Eagles, Steelers Super Bowl bound

    New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards once punctuated a heated press conference with the statement, “You play to win the game,” and this mantra has no greater meaning than in the NFL playoffs. Whereas in the NBA or MLB playoffs an off game here or there doesn’t mean an immediate end to the season, in the NFL, January is always the time of do-or-die. That’s why, when you tune in for playoff football, every game might turn into a classic: just ask Edwards, who has been at both ends of classic overtime playoff games in the past two weeks. Now, with only four teams remaining, the potential for a classic game is raised, and teams will be playing harder than ever to win this game in hopes of going to the hype-fest that will be Super Bowl XXXIX.

    In the National Football Conference, after a wild-card weekend in which the St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings did everything they could to not make the playoffs, each team actually scored an upset against the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, respectively. The best teams are emerging, as the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles move convincingly away from the divisional round. These two teams have been notable all season as the only two truly consistent NFC teams, and now, in a 2003 divisional playoff game re-match, the Michael Vick Experience will face the “Mmm-mmm good” play of Donovan McNabb.

    After last year’s 5-11 record, the Atlanta Falcons turned things around under first-year head coach Jim Mora Jr. Some were surprised that the Falcons performed so well so quickly. Although many would say the sudden change is thanks to the return of über-athlete Michael Vick, who was injured for most of last year, much of the team’s winning streak is also the result of a defensive unit coached up by former Packers coordinator Ed Donatell. The unit improved from the absolute worst to the upper half of the NFL, leading the league in sacks. The unit will need to continue its aggressive ways against McNabb and the Eagles, hoping an unrecognized secondary that includes speedy rookie cornerback DeAngelo Hall is able to reap some of the benefits of a strong front seven and repeat some of the success that the Carolina Panthers’ secondary had against the Eagles in last year’s championship game. Vick, however, might be the key on both sides of the ball. Whether he takes off on a long run or just makes the opposing defense look silly, it is demoralizing to not just the defensive unit on the field but to the opposing offense watching from the sideline.

    The St. Louis Rams seemed afraid of tackling any of the members of the NFL’s top-ranked rushing attack, possibly fearful of catching the case of the “runs” that the Falcons had Saturday night. The Eagles won’t have the same phobia, and that means the Falcons will have to work harder to establish the run. It also means that Vick needs to look for Pro-Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler while displaying more of the throwing element from quarterback.

    The Philadelphia Eagles are the more experienced and, even without Pro-Bowl wide receiver Terrell Owens, more complete football team. Head coach Andy Reid is hoping to prevent his Eagles from becoming the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s by winning the NFC Championship this year after three straight losses. The People’s Champ Freddie Mitchell will need to continue his postseason prowess for big plays (fourth-and-26 catch against the Packers last year, fumble recovery in the end zone against the Vikings this year) while filling in for Owens, and Brian Westbrook will have to try to beat the Falcon defenders around the corners on running plays.

    The defensive unit needs to play as it has all year, with Jevon “The Freak” Kearse pressuring Vick, the rejuvenated Jeremiah Trotter not allowing any huge QB scrambles and a secondary, which includes three Pro Bowl selections, that is able to take advantage of any ill-advised Vick throws and inconsistent Falcon receiver play.

    My Pick: The Eagles finally get the monkey off their back, 31-20.

    In the American Football Conference, many are looking at this game as the one that will give us the eventual Super Bowl winner. Neither team will be looking past this game, as the New England Patriots will attempt to avenge the loss to Pittsburgh earlier in the season that ended their 21-game winning streak, while the Steelers will look to undo the woes of head coach Bill Cowher’s AFC Championship past.

    While watching the Patriots dismantle the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 16, I couldn’t help but think back to my early childhood and memories of watching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls taking on the Detroit Pistons. Before Jordan and the Bulls had their three-peat twice, they had to endure bruisings, beatings and eliminations at the hands of the Detroit Bad Boys. The Patriots are a lot like those Bad Boys. They play hard, physical, but mostly legal, ball. Sure, some of the Pistons’ tactics seemed underhanded, but most of the time, when they hit you as you entered the lane, they did it legally, and those warning shots seemed to work. In the same way, when any of the Patriots see a pile forming, they don’t think twice about getting a pound and a little something extra in there. If strong — and strong is an understatement — safety Rodney Harrison sees a running back being taken down, he’s always very helpful in making sure the back reaches the turf a little bit quicker and with a little more force. When linebacker Tedy Bruschi sees a ball not being held properly, he’s right there to give a little smack in the face, wrestle the ball away, and teach the offensive player a lesson.

    Just as the Pistons mirrored the “man’s man” image of coach Chuck Daly, the Patriots mirror the bare-essential, fundamental, no-frills persona of the hooded-sweatshirt demon that is coach Bill Belichick. This team has won two of the past three Super Bowls, and trying to predict how they’re going to play is impossible, because they always have something new, be it playing only two down linemen or using half of their defensive line on goal-line offensive possessions. What you can look for is Tom Brady showing that Joe Montana coolness and the defensive unit making any offensive player trying to catch a pass over the middle regret it.

    The reason the Steelers were able to end the monumental Patriots’ winning streak earlier in the season wasn’t just because Patriots running back Corey Dillon wasn’t playing, although that had something to do with it.

    Pittsburgh plays the type of football that gives New England the most trouble. This is a team that doesn’t throw over the middle but runs it right up the middle, and these guys aren’t afraid to get hit. Wide receiver Hines Ward might be the most physical receiver in the league, linebacker Joey Porter took a bullet in the butt and was playing the next week and running back Jerome “The Bus” Bettis does things with a football that a man his size should not be physically capable of doing.

    The Patriots might be hoping they can faze rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but the Steelers offensive line is going to protect him like a little brother on the first day of school — except this little brother is six feet five inches tall, and he has already passed the Patriot defense class once. The Pittsburgh defense and running game are going to be what the Steelers rely on, as they have all season, taking the pressure off Roethlisberger and putting the pressure on the Patriots to defeat a hard-nosed football team that is ready to match their physicality and fundamental play.

    My Pick: Fearing the ‘dynasty’ talk that would accompany a Patriots win, looking and hoping for a Steelers win, 17-14.

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