And then there were four — Four teams, two of which will step onto America’s greatest sporting stage. In pro football, the only thing better than going to the Super Bowl is winning one, and the only thing worse than losing on the doorstep is losing once you’re there. Last year at this time, the Ravens and Giants marched on to Tampa, while the Raiders and Vikings limped home. Who’ll be marching this year? Who’ll be limping? Let’s take a closer look.
NFC championship: Philadelphia at St. Louis
As the Rams and Eagles get ready for their showdown in St. Louis, the entire football world is debating one question: Can Philadelphia do it? Can the Eagles’ defense stop the NFL’s MVP, a 2000-yard back and a bevy of speedy wide receivers? Can Donovan McNabb hold out against a defense that made Brett Favre, one of the NFL’s savviest QBs, look like a rookie? Is it physically possible that the Eagles are the immovable object to the Rams’ unstoppable force?
Yes. If there’s one team that can beat the Rams this season (except the Bucs and Saints, who already did it), it’s the Philadelphia Eagles. In Week One, the Eagles’ defense held the Rams’ offensive juggernaut to just 20 points. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, McNabb and the Eagles’ offense managed only 17.
Still, the Rams’ 20 points was their third-lowest total of the season. How did Philadelphia do it? With the NFL’s best secondary, the Eagles were able to blitz Warner constantly, preventing him from fully utilizing his offensive arsenal. The notoriously unfriendly fans of Veterans Stadium rained down noise, and the Eagles were hungry to prove their defensive prowess. This time, the Rams get to stay in the cozy confines of the “The Dome at America’s Center,” but the Eagles are just as hungry. You could see it in their eyes as they dismantled the Good-News Bears last weekend: the Eagles are an angry team. They won the NFC East, but no one picked them to go far. No one picked an angry, defensive-minded Ravens team last year, and just look what happened.
Then again, the Rams are the Rams. It seems foolish to pick against them. Like picking Nebraska to beat Miami in that joke of a national title game that occurred just a few weeks ago. Maybe it’s the underdog in me. Maybe it’s the ghost of Randall Cunningham, calling out to my inner child, that 10-year-old who loved the Eagles in Kelly green. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m tired of the Rams and this idea that they’re God’s gift to football. Whatever it is, I’m going with the ultimate underdog.
Eagles 31, Rams 21.
AFC championship: New England at Pittsburgh
After that last prediction, picking the Patriots to upset Pittsburgh should make nary a dent in my football conscience. But I can’t do it. I’m not from Pennsylvania, nor do I have any association with the state, but an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl would be a thing of legend. Few fans in America are more fervent about their teams than are the Steeler and Eagle faithful. Their fanatical loyalty would make the Super Bowl the Keystone state’s civil war.
But enough about how mythical a Pittsburgh-Philadelphia match-up would be, let’s talk about the game at hand. Pittsburgh will win because they are the better team, at almost every position. Tom Brady had a fantastic year for the Patriots, but Kordell Stewart was the AFC’s MVP. Antowain Smith revived his career in Foxboro, but Jerome Bettis was rejuvenated at Heinz Field. Troy Brown is a clutch wide receiver, but Hines Ward is a better blocker, Plaxico Burress a better leaper, and Bobby Shaw a better deep threat. The Patriots defense is well-coached, but it is outclassed by the quickness and pure aggression personified by the Steelers defensive corps. Both of these teams experienced a renaissance in the mid ’90s, with the Steelers making the Super Bowl in 1996 and the Patriots in ’97. Now both are back on the doorstep, but only one can walk through the door. I don’t have the same bias against the Steelers as I do the Rams, so I can’t see the Pats pulling off the upset. Unless it snows.
Steelers 24, Patriots 16