Super duper

By Adam Salmon

Several weeks ago, yours truly forecast a Philadelphia Eagles/Pittsburgh Steelers match-up in Super Bowl XXXIX. It would’ve been a wonderful story, an all-Pennsylvania Civil War of sorts between two storied franchises, one long overdue for a trip to the Super Bowl, the other trying to relive the glory days of decades past. But something happened on Pittsburgh’s way to Jacksonville to spoil this prediction—the New England Patriots showed up for the AFC Championship game and punched the Steelers right in the mouth.

It’s easy to try to heap all the blame for Pittsburgh’s 41-27 whippin’ by the Patriots on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And yes, he played poorly, but did anyone really think he had much of a chance to succeed? New England completely flummoxed Indianapolis’ All-World QB Peyton Manning one week prior to the Pittsburgh game, so what was a rookie with no playoff experience and little of Manning’s polish to do? It isn’t that he wilted under the pressure. The Patriots force every quarterback they play to make mistakes, and Roethlisberger made too many. He finished his fabulous rookie season playing like…well, a rookie. At least the Steelers managed to score more than a field goal, which is all we can say for the Colts.

Form held in the NFC as Philadelphia marched through the playoffs, benefiting from a first-round playoff bye and a divisional round match-up against a Minnesota Vikings squad featuring an even-more-disinterested-and-lazier-than-usual Randy Moss. They’ve had plenty of time to adjust to life W/O T.O. (without Terrell Owens), and it showed. After the Owens injury, all the pressure Eagles fans are notorious for heaping on their team rested squarely on Donovan McNabb’s shoulders, and he responded with two flawless games. Brian Westbrook, Philly’s jitterbug all-purpose back, has been tremendous stepping into the void created by Owens’ absence. This offense managed to make the NFC Championship game in each of the last three seasons without Owens, so it was satisfying on some level to see the Eagles finally get over the hump without him. Atlanta played well for one half, but caved in soon after halftime.

Indeed, Philadelphia is the feel-good story of this NFL season. Their blitzing swarm on defense is flat-out entertaining to watch. McNabb is the best of the run/pass quarterback threats in the league. We all knew he could scramble, but his abilities as a passer (especially when making those delicate touch throws on screen plays to Westbrook) are severely underrated. Owens has revived his image from his malcontent days in San Francisco, proving to all his critics that winning is his bottom line. Did you see him yelling at his offensive coordinator this year? Throwing temper tantrums? Publicly dissing his quarterback? Questioning his teammates sexuality? No, you didn’t, because the Eagles spent most of the season winning games, while the 49ers spent most of the season stinking up the joint.

All the optimism and jubilation in Philly is great. Hope they enjoy it while they can, because when kickoff rolls around, this magic carpet ride is over.

(Cue the Darth Vader theme music.)

This 2005 vintage of the New England Patriots is as complete a football team as we’ve ever seen in the NFL, even without All-Pro cornerback Ty Law. There is brilliance at every spot on the roster, beginning with quarterback Tom Brady. Brady’s poise and savvy in the most difficult situations rubs off on every Patriot on their sideline, a ‘What, me worry?’ sort of calm amid the pressure-packed turmoil of the playoffs. All the great championship quarterbacks—Elway, Montana, Young, Aikman, etc.—had the “It” intangible, and Brady has “It” in spades. He is the pro’s pro, makes all the right decisions, is accurate and careful with the football, and most importantly, this ain’t his first rodeo. He’s been down this road before.

The old worry about a Super Bowl champion not repeating because they lost their edge, their fire, their hunger? Forget about it. The Patriots have made a key roster move in each of the last two off-seasons: the addition of safety Rodney Harrison, and the signing of running back Corey Dillon this past summer, two intense veterans desperate to validate their outstanding careers with Super Bowl rings. Harrison was a catalyst during the Patriots’ championship run last year, and Dillon, playing in the postseason for the first time after a frustrating tenure with perennial doormat Cincinnati, fills that role this season. New England appears as determined as ever.

The Patriots this postseason have not turned the ball over once and had 7 takeaways against Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. They held the most prolific offense in the league to 3 points and scored 41 on the road against the league’s best defense. They tackle, they don’t draw penalties, they win the field position game, they control the clock, they win the kicking game, and they pressure relentlessly on both sides of the ball and wait for their opponents to make mistakes. And as if that isn’t unsettling enough to the Philly faithful, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has an extra week to prepare for this game, down to the last detail. Yikes.

This Super Bowl with a healthy Terrell Owens would be one heck of a matchup, but all indications are that even if T.O. plays, he won’t be anywhere near 100%, and that’s just too bad. Without the imposing physical presence and speed of Owens, Philadelphia is just another better than average football team, exactly the type of team New England has been chewing up and spitting out for more than two seasons now. The Patriots win going away, call it 38-13, and Tom Brady’s mantle becomes more cluttered with yet another Super Bowl MVP trophy. n