So much for predicting football results on instinct. All four home teams won last week's NFL Divisional Playoffs, leaving me with a sorry 1-3 record as prognosticator. I was lucky I didn't end up 0-4, because the New York Jets should've won their game at Pittsburgh, the Steelers being the only home team I figured to emerge victorious. How can a pro kicker miss two makeable field goals with the game on the line? I dunno, but Doug Brien managed it for the Jets. He's gonna have a sorry off-season. He also might be looking for a job. But thanks to him, I didn't go winless.
I bucked all the odds in picking the Vikings and Rams--both Wild Card teams--to advance in the NFC. I look like a moron: Everyone knows that the teams with the best records almost always advance, and so it was as the Eagles and Falcons sharpened their talons convincingly on clearly lesser opponents. I still liked the picks. How was I to know the Rams' and Vikings' shortcomings would be so exposed? The Eagles and Falcons were home teams with superior records, and they did what they were supposed to do. And yes, they both won a lot bigger than I'd ever have guessed. Yet I'm still not convinced how good they are. The Rams' defense didn't rise to the challenge, and Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and T. J. Duckett chewed 'em up for more than 300 yards on the ground. The Vikings seemed to play hard, then kept shooting themselves in the foot--yet they were still in the game into the fourth quarter, because the Eagles looked a little ragged themselves. Philly should've won the game by a lot more than 27-14. The Eagles looked a little "lite" in the killer-instinct department.
But the biggest result, and still a huge surprise, was the ease with which the Patriots dispatched the Colts. I suspect Peyton Manning's off-season might be even murkier than Doug Brien's--filled with what-ifs, and why-nots, and how-comes. The Patriots are tough as nails, and their victory was one that would have made Vince Lombardi proud. Here we are in the age of 400-yard passing games, and the Patriots kick ass by running the ball consistently, chewing up tons of clock (thus keeping Manning off the field), and then playing intimidating defense. That's a formula that will win in any era. Apparently, more teams don't do it that way these days because they simply can't. So they focus on high-flying offenses that pile up yardage through the air, are a lot of fun to watch, but don't necessarily win the critical game. Pats QB Tom Brady threw for a mere 144 yards, proving again that efficient leadership trumps gaudy statistics on any given Sunday. But let's not forget that Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk piled up 200 of the team's 210 yards on the ground. It doesn't matter how you chew up real estate; it only matters that you do. And the running game is less prone to turnovers. End of story. The Pats are unflappable. Their team ethos is incredibly admirable. They're confident and determined. Can't wait to watch them this weekend.
So here come the conference title games. Let's go to the mat with the odds again and find out who's going to the Super Bowl:
New England Patriots @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The history doesn't look good for the Steelers. Coach Bill Cowher has a knack for losing big games. Being at home has never helped him much in the playoffs, either. This team has weapons at running back and wide receiver, and their rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger has yet to lose a game this year. What Big Ben has achieved is unheard-of. Can a rookie QB actually win every game he starts, all the way to the Super Bowl? Based on what he did against the Jets, I'd say R-berger looks shaky. He did manage to do enough to win, though, and that still counts for something. But I just don't see betting against the Patriots. If they can completely muffle Manning--and totally deny him the end zone--will R-berger fare any better? Believe it or not, picking the Pats goes against the grain: the Steelers have a better record and the home field. But can a team that struggled against the Jets be expected to defeat the Patriots' aggressive, machine-like efficiency? Some might argue that the Steelers got a mediocre game against a lesser opponent out of their system, and now can play loose with all cylinders firing. I'm still waiting for Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle-El to become a huge star. This would certainly be the national stage for it. And Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward are great receivers too. Bettis and Staley are tough runners. The Steelers hit hard on defense. The pieces are in place for victory, but I think the Patriots will eventually kick their puzzle all over the living room floor. It should be a close one, though.
Final score: Patriots 16, Steelers 14
Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles
I have no idea who' s going to win this game. If you figure the Falcons are for real based on last week, then they look hugely intimidating. They ran all over the place. They have a tremendous athlete at quarterback (Michael Vick), they have a fleet-footed, shifty halfback in Warrick Dunn, and they have a Brahma bull named T. J. Duckett at fullback. Their tight end, Alge Crumpler, is a moose who can run and catch the ball, and once he's in motion he can't be brought down. Their front seven on defense are muscular and tenacious. If the game were in Atlanta, in their home dome, I'd pick 'em. Alas, the game's in Philly, outside and probably in fairly cold weather. I think the Eagles' defense is good enough to clamp down on Dunn/Duckett, then confuse Vick and force him into some bad throws (the Falcons receivers are only so-so anyway). I'm still not sold on the Eagles' offense. They looked uninspired against Minnesota. They got lucky a few times too. QB Donovan McNabb has confidence and is capable of great things. It says here he'll do just enough to win. But nagging questions remain: If this team struggled to put away the schizoid Vikings, what happens against a hungry, up-and-coming, good-looking team like the Falcons? The Eagles have lost the last three conference championship games. I won't be surprised if they make it four straight. For now, it's a chalk pick, with an assist to David Akers' kicking leg.
Final score: Eagles 17, Falcons 16