Thursday January 14th, 2010

Breaking down the NFC divisional matchup, Cardinals at Saints, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, Fox

1. The parallel quarterbacks. Drew Brees is in many ways the new Kurt Warner, a leader of his team, a pillar of his community, a touchdown maker who has spent his career lighting up scoreboards in small markets without getting the acclaim of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. While Warner appears on his way out, looking for his fourth Super Bowl berth, Brees is on his way in, searching for his first. If both quarterbacks are on target -- and they almost always are -- this matchup could look like the 2010 NBA All-Star Game. The Saints led the NFL this season in scoring and total offense. The Cardinals led the NFL in touchdown percentage inside the 20-yard-line and scored 51 points against the Packers in the wild-card round. With Brees and Warner on the field, no lead will be safe, and neither will any postseason passing records.

The beneficiaries will be their wide receivers, specifically Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, who took over last year's playoffs, and the Saints' Marques Colston, who is entirely capable of taking over this year's playoffs. If the Saints can advance and Warner slips into retirement, as has been speculated, expect Brees to assume his mantle -- the next touchdown tosser who does not always get his due.

2. Whether somebody -- anybody -- can get a stop. On the last weekend of November, the Saints held the Patriots to 17 points. On the first weekend of December, the Cardinals held the Vikings to 17 points. Both teams were hailed for finally developing defenses that could complement their pyrotechnic passing attacks. But since that Patriots game, the Saints have not held an opponent under 20 points. The Cardinals gave up 33 in the season finale and 45 in the wild-card round. These are not necessarily bad defenses, but they are incredibly streaky, and they are currently stuck in slumps. The one that breaks out will likely be the winner.

Given how much both of these teams want to pass the ball, there will be plenty of opportunities to create turnovers. Last season, even though the Cardinals were vulnerable on defense, they were fast and incredibly opportunistic. This season, the Saints have been the same. Because the two offenses will be under intense pressure to score every time they touch the ball, each turnover and red-zone stop will be magnified. No one is expecting the Cardinals to hold the Saints to 17 points or vice versa. But if one team can even keep the other under 30, it will probably be enough.

3. Dome sweet dome. The Saints did not lose a game for the first 13 weeks of the season and did not win one for last three. Whether or not momentum is a myth in pro football, the Saints will receive a much-needed jolt from the crowd at the Superdome, which is among the most vocal in the league. Considering what is at stake -- a chance to host the NFC championship game -- Warner ought to bring his earplugs. But as much support as the Saints receive, they are surprisingly beatable at home. Just last month, Dallas won in the Superdome and so did rebuilding Tampa Bay. This game will help gauge how much home-field advantage really means in the playoffs.

Arizona, a team made for the fast track, should be comfortable on the artificial surface. They should be confident having won at Carolina on this week a year ago. And they should be plenty motivated having convinced themselves that the nation has dismissed them. They get an opportunity in the Superdome to prove once and for all that they remain a championship threat. The New Orleans fans will help the Saints more than they know. But they may not hurt the Cardinals as much as they hope.

Drew Brees talks about Kurt Warner, before what could be the last game Warner ever plays:

"Anybody that wants to compare me to Kurt Warner, I consider that a big honor because I think that Kurt will go down in history as one of the best players to ever play his position....I always enjoy watching him and Cardinals offensive film whenever we play a similar opponent. I'm always going to turn them on just to see what they did and how they attacked them and how Kurt played just because I have that much respect for that guy."

These teams look like identical twins, from their elite quarterbacks to their untouchable receivers to their suspect defenses. In such an even matchup, more subtle factors come into play: While the Cardinals sweated out an overtime thriller last week, the Saints enjoyed a bye. In fact, the Cardinals played the final game of the first round and they get the first game of the second, an unfair scheduling quirk. The Saints may have been exposed somewhat in the past month, but they still have the best offense in the NFL, better even than the Cardinals, and they have accomplished too much this season to head home after one game. Saints 38, Cardinals 35.

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