone. You know Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is going to blitz. When Warner has time, he's unstoppable.
McNabb, meanwhile, has the knack for running more when it matters the most. And when you talk about McNabb running, we aren't just describing the quarterback taking off for yards. McNabb moves around in the pocket or out of the pocket to keep a play alive, like he did on a 3rd-and-20 conversion to Jason Avant and a 3rd-and-10 strike to Correll Buckhalter on the Eagles go-ahead drive against the Giants.

And while the Cards defense is vastly improved from the Thanksgiving night meeting between the two clubs, it is worth nothing that McNabb, playing in his first game after getting benched, was flawless against Arizona by throwing for four touchdowns. 3. Brian Westbrook vs. the Cardinals defense Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby says the key is gap control and wrapping up on tackles when facing the Eagles' weapon out of the backfield. Westbrook tormented the Cardinals defense on Thanksgiving night.

But Dansby is accurate when he tells us that the Cardinals defense is playing at a different level right now. It shut down Falcons stud back Michael Turner. And just as stunning, Panthers star DeAngelo Williams was a total non-factor last week after the first drive of the game. Linemen Antonio Smith and Darnell Dockett, LB Dansby and safety Adrian Wilson have been great on run defense and must be great for four quarters on Sunday. Remember this when facing Westbrook; even when you've stopped him for three quarters, he has the game-breaking ability to break your back late with one majestic run, like he did against Minnesota. And I am not thinking the injury from the Giants game will slow Westbrook down one bit. 4. Andy Reid vs. Ken Whisenhunt What is really going to be interesting is to see how much both coaches, so reliant on the forward pass during the season, run the ball on Championship Sunday. Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have rediscovered Edgerrin James in the playoffs, and it has worked brilliantly on several levels. James is fresh and is a playoff veteran. The commitment to the run gives Warner balance and makes the team unpredictable. But perhaps more than anything else it gives the offense, and defense, an attitude. Reid could truly care less about a run-to-pass ratio. But with the way the Arizona defense has played in the tournament and with the way Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Antrell Rolle and the defensive backs have turned over Matt Ryan and most especially Jake Delhomme, balance is key. 5. Ben Roethlisberger vs. Ed Reed Reed is a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to turning the opposition over. He has the smarts, athleticism, hands, and the dreaded yards after the interception to drive teams batty. He's the best safety in the game. Yes, that means even better than you-know-who playing for Pittsburgh.

As Steelers tackle Willie Colon told us on Thursday, "Reed is the first player on this team filled with stars you have to be aware of at all times." Thus, Big Ben needs to be cognizant of where the safety lines up. Ben is coming off a brilliant and clutch performance against San Diego, where receiver Santonio Holmes confirmed to me this week that he threw the ball with extra zip on the fastball. Roethlisberger, Holmes, Hines Ward and Heath Miller have some pretty good matchups down field against the Ravens corners who were burnt by the "legendary" Justin Gage last week if Ben can just avoid Reed. 6. Steelers offensive line vs. Ravens defensive line Steelers coach Mike Tomlin agreed with my take that the Pittsburgh offensive line played its best game last week. It was a main reason why Ben had such a good day. And it freed up Willie Parker to run the ball with speed and authority, gashing the Chargers for 146 hard-earned yards. However, in theory, Pittsburgh should lose the matchup in the trenches against the Ravens defensive line. Haloti Ngata is a beast who must be accounted for on every play. And Rex Ryan's defense constantly gives you looks and blitzes you don't expect Chew on this nugget of futility — Parker has averaged less than 3 yards per carry in six career games against the Baltimore defense. Giving Parker room to run and Ben pass protection is going to be a Herculean challenge, yet imperative for Pittsburgh. 7. Baltimore's offensive line vs. Pittsurgh's defense Baltimore center Jason Brown says the Ravens offensive line is strong and cohesive and the club will be ready for the amazing challenge of slowing down James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu and the Pittsburgh defense. Now without question Baltimore's offensive line has outkicked all expectations this season. Jared Gaither has done a really good job at left tackle replacing Jon Ogden. Ben Grubbs is a Pro Bowler in waiting. And Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told us this week that Baltimore needs strong play up front to get LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee going, something that never happened in the win against Tennessee. At this stage, I think it would almost be irresponsible to call Joe Flacco a rookie after what he has accomplished. He was so clutch with huge throws on third downs to Todd Heap and Mark Clayton on the game-winning drive last week. But Flacco needs balance from the running attack and time to throw to Derrick Mason, Heap, and Clayton down field. As great as the Ravens' line has been this year, I am not sure, even with some success against the Steelers in the first two matchups this season, they can get it done. 8. Dick LeBeau vs. Rex Ryan LeBeau is the godfather of the 3-4 blitzing attack. Ryan will drop defensive tackles, bring safeties, and give you looks that you have never seen on film. You know the players involved in this heavyweight clash. But it might just be the defensive coordinators who help decide the fate of who goes to the Super Bowl 9. Fan perception vs. reality The Cardinals are hosting on Championship Sunday? Joe Flacco and the Ravens are a game away from the Super Bowl? We could be looking at the Cards and Ravens in the biggest game? Hide the women, children and NBC's Dick Ebersol. Or not. I think that both of these games on Sunday will be decided by four points or less. Embrace the Cards. They have star players and are fun to watch. And the Ravens are a great story, loaded with tremendous players. The Giants are out. The Patriots, Cowboys and Packers never made it. Deal with it. And enjoy.

Tagged: Falcons, Cowboys, Packers, Titans, Giants, Eagles, Panthers, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Chargers, Derrick Mason, Edgerrin James, Jake Delhomme, Donovan McNabb, Correll Buckhalter, Brian Dawkins, Adrian Wilson, Hines Ward, Todd Heap, Sheldon Brown, Brian Westbrook, James Harrison, Anquan Boldin, Troy Polamalu, Willis McGahee, Justin Gage, Asante Samuel, Ben Roethlisberger, Darnell Dockett, Antonio Smith, Michael Turner, Willie Parker, Mark Clayton, Heath Miller, Jason Brown, Haloti Ngata, Santonio Holmes, DeAngelo Williams, Jason Avant, Willie Colon, Jared Gaither, LaMarr Woodley, Ben Grubbs, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan

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