The 2005 NFL playoffs have looked a little like the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament usually does: Some upsets in the first round, order restored in the second. With all four home teams winning in the divisional round last week, both conference championship games pit the No. 1 seed vs. the No. 2 seed.
Football's best day will unfold in the proper order. The NFC Championship Game, Atlanta at Philadelphia, will serve as the curtain raiser for the main event, the AFC Championship Game, which pits the two best teams in the league, New England at Pittsburgh.
NFC Championship Game
Atlanta Falcons (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-3), 3 p.m. EST, Fox: The only possible upset Sunday would be the Falcons beating the Eagles on the frozen tundra of Lincoln Financial Field.
It wouldn't be without precedent. The Eagles are on a three-year NFC title game losing streak, the last two being upset losses at home to Southern teams -- Tampa Bay in the 2002 season, Carolina last year -- that weren't supposed to be able to win outdoors above the Mason-Dixon Line in January.
The Falcons are not only a warm-weather team but a dome team, a double whammy of a can't-take-the-cold rap. But it was only two years ago that the Falcons became the first visiting team ever to win a playoff game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Seems like longer than that, doesn't it?
It kind of feels like the Falcons came out of nowhere this year because they've been mostly awful since their Super Bowl run six years ago. But while that conference championship team has almost no connection to the current squad, this is more or less the same team that went 9-6-1 in '02, then tumbled to 5-11 last year. New coach Jim Mora and a revitalized defense have been the biggest differences.
And then there's Michael Vick, who missed most of last year with a broken leg. What to make of him? His great running is offset by lousy passing, and there's almost no way of looking at his performance and concluding that he's the difference between the Falcons winning and losing. But he does seem to be the difference. In the last two years, the Falcons are 14-4 when he plays, 3-12 when he sits or makes only a token appearance.
Atlanta's vastly improved defense, built around perhaps the league's best pass rush, can't be ignored, and may in fact be the major difference between last year and this. Maybe Vick's poor passing offsets his brilliant running, but are you going to believe the record or your lying eyes?
The Eagles, like every opponent the week before they face the Falcons, are concerning themselves not with how they'll score on Atlanta's tough defense, but how they'll stop Vick from running wild. The answer is to make sure your defensive ends and outside linebackers "keep contain," that they don't allow him to get to the edge but funnel him toward the middle of the field, into traffic or, better yet, make him throw the ball from the pocket.
Everyone knows that. The hard part is doing it, because Vick can escape even when he appears to be contained. "Don't buy the fake" is easier said than done.
Having said all that, I don't think Vick is going to have much success against the Eagles defense, which is terrific. The Eagles secondary can cover, and the pass rush -- bolstered from previous years by the addition of Javon Kearse -- will force Vick into making quick decisions, and probably not good ones. There's always the chance that he can win with his legs, but it's a long way to go down the field time after time on scrambles. The Falcons have a good running game too, led by Warrick Dunn.
The Eagles were hurt by losing Terrell Owens to injury in Week 15, but they showed last week against the Vikings that they can still move the ball and, when they avoid dumb mistakes, put points on the board. Donovan McNabb is an elite quarterback, even if once again he doesn't have any elite wideouts, the Eagles' biggest deficiency before Owens came over.
The biggest difference on offense from last year is a healthy Brian Westbrook, a running back who's a dangerous receiver. He was injured and missed last year's playoff run. His ability to hurt the Falcons with runs and short passes should do a lot to slow down the pass rush and also open up the passing game downfield, even though that passing game is limited by the lack of talent at receiver, though Freddie Mitchell had a nice game last week.
The Eagles were clearly the class of the conference all year, and last week they proved that they remain so even without Owens. The Falcons have had the look of paper tigers -- this is a team, after all, that got blown out by also-rans Kansas City and Tampa Bay -- and their rout of a terrible Rams team last week didn't prove much.
Still, I think Atlanta's legit and can play with the Eagles. And with a game-breaker like Vick touching the ball on every single offensive play, they can never be written off completely. But this looks like the year the Eagles finally break the little jinx that's gripped them lately. Barring a meltdown of some sort, Philly should have enough to wear down the Falcons in a bruising game. Prediction: Eagles
AFC Championship Game
New England Patriots (14-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (15-1), 6:30 p.m. EST, CBS: The Patriots are the defending champions, winners 30 times in their last 32 games, and they've won all seven playoff games quarterback Tom Brady has started over the last four seasons. The Steelers had the best record in the league and they've won 15 straight, including a 34-20 dismantling of the Patriots on Halloween.
