Monday, January 24, 2005

Here's to the Winners

It's the Patriots and Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. (That's #39 for those of you who are Roman numeral-challenged.)

After a lousy weekend of Divisional Playoff predictions (1-3), I got the Conference Championship round correct (2-0). I was only surprised by the definitiveness of the victories:

AFC: Patriots 41, Steelers 27
NFC: Eagles 27, Falcons 10

There's been a lot of commentary about Steelers coach Bill Cowher's on-field decision-making. (They should have punted instead of going for it on the early 4th-and-1; they should have gone for the TD instead of kicking the later field goal.) I don't think so. If they make the 4th-and-1, the pundits say it was a ballsy early move to establish the authority of their offensive line, and who knows how it might've paid off? Later, kicking the field goal made it 31-20, and there was still enough time for the Steelers to catch the Pats. Oh, how they would've howled if the Steelers hadn't gotten the TD and had come away from the goal-line situation with nothing! Hindsight is always 20-20. Cowher's moves were reasonable, and in both cases showed faith in his team.

Instead, let us praise Tom Brady and the Patriots. Brady's 60-yard TD bomb to Deion Branch was a thing of beauty. Brady's got football brains and poise up the wazoo. He looked left, then right, then stood his ground waiting for things to develop, then hurled a perfect pass that Branch gobbled up on the run with a defender close by. But the real unsung heroes are the Patriots offensive linemen. I think I can name one of these guys (Abruzzi), but that's about it. They are models of consistency and toughness, and they pass-block as well as they run-block. On a team that's mostly no-name, these guys are practically completely anonymous. They sure are good.

The Steelers got way too far behind the 8-ball in this game. Their second-half effort was courageous, but you can't fall behind 24-3 to the World Champions and reasonably expect to win. Finally, rookie Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger came a-cropper, though it's still hard to believe that his first-ever NFL loss came in the AFC Championship Game. He had an amazing season. He'll be fun to watch in the future.

As for the NFC, the Eagles took care of business against the Falcons, though I was still pretty unimpressed with Philly. Falcons QB Michael Vick proved what I've been saying for years: scramblers don't win the big one. All it takes is for a determined defense to shut down the scrambler's ability to scramble, which leaves him with reliance on the passing game. Maybe if the Falcons had gotten their running game going better, things would've turned out differently. But Vick got rattled, and the game plan went with him. When he couldn't run himself out of bad situations, he tried to throw, something he does with occasional beauty but clear-cut inconsistency. The guy needs to work on managing the game from the pocket. Until he does that successfully, he'll be a wonderfully gifted athlete with a marginally good W-L record.

There was a point early in the game when Falcons RB Warrick Dunn gained a first down with two successive running plays. Then, inexplicably, on the fresh 1st down, Vick rolled back left to pass. The Eagles came charging and stuffed him for a serious loss, and then the Falcons were in a hole and ended up punting. Makes no sense. They should've run Dunn and T.J. Duckett a good long while: to minimize the chaos and until the Eagles proved they could stuff the run. I also thought the Falcons' defense looked a little disheveled. They played with toughness but got caught flatfooted.

I guess the Eagles' offense is okay. QB Donavan McNabb played a clean game, and RB Brian Westbrook got some big yards in a timely fashion. But their receiving corps is now further depleted with the loss of tight end Chad Lewis, who, after snagging two TDs in this big game, will miss the Super Bowl with a foot injury requiring surgery. There's talk that the great TO--Terrell Owens--might make it back for the big finale, but his impact will have to be considered marginal if he makes it back at all.

The Eagles to me seem like a team floating on true grit, and I guess you have to tip your hat to the power of pure will. I don't see them beating the Patriots, though. The Eagles' defense does play with thuggish abandon, and they've shut down athletic QBs Daunte Culpepper and Vick in this post-season. But I see Brady outwitting them, and I can't imagine the Eagles' offense putting many points on the board against the Pats' cagey, punishing defense. I don't however, foresee one of those awful boring blowouts, which is good news for us all.

Early Super Bowl prediction:

Patriots 21, Eagles 13

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