THE FIRST time the Cardinals and the Eagles played this year, on Thanksgiving night in Philly, Arizona's offense began interception-interception-punt, and the Cards quickly fell into a 21--0 hole. The scoreboard was a pinball machine all night for the Eagles—48 points, 437 yards. But since Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt read his team the riot act after a 40-point loss in Foxborough, Mass., on Dec. 21, threatening jobs and postseason playing time, he has put his players back in pads for midweek practices and toughened them up. The defense has responded, surrendering 283 yards per game in the three outings since the New England debacle. Linebacker Karlos Dansby is playing like a lighter, sideline-to-sideline Ray Lewis, and the run D, thanks to immovable tackle Darnell Dockett in the middle, has been stout. I doubt the Eagles' Brian Westbrook will be able to penetrate the line.

But I also question whether Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's changeup schemes will confuse Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb that much. For the Cards to win, they're going to have to disguise their looks in the secondary and get to McNabb (above) more often than the Vikings and the Giants did in the first two playoff rounds. McNabb's pocket presence has been superb in the postseason, and his nimble moves to avoid the rush and complete a 21-yard pass to Jason Avant on third-and-20, extending a critical drive on Sunday, ought to go in a quarterbacking time capsule. We've been thinking for so long that McNabb, 32, is on the downside, we've forgotten he's eight months younger than Peyton Manning. The Philly defense, and McNabb, will rule the day.