You can be forgiven for thinking of this one as the real Super Bowl. On the other hand, a lot of us thought that about last year's AFC Championship Game, between the Pats and Colts, especially after the Carolina Panthers upset the Eagles in the NFC game. And then the Panthers damn near beat New England for the title. So let's hold off on this "real Super Bowl" stuff.
But what a matchup! You already know I'm picking the Patriots until they lose a playoff game, should that happen in my lifetime, and a lot of people seem to feel the same way, which would explain the Steelers being three-point underdogs at home despite not having lost since late summer.
The thinking is two-fold. First, both teams went 14-1 when they weren't playing each other -- the Steelers lost big at Baltimore in Week 2, the Pats weirdly threw away a Monday night game at Miami in Week 15 -- and that 34-20 Steelers win when they did play each other can be dismissed as a fluke. New England was without running back Corey Dillon, a key to their balanced attack, and a couple of uncharacteristic first-quarter turnovers allowed the Steelers to jump out to a 21-3 lead that was too big a hill for the Pats to climb.
Second, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who looked so poised during a remarkable rookie season in which he went an unthinkable 14-0 as a starter, came apart last week in the divisional-round near-loss to the Jets. He looked rattled and rookie-ish. There's been speculation that he was bothered by an injured thumb, but whatever. If Doug Brien hadn't pulled a game-winning field-goal attempt into the third-base dugout, Roethlisberger and the Steelers would be watching the Jets-Patriots title game on TV Sunday.
And that was against the Jets. This is the Patriots, a defense that just last week made one of the best offenses in the history of the league look like one of the worst.
Well, OK. But every game is a fluke, isn't it? How often do games go the way they're supposed to. Sure, the Patriots gave the ball away disastrously in Pittsburgh, but don't you think the Steelers had something to do with that? And didn't the Steelers capitalize? It may not happen again, but you can't just dismiss that game.
And just because Roethlisberger had a lousy game against the Jets -- he's had two this year against them, in fact -- doesn't mean he's suddenly become a lousy quarterback. He's not a great one at this point, but he doesn't have to be. He just has to not lose the game for his team.
The Steelers throw 500-plus pounds of angry pot roast at opposing defenses in the form of running backs Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, who combined for 1,771 yards, more than 13 teams. They also have dangerous weapons in the passing game, especially Plaxico Burress but also Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El. The Steelers will probably line up with three and four receivers a lot to get the Patriots into their nickel defenses. That's because the Pats secondary is injury-riddled and manned with second-tier players.
But that didn't seem to matter against the Colts. Indy's receivers can be pushed around in a way that the bigger Steelers receivers can't be, but never underestimate coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's ability to design an effective game plan. They made Peyton Manning look like a confused rookie. It's asking a lot of a real rookie not to be confused.
When the Patriots have the ball they'll do their thing with Dillon running and Brady spreading the ball around to a deep, talented corps of receivers. The Steelers surrendered the fewest points in the league, though, and the Patriots won't be able to march downfield on time-eating drives the way they did against the Colts.
I'm usually not one to talk much about special teams because I think that unless they're really great or really awful, special teams don't matter that much. Kicking plays make up about one-seventh of a game, but most of those plays are routine. For example, the difference between the third-best punt coverage unit in the league and the third worst is less than six yards per return. That's not nothing, but considering that fewer than half of all punts even get returned, it's not going to turn a game.
But in a game as close as this one figures to be, a single play could easily make the difference, so let's take a look.
New England's Adam Vinatieri is a better place-kicker than Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed, but Reed is plenty good. The Steelers' Chris Gardocki is a slightly better punter than Josh Miller, but more importantly the Steelers cover punts better. The difference amounts to about three yards per kick. But each team has a dangerous punt returner, Randle El of the Steelers and Troy Brown of the Patriots. If either can break one, it would be huge.
Any break can be huge. This is going to be a bruising, defensive battle in bitter cold and possibly snow. If one team can get an extra turnover, bust a long return, break a key tackle in the secondary, it could make the difference. Prediction: Patriots
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