- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jim Johnson has seen game video and statistics informing him of the Arizona Cardinals‘ desire to run the football more often, and he has heard about receiver Anquan Boldin’s return from a hamstring injury.

But the Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator also knows his team’s hopes of reaching the Super Bowl don’t rest on stopping running back Edgerrin James or locking up Boldin.

“You still have to look at their two main guys, and that’s Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner,” Johnson said. “They’re two of the better players in the NFL. They’ve become more balanced with James playing and stuff like that, and of course they’ve got some other good receivers. But Fitzgerald is a special guy, and Warner’s a special quarterback.”

If Fitzgerald and Warner have another special game, the Cardinals will win Sunday’s NFC championship game and ditch their label as the only NFC team that hasn’t reached the Super Bowl.

If the Eagles’ secondary has another special game, Philadelphia will reach the Super Bowl for the second time in five years.

The winner will become the first team to win nine games in the regular season and reach the championship game, which is two weeks from Sunday in Tampa, Fla. Like Baltimore, Philadelphia is playing on the road for the third straight week after defeating Minnesota and the Giants; Arizona is back at home following an upset win at Carolina.

Fitzgerald caught six passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns… in the first half against the Panthers last week. In two playoff games, he has 14 catches for 267 yards.

For as much as Arizona wants to talk about establishing a running game that was dormant in the regular season, the reality is twofold: a) the Cardinals have been in the lead through most of the two games, allowing them to play ball control; and b) they’re averaging 3.3 yards a carry.

Arizona will have to throw to win. Philadelphia’s defense has clogged up the lanes for Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and the Giants’ Brandon Jacobs, and figures to contain James and rookie Tim Hightower. That puts the pressure on Johnson to create a game plan that can harass Warner with a four-man rush - he’s too effective against the blitz to send extra rushers consistently - and account for Fitzgerald, Boldin and Steve Breaston.

Including the playoffs, the trio have a combined 284 catches for 3,881 yards and 29 touchdowns.

“Larry’s deal is, he has the best hands in the National Football League, so any ball that’s in his area, he’s going to catch it,” Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown said. “Anquan is a running back playing wide receiver. He can catch the short pass, break a lot of tackles and kill you with yards after the catch. Breaston is a down-the-field guy that can make plays. He gets the first down and does the dirty work.

“It’s just three guys that can present three different problems. It all depends on how they want to use those guys.”

The Eagles will counter with starting cornerbacks Brown and Asante Samuel, third corner Lito Sheppard, and safeties Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell.

Arizona’s plan will have a different look with Boldin’s return. Without him against Carolina, the Cardinals ran 18 first-half plays with two running backs or two tight ends. With him, the Cardinals are expected to return to their standard three-receiver formations.

“Having [Boldin] back is going to be great,” Fitzgerald said. “He just adds another dimension to what we’re trying to do. He does so many things well in terms of the running game, the passing game and quick screens.”

With Boldin on one side, the Eagles can’t focus on just Fitzgerald. An added dimension to his game this year is moving around the field to create mismatches in the slot or going in motion to avoid double teams. He often ran free over the middle against Carolina.

“The big thing is, the coaches have done a great job of game planning and setting some things up for Larry,” Warner said. “A lot of times with him, all it takes is a slight hesitation by a safety or a corner, and that gives him an advantage. As we’ve seen the last couple weeks, he gets a step or two in a certain direction, then I’m able to put the ball up.”

Said Eagles coach Andy Reid: “When it’s all said and done, we’ll be trying to compare people to him and not him to other people. He’s his own guy, and he’s the complete package.”

Philadelphia kept the Arizona offense in check on Thanksgiving night. The Eagles sprinted to a 21-0 lead and intercepted Warner three times in a 48-20 win.

Fitzgerald said that game is long forgotten.

“We just came out flat, and we ran into a team that was extremely hungry and had their backs against the wall,” he said. “But this is a different game. We’re playing at home, we’re well-rested and we’re ready to go. We just expect to come out and start off fast.”

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