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NFL Playoff Fever

   by Al McMordie - 01/16/2005

It’s almost time to crown a Super Bowl champion and this week’s games will settle the participants. If you ever doubted the old adage that, “Defense wins championships,â€쳌 well, you should be ashamed of yourself! Defense was the dominant theme again. The high flying Rams hoped their air attack would lead them deep into the playoffs overshadowing a terrible defense. Final score: Falcons 47, Rams 17. The Vikings brought the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense into Philadelphia Sunday, but when the smoke cleared, the Eagles’ defense was the difference in a 27-14 win. This was followed by Sunday’s epic showdown between Peyton Manning’s unstoppable offense against Bill Belichick’s talented defense. When the smoke cleared (actually, when the snow cleared) the defense won again, manhandling the Colts in a 20-3 victory.

So here we find ourselves with four teams remaining. Three are ranked in the Top 10 in total defense, with Pittsburgh No. 1 and New England No. 9. And if you look at rush defense, the Falcons, Steelers and Pats are all in the Top 9. Yes, defense, largely, got them this far.

What is truly remarkable about the AFC Championship game are the similarities of the Patriots and Steelers. Both have physical defenses. Both are great against the run and the pass. Both teams have a power running game. The ground game and defense saved the Steelers season against the Jets, rushing for 193 yards. The Patriots then exposed the Colts by rushing for 210 yards in the snow in their surprisingly one-sided clash. It will mean more for the Patriots if All-Pro nose tackle Richard Seymour can play this game, and it will mean more for Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger to recover fast from his sore ribs, as he looked off against the Jets. Expect a tough, physical game in the trenches from start to finish.

Revenge likely won’t be on the mind of either team, but it is interesting that the Patriots upset the Steelers three years ago on this field in the AFC Championship game, the last time Pittsburgh advanced this far (as an 11-point favorite, no less). And New England saw its record win streak end on this field back in October in their first defeat, 34-20, as they got completely dominated by the Steelers. It’s also interesting that RB Corey Dillon didn’t play that game – the only one he missed all season.

In “the otherâ€쳌 game, the Falcons travel to Philadelphia. There are definite contrasts in styles. Atlanta led the NFL in rushing and doesn’t have much of a vertical game. The Eagles are mostly about passing behind Donovan McNabb with a tough defense. Atlanta plays indoors on carpet, but must travel to the cold outdoors of Philadelphia. It’s also about redemption – the Eagles have lost the last three NFC Championship games! You wonder if exasperated Philly fans might just burn the stadium to the ground if the Eagles blow this game.

Finally, looking back at recent championship games, the only trend is to expect the unexpected. The last five years, the underdog is 8-2 against the number in the title games, with five dogs winning outright. Last year Carolina won 14-3 at Philly as a dog, Philly got upset by Tampa Bay two years ago, and New England won at Pittsburgh in January of 2002. Even though both games a year ago sailed under the total, the last ten years the over/under is a perfect 5-5. Look for defense to play more of a starring role this weekend – as is often the case in January football!

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