CAN YOU win a conference championship game in this pass-happy era when your quarterback throws for only 82 yards? Tell me you can, and I'll pick Atlanta to upset Philadelphia on Sunday.
I like the Falcons when they're running the ball as they did against the Rams last Saturday, when Michael Vick threw only 16 times. If they don't fall behind by too much too soon, they'll get some serious yards on the ground against the Philly defense.
The Eagles certainly have been stiffer against the run since Jeremiah Trotter took over at middle linebacker at midseason, after Pittsburgh ran for 252 yards against them. And Trotter certainly had his way with the Vikings on Sunday. But the Minnesota offensive line is big and sluggish, and it hardly got a hand on him. Atlanta's O-linemen are small and mobile, even quicker than the Denver unit that their coach, Alex Gibbs, made his reputation with. They're quick enough to get to Trotter.
But the passing game is where the points come from, and I don't think the Falcons will be able to match the Eagles in that department. Philly has the best secondary in football--three Pro Bowl players and a fourth guy, right cornerback Sheldon Brown, who made my All-Pro team--and if form holds, those DBs will swallow up the Atlanta wideouts, unless they get caught up in play-action. I'd love to pick an upset, but I just don't have the guts. The Eagles will win it.
How about New England being favored over a 16--1 Pittsburgh team that's playing at home? That ought to get the Steelers mad enough to ... to what? Put up more points? Figure out a way to crack a defense that stopped the Indy machine dead in its tracks on Sunday?
No, I don't think that'll happen. I don't like a rookie quarterback, even one as formidable as Ben Roethlisberger, against a Bill Belichick defense. Of course I said the same thing in October, when I picked the Pats to win. But Pittsburgh beat a crippled team that played without Corey Dillon (144 rushing yards against the Colts) and was without both tackles by game's end. If your tackles can't stand firm against the Steelers' outside rushers, you're dead meat, and that's what happened to New England. Pittsburgh's wingmen, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, were turned loose and gave Tom Brady a rough afternoon.
Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel had two weeks to prepare for the Colts, and the result was devastating for Indianapolis. I've got to believe that during that time, they were doing a workup on the Steelers as well. The Patriots win it and meet the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. --Paul Zimmerman