By Russell Levine
If the Patriots were feeling disrespected as a road favorite against a 16-1 team in the AFC Championship game -- and maybe it is just Rodney Harrison that feels that way -- just wait until they have to swallow two weeks of hearing about Terrell Owens' fractured ankle.
Harrison, one of those players that thrives off feeling slighted, is likely to be foaming at the mouth by the time he and his New England teammates take the field in Jacksonville. That's because the Eagles, and Owens' injured joint, are likely to get the lion's share of the national media's attention over the course of the next two weeks. That's just a natural by-product of the Patriots having become Super Bowl regulars while the Eagles, backed by some of the hungriest fans in all of sports, haven't played on the NFL's biggest stage since the 1980 season.
New England also doesn't have anyone with as colorful a personality as Owens, the prodigious wideout who seemed to inject the grim, businesslike Eagles with his braggadocio as he helped propel them to the NFC East championship. When Owens severely injured his angle in early December, the Philadelphia training staff held a press conference to announce there was a chance Owens could play in the Super Bowl -- an awful bold topic for a team that had lost three straight NFC title games. The message was clear: even though the Eagles had lost their most dangerous weapon, they would not alter their goals or allow Owens' injury to be used as an excuse. Five weeks later, there was Owens, leading the cheers on the Philadelphia sideline as his teammates finished off the Falcons to finally reach the big game. Anyone who saw Owens jumping up and down after a game-clinching touchdown would be very surprised if he isn't at least in uniform in Jacksonville.
The Eagles, and particularly quarterback Donovan McNabb, insisted after TO went down that their remaining receivers would get the job done. But while McNabb was masterful when he needed to be, and avoided any of the big mistakes that have plagued him in recent NFC title games, it was a fast, physical Eagle defense and cold, blustery conditions that did in Atlanta.
The Falcons, with the NFL's leading rushing attack, insisted that the weather would not affect them. But much as the Colts did in New England the week before, the Atlanta players looked cold. With winds gusting up to 40 miles an hour, the Philadelphia defense had absolutely no respect for the Atlanta passing attack, regularly bringing as many as 10 men within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Clearly the weather had something to do with that strategy, as both teams struggled to move the ball into the wind, but it is also evident that the Falcons will need to beef up their passing game in order to become an elite team.
The Falcons' passing problems are not all Michael Vick. Their top wide receiver, Peerless Price, is a lazy route-runner who struggles to get open against top corners; he is flanked by a group of marginal players and castoffs. At this stage in Vick's career, he has proven that he gives the Falcons their best chance to win when freelancing, running when his primary receivers are covered. He had plenty of success doing that in the regular season and in the divisional round against a terrible St. Louis defense. But against the Eagles, who had the speedy linebackers to contain Vick's scrambling, he was not able to break free for any big plays. Vick needs an upgrade at receiver, and perhaps promising rookie Michael Jenkins can grow into the No. 1 receiver role, but he also needs to learn that he will become an even more dangerous player when regularly uses his legs to create big plays in the passing game -- buying the extra seconds that lead to breakdowns in coverage -- and not by running. It will be difficult for Vick to tame his scrambling instincts because he's probably the most dangerous open-field runner in the NFL, maybe one of the most dangerous in the league's history.
The Falcons are a young team that appears to be on the upswing. If Vick can stay healthy -- always a big "if" for a player that takes as much punishment as he does -- they should certainly be able to build on their success this year and put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Rookie head coach Jim Mora (don't call me) Jr. will also grow from his playoff experience this year. Mora was flustered and frustrated in the Eagle game, more than once losing his cool on the sidelines when things didn't go his way. Perhaps trying too hard to prove that the weather would not affect his club, Mora made several mistakes in accounting for the wind, particularly when he called for a first-down pass play going into the wind late in the third quarter. There was a miscommunication between Vick and his intended receiver, Alge Crumpler, and the pass was intercepted and returned to the 10-yard line by Brian Dawkins, leading to a Philadelphia touchdown. Mora would have been better served by remaining conservative in that situation, as one first down rushing probably would have run out the third-quarter clock and allowed Atlanta to continue the drive with the wind at its back.
