- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The game was eight plays old, and his team’s offense had yet to run a snap when Stewart Bradley made the kind of play that epitomized how the Philadelphia Eagles controlled the New York Giants in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game.

Starting in Philadelphia territory after a 65-yard kickoff return, the Giants faced a third-and-8 from the 9-yard line. Eli Manning threw left to Derrick Ward. But before he could turn the corner, Bradley tracked him down 3 yards short of the first down. The Giants settled for a 22-yard field goal.

New York would get no closer to the goal line and went without a touchdown for only the second time all year in a 23-11 loss to the Eagles.

The Eagles’ numbers weren’t great - 307 yards allowed, including 4.3 yards a rush attempt. But preventing the game-breaking play and creating a few of their own - three turnovers and two fourth-down stops - propelled Philadelphia to Sunday’s NFC title game at Arizona.

“We set out to do what we’ve been doing from the beginning of the season: be a defense that doesn’t give up a lot of plays, makes stops and gets turnovers to allow our offense to stay in rhythm,” safety Brian Dawkins said.

Much of the attention for the Eagles’ run to this point has been centered on quarterback Donovan McNabb’s improved play. But Philadelphia’s defense also has turned things around.

In the first 11 games (5-5-1), the defense was ranked in the top 10 but was burned for six big plays (runs of 10 or more yards, passes of 20 or more) at Baltimore in Week 12 and produced only 17 turnovers in 11 games.

In the last seven games (6-1), the defense is allowing eight fewer points (12.1 vs. 20.8) and nearly 24 fewer yards passing. But the two numbers that stick out are touchdowns (one a game) and takeaways (15).

A back problem sent defensive coordinator Jim Johnson into the coaches’ box for the Giants game, but that didn’t stop him from creating a game plan that forced New York into 10 missed third-down conversions and Manning into 15-for-29 passing.

“For being almost 100 years old, he’s kept it fresh for them,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said of the 67-year-old Johnson.

Johnson’s next challenge is a Cardinals offense that has gained 717 yards in wins against Atlanta and Carolina. In the teams’ first meeting, a 48-20 Philadelphia win on Thanksgiving night, the Cardinals had only 260 yards passing and were limited to 25 yards rushing.

“Philadelphia put it to us on all levels,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said Monday. “It’s tough to watch the tape now, but the one thing that’s comforting is that we’re a different team.”

Reid agreed that Arizona has righted its season.

“The best thing is to look at the way they’re playing,” he said. “To be honest, I didn’t think we got their best shot when they were here. They had been playing good football but were coming off a tough game [that they lost to the Giants] and they had to travel all the way here [on a short week].”

The surprising part of Arizona’s postseason has been its running game. The Cardinals finished the regular season last in rushing (73.6 yards a game).

In the postseason, though, the Cardinals have thrown a slightly more smashmouth look, averaging 115.5 yards a game. Edgerrin James is back as the main runner.

“They’re banking on Edgerrin more than they have before, and I don’t know what the situation was there, but you’re talking about one of the greats to play the running back position when he was with the Colts,” Reid said. “He’s running hard and seeing things, and the offensive line is doing a nice job for him. With that, they’re utilizing the run a little more - the [Tim] Hightower kid is pretty good, too. They can take two shots at you.”

James was a nonfactor through much of the year, but Whisenhunt said that was partly by design. James has rushed 36 times for 130 yards in the playoffs.

“We felt we would need Edge later in the year, and to have him playing like he has in the playoffs is a big reason why we’re running the ball successfully,” Whisenhunt said. “To run it effectively helps us in all phases. He never had a doubt he could play, and I have to give him credit because he’s worked and when he’s gotten his opportunity, he’s taken advantage.”

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