Pennsylvania looks Super

Jan 18, 2005 8:52 AM
There is a distinct possibility that we could have a Keystone State Super Bowl as both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia host their respective conference championship games. While the Eagles are favored in their battle with Atlanta, the Steelers have been installed as a three-point underdog to visiting and defending Super Bowl champion New England. Although rare, it is not unprecedented for the host in a playoff game to be an underdog. Home teams have demonstrated that on some very basic levels they are the better team and should be favored.  In the NFC, Philadelphia earned the home field with a 13-3 record, compared to 11-5 for Atlanta. The teams did not meet during the regular season. Philadelphia opened as a four-point favorite over the Falcons and bet up a half to a point at various Sports Books in Las Vegas and elsewhere. The “over / under” opened at 42 and has generally been bet down to 41 in most locales. In the AFC, Pittsburgh earned the home field with a 15-1 regular season record. The difference in their record and New England’s 14-2 mark resulted from Pittsburgh’s midseason 34-20 home victory over the Patriots. It was a win that ended New England’s perfect season and overall 21- game winning streak. The “over / under” opened at 37 and dropped to 36 in some books. A dip to 35 or lower (depending on game day weather) is most likely. Pittsburgh was very fortunate to advance to this game after surviving the New York Jets last Saturday. But for two missed Doug Brien field goals in the waning minutes of regulation it might be New England hosting the Jets this week. Less than 24 hours later, after the Patriots had defeated Indianapolis 20-3, the line for the actual game came out with more than a three-point adjustment based solely on the reaction to New England defeating the supposedly invincible Colts. Keep in mind, of course, that there was very heavy action on the Colts against New England. The Pats had opened 2½-to-3 point favorites over Indy, but by kickoff the game was pick’em. In some places the Colts had been made one-point favorites. The Pats had shown prior to last week that they had Indy QB Peyton Manning’s number, having won five in a row overall against the Colts and were 6-of-6 at home against him. Still, the public reacted to the Indianapolis demolition of Denver the week before and discounted the fact that the Patriots yielded the second fewest points in the league. Since the NFL’s playoff format was significantly revised in 1990, the home team is 8-5 SU as an underdog. Sunday, Jan. 23 Falcons +4½ at Eagles (41): This will be the first playoff game featuring two teams that did not meet during the regular season. Perhaps the single most intriguing question entering the playoffs was how Philadelphia would perform following virtually a month of inactivity for many of the starters and having to deal with the absence of WR Terrell Owens. For the most part the Eagles answered the questions positively in a 27-14 rout of Minnesota. The offense was reasonably sharp, rushing for more than four yards per carry and QB Donovan McNabb passing for a shade under 300 yards. But it was the defense that draws most plaudits from that game. The Eagles improved greatly defending the run over the second half of the season. Atlanta’s offensive strength is its running game, largely due to the contributions of QB Michael Vick. In combination with RB Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett, the Falcons led the league in rushing, averaging 167 yards per game during the regular season. The Falcons rushed for 327 yards in a 47-17 rout of St Louis this past Saturday. The Falcons are a team on the rise with a bright future. They are playing for a first season coach so the upside over the next few seasons is great. If the Eagles lose an unprecedented fourth straight NFC title game, the effects on the franchise are unknown. The Philly game plan should be to force Vick beat them with his arm and not his feet. Atlanta’s receivers are not amongst the elite in the league with Vick’s favorite target being TE Algie Crumpler. Atlanta might similarly try to contain the Philly running game and force McNabb to win by hooking up with his rather average band of receivers now that Owens is sidelined. The difference maker is likely to be RB Brian Westbrook. The outdoor elements and any inclement weather, plus the natural grass surface, works against Atlanta. PHILLY, UNDER. Patriots -3 at Steelers (36): When New England got a FG barely 3½ minutes into their Halloween game to take a 3-0 lead, it appeared the Patriots were on their way to a 22nd straight win. By the end of that first quarter, the Steelers had rallied back to take a 21-3 lead on a pair of Ben Roethlisberger TD passes (including a 47-yard strike to Plaxico Burress) and a 39-yard interception return. Two of the scores came in the final minute of the quarter and effectively ended the game. The Steelers would go on to a 34-20 win, which ultimately earned them the right to host the title game. New England allowed a season high 221 rushing yards, while gaining a season low five yards on the ground. The Pats were without RB Corey Dillon in that contest. Pittsburgh had the league’s top defense in allowing both the fewest points and fewest yards. The offense was statistically average, but that was due to a dominating rush offense that often results in below average passing stats. Both teams had nicely positive turnover margins with New England’s resulting from a defense that forced turnovers and Pittsburgh’s resulting from an offense that greatly protected the football. A major concern for Pittsburgh is whether rookie QB Roethlisberger will play as he did for most of the regular season when he showed the poise of a veteran. New England QB Tom Brady is a perfect 7-0 in postseason play. The Pats have had back-to-back 14-2 seasons, were second to the Steelers in fewest points allowed and had a top 10 rushing game on both sides of the football. Prior to the loss earlier this season, New England had won the three previous meetings with Pittsburgh. Of New England’s seven postseason victories, four have been by exactly three points. New England won the last playoff meeting between the two teams in the 2001 AFC title clash at Pittsburgh, This should be a game of good old smash mouth football, decided in the trenches. PITTSBURGH, UNDER. Last week: 6-2 Postseason: 7-5 Season: 142-121-5