Later in the fourth quarter, Mora went conservative, calling for a 3rd-and-10 draw when he should have attacked down the field. The play was stopped, Atlanta punted and the Eagles drove for the score that iced the game.
Reid, for his part, could not have coached a better game. Except for one defensive timeout that backfired (the Eagles were hoping to force the Falcons to kick a field goal into the wind at the end of the first quarter; instead Atlanta opted to go for it and converted the fourth down), Reid was masterful. He never panicked when it looked like the game might remain close despite the Eagles outplaying Atlanta in the first half, and he never allowed the Atlanta defense or the weather to alter his offensive strategy. The Eagles threw deep into the wind with some success, and the game-icing drive was a thing of beauty: an 11-play, 65-yard march that ate up 6:53 of the game clock. Rather than just trying to grind down the clock, Reid remained aggressive on the drive, throwing on running downs and running on passing downs.
Reid has shouldered much of the blame for the Eagles' past playoff failures, and he deserves much of the credit for this triumph. Whether he can win a battle of wits with New England's Bill Belichick remains to be seen, but I think it's fair to say that Super Bowl XXXIX will present of a matchup of the two best coaches in the NFL.
This is the spot in the article when I'd love to be able to say that you, the readers, agree or disagree with me on that point, based on the online survey that I posted last week. But less-than-brilliant me neglected to read the fine print on the "free" survey host I used, and let's just say that when I inquired what it would cost to retrieve the data, it was more than I was willing to pay by a factor of about 80. Look for the return of that survey in another form some time in the future -- perhaps during the offseason.
I really want to know what you think of the league's coaches. Do Steelers fans, for example, want to replace Bill Cowher because he's lost four AFC title games at home? It's hard to blame Cowher for what happened against New England, when his rookie quarterback, who played so well as the Steelers raced to a 15-1 record, finally lapsed into rookie mode in his two playoff starts.
When the Steelers struggled to run the ball early and immediately fell behind by 10 points, they were already in desperate trouble. Their entire game plan was based on running the ball and making sure that the contest wouldn't fall on Ben Roethlisberger's shoulders. When that didn't happen, it wasn't a surprise that Roethlisberger struggled the way he did. The best sign for Steelers fans in this game was that as bad as Big Ben was in the first half, he came out after halftime and looked strong in the third quarter, showing the poise to not crumble when things weren't going well. Pittsburgh's final opportunity was done in by a third Roethlisberger interception, but he probably will grow more from this game than from any of the 15 straight wins he led this season.
There's not much I can add to New England's performance Sunday, an effort that was best summarized by a sign held up by a Steelers fan at the game. The sign read "We do what we do," which the Steelers weren't able to on Sunday, but the Patriots sure were. What the Patriots "do" is to take their opponent's best weapon and shut it down. The Patriots didn't let the Steelers beat them with their best weapon -- the run -- and they turned Roethlisberger into a struggling rookie when he was forced to pass. On offense, they attacked down the field as soon as they had the opportunity, putting the Steelers on their heels with a Tom Brady to Deion Branch bomb on their second possession.
The Patriots and Eagles are two teams that have built their records on dictating to their opponents, not reacting, so it will be interesting to see which team is forced to deviate from its game plan first in the Super Bowl. I'm not making any predictions yet. We've got two weeks to debate that issue.
Mike Martz Award
I can't in good conscience give out a Martz Award this week. There were mistakes made by the four coaches, some of which I've already documented, but nothing that really stood out worthy of the Martz Award. If forced to make a choice, I'd probably go with Cowher's decision to kick a field goal on 4th-and-goal from the New England 2-yard line early in the fourth quarter. The Steelers trailed by 14 at the time, even though they were lucky to be in the game at all, and I felt that their only chance to win was to score a touchdown on that possession. New England answered the field goal with a 10-play touchdown drive to all but seal the game, but Cowher's mistake falls short of Martz worthiness because it wasn't a decisive factor in the game.