Pats, Eagles Fulfill Super Bowl Dream Matchup
By Michael Avallone
And then there were two. Both the AFC and NFC Championship games ended the way most thought they would with New England and Philadelphia both advancing to Super Bowl XXXVI. Like they did a week earlier against the Colts, the Patriots undressed the Pittsburgh defense to the tune of 41 points and finally handed rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger his first loss. Across the state in Philadelphia, head coach Andy Reid and QB Donovan McNabb got over the hump after three straight meltdowns in the NFC title game. Jacksonville, here we come…
Eagles QB Donovan McNabb (17-of-26, 180 yards, 2 TDs) showed why he is considered one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Although his numbers were not eye-popping, he made the plays he had to and was in complete control the entire game. On the other side of the coin is Michael Vick. Atlanta’s dynamic QB never got comfortable in the bitterly cold temps – not to mention against the hard-hitting Philly “D.” Vick completed just 11-of-24 pass attempts for 136 yards. More importantly, he rushed for only 26 yards and was sacked four times.
As for the ground game, well maybe this is what the Eagles were missing last year. Even without WR Terrell Owens to take the pressure off, Philadelphia RB Brian Westbrook carried the ball 16 times for a game-high 96 yards. Comparatively, the Falcons were only able to generate 114 total yards on the ground a week after gaining more than 300 against the Rams. RB Warrick Dunn led the way with 15 carries for 59 yards and one touchdown.
Philadelphia’s early touchdown eased a lot of fears and definitely contributed to a more relaxed team. After failing in three straight NFC title games, the pressure was on the favored Eagles to advance and falling behind early would have been disastrous. An efficient offense and a brilliant defensive scheme by Philly limited the Falcons opportunities and ultimately proved to be too much for Vick and co. to overcome. If there was one thing this game showed, it is that Michael Vick has a long way to go before he can call himself one of the top QBs in the league.
AFC Championship Game
Rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger (14-of-23, 226 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) quickly found out that making mistakes against the Patriots is a lot worse than against the Jets. Although his final numbers were respectable, two turnovers against the New England defense was a recipe for disaster. As for the Pats, QB Tom Brady remained unbeaten in the postseason and once again showed that comparisons to Joe Montana are not far-fetched. Although he threw for only 205 yards on 15-of-22 passing, two of his completions went for touchdowns, including a 60-yarder to WR Deion Branch after Pats “D” had stopped the Steelers on a 4th and 1 play.
While both teams ran the ball fairly well, the Steelers fell behind so early that their 163 yard total – 64 from RB Jerome Bettis – was largely a non-factor. Although he didn’t duplicate his outstanding game from a week earlier, Patriots RB Corey Dillon managed to grind out 73 yards and one TD on 24 carries while backup RB Kevin Faulk chipped in with 20 yards on just three carries.
Pittsburgh had won 16 consecutive games with a rookie quarterback. Sooner or later, the football goods would come calling and on Sunday night, they did. Roethlisberger’s final 15-1 record in his first NFL season is likely a foreshadowing of things to come for the Steel City and their team. Unfortunately, they ran into what is arguably the latest dynasty in pro football. With a win in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots will have claimed three of the last four titles, a feat not accomplished since the Dallas Cowboys of the early-mid ’90s won three championships from 1993-1996.