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Two Games to Glory

Patriots, Eagles Should Advance to Jacksonville

Two teams will survive this weekend's grueling round of championship games, as the nation turns its lonely eyes to snowy Pennsylvania for the AFC title fight between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots and the NFC bout between the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons. And though the Sons of Bill Cowher should probably send thank-you notes to New York Jets kicker Doug Brien, whose faulty footwork in the fourth laid the groundwork for Pittsburgh's 20-17 overtime victory in the divisional round, it's fitting -- and surprisingly rare -- that both championship bouts will feature the top-ranked teams in their respective conferences. Does it mean anything? Probably not. The Patriots were the second-best team in the AFC during the regular season, but they will arrive in Heinz Field as a three-point favorite to represent their conference at Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville. Once there, Vegas odds-makers have them matching up against Donovan McNabb's Eagles, losers of three straight NFC championship games. Who am I to argue?

The picks:

New England Patriots (-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers
The injury-riddled secondary that wasn't supposed to outman Peyton Manning did just that, stopping the MVP's high-flying offense dead in its tracks on a frigid Sunday in Foxborough. Now, the Patriots are once again media darlings, as the fickle football analysts who insisted the reigning champs couldn't beat Indy without starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole scramble to explain why Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 6. They're probably right.

Yes, Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley battered the Pats in a lopsided, 34-20 win on Halloween, rushing for a combined 190 yards while Pittsburgh's stingy defense picked off Brady twice and limited New England to five rushing yards on six attempts. But Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel aren't likely to bungle a second encounter with rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger, who looked more than a little shaky against the Jets. Provided they can create enough confusion on the field to throw Big Ben off his game, expect New England's seasoned defensive backs to rush the line and stifle Pittsburgh's vaunted running attack.

Easier said than done, to be sure, but remember that the Pats didn't stop the Colts by taking away Manning's downfield opportunities; they did so by limiting Edgerrin James to a measly 39-rushing yards and delivering big, bone-crushing hits whenever Indy approached the red zone. Unlike Manning's crew, the Steelers will hit back, but they'll be hard-pressed to stop Brady (7-0 in postseason play) and Corey Dillon, who sat out the Halloween debacle with a bum ankle.
Final score: New England 24, Pittsburgh 17

Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles (-5)
Defense wins championships. (Duh.) That's bad news for the Falcons, whose coverage schemes have improved dramatically under Jim Mora Jr. and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, but not enough to elevate Atlanta to the ranks of the league's stingiest. There are three great defensive units remaining in the playoff hunt, and then there's Atlanta, whose defense was middle-of-the-pack in all statistical categories but one: the pass rush.

The Dirty Birds led the NFL with 48 sacks, but they rarely faced a quarterback as elusive as Donovan McNabb, who will have to scramble downfield early and often to compensate for the absence of Terrell Owens. The Falcons will counter with their own famously mobile quarterback, the speedy Michael Vick, but he and Warrick Dunn will struggle to match the combined 261 rushing yards they posted against the St. Louis Rams last weekend.

The Eagles recorded 115 plays for zero or negative yards during the regular season while terrorizing opposing QBs to the tune of 47 sacks. (Yes, I admit that I picked them to roll over and play dead against the Vikings last weekend…) With a superior secondary to match their peerless run-stoppers, Philadelphia should pick apart the most glaring weakness in Vick's game -- his passing -- and finally muster an effort strong enough to land them in the Super Bowl.
Final score: Philadelphia 21, Falcons 13