By Jim Feist
The long NFL season comes down to its final four as the conference championship games will determine the Super Bowl teams this weekend.
Super Bowl 39 will be played in Jacksonville, Florida, two weeks following this weekend’s action.
The playoffs produced no big surprises — the top two seeds in each conference will be playing for a Super Bowl berth this weekend. Here’s a rundown of the match-ups.
Falcons at Eagles —4: This is the fourth straight trip to the NFC Championship game for the Eagles, and they hope it’s a charm as they’ve lost the previous three. These teams had the bye week and survived easily. Atlanta (12-5 SU, 8-8 ATS) is playing confident football under first-year head coach Jim Mora, Jr. A defensive specialist, he was brought in to improve a Falcons defense that ranked last in the NFL in 2003. He delivered, with the help of sack-masters Patrick Kerney and Rod Coleman as Atlanta is ninth against the run.
Offensively, the Falcons are often one-dimensional, leading the league in rushing behind one-dimensional quarterback Michael Vick (14 TDs, 12 INTs, 902 rushing yards, 7.5 yards per carry). The Falcons chewed up the Rams this weekend, but will find the going far tougher against the Eagles’ 10th ranked defense. Atlanta was just 4-4 SU/ATS on the road and will face cold weather after playing in a Dome Saturday.
The Falcons were weak against the pass (21st), and allowed 63 percent completions — 4th worst in the NFL. They allowed 262 passing yards to the Rams, but shut out St. Louis in the second half of a 47-17 cakewalk. There was no pressure on Vick to throw the ball and he passed for 82 yards while running for 119. Things won’t be so easy this week and it will be interesting to see how Vick performs against the Eagles, especially if they fall behind.
The Atlanta pass defense gets another stiff test against the Philly version of Michael Vick — Donovan McNabb (31 TDs, 8 INTs). The Eagles (14-3 SU, 10-7 ATS) will play without star WR Terrell Owens, but the offense busted out without him against the Vikings. Philly (8-1 SU, 6-3 ATS at home) relies on the pass, averaging 248 yards per game (7th in the NFL). The Eagles’ run defense struggled at times, giving up 158 yards to the Panthers, over 160 twice to the Giants, 165 to the Browns, 252 to the Steelers, 148 to the Bengals and 209 to the Rams. Atlanta’s top ranked rushing offense will try to continue that trend, but the Eagles pass offense will attack the Falcons’ susceptible secondary.
Patriots —3 at Steelers: No. 1 seeded Pittsburgh (16-1 SU, 11-6 ATS) worked hard all season to secure the best record in the NFL. It pays dividends here as they get to host the AFC Championship game. Coach Bill Cowher likes a rough, physical team and he has molded this unit into the league’s best thus far. The Steelers have advanced to the AFC Championship game for the fifth time in coach Cowher’s 13 years as coach.
Pittsburgh is No. 1 in total defense and first against the run, allowing just 80 rushing yards per game. The Steelers played their worst game since September on Saturday, turning the ball over three times while giving up a punt return for a TD. Yet, they survived, with a little help from Lady Luck and the Jets field goal unit. Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said, "That was the closest thing to a miracle that it gets."
The Steelers ground game punished the Jets with 193 rush yards, 4.5 yards per carry. They can’t get another poor game from rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger, but their bread and butter on offense will continue to be the ground attack and an aggressive defense. The Steelers have held seven of the last 10 opponents under 17 points. The Steelers are 9-0 at home (6-3 ATS).
Going up against them will be the defending champion Patriots, 14-2 in the regular season for two years in row and 6-2 SU/ATS mark on the road. This is also a revenge-match, as Pittsburgh manhandled New England on October 31, a 34-20 win at home. The Steelers won that ground battle 221-5 rushing yards! Corey Dillon missed the game, however, and will be ready for the rematch. This is also a revenge spot for the Steelers, having lost to the Pats 24-17 in the AFC Championship game three years ago. The Patriots have a better offense since then and a lot of confidence, but Pittsburgh has Roethlisberger at quarterback instead of Kordell Stewart — a serious upgrade! The winner of this game will probably be favored in the Super Bowl.