Monday, January 24, 2005

Florida in February
Only now, about 26 hours after the Eagles punched their ticket to Super Bowl XXXIX with a 27-10 win over the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, is the glow starting to fade. Well, actually it's gone; it's quite cold and I'm grumpy and tired. But this game will be replayed on my own mental TiVo for a long while to come.

There was something intensely satisfying, in a narrative sense, about how the Eagles finally got past the conference title game. To me, Andy Reid confirmed his membership in the coaching pantheon with the game he called yesterday. Rather than playing things tight and conservative, as he did in the two home losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina the last two years, he called a fake field goal and a strategic time out to force Atlanta to take a fourth down into the wind. That was just the first quarter. As Gregg Easterbrook probably will note in his column tomorrow, Reid basically challenged his team to win the game--and showed his total confidence that they'd do so.

Those calls were contingent on the situation in the game at the time. His conceptual breakthrough, though, was to realize that on a very windy day, with an opponent who would try to control the ball, the clock, and the tempo, the Eagles would have to run to win. Thus we saw Brian Westbrook carry it 16 times for 96 yards; Dorsey Levens got a handful of carries; emerging big-play guy Greg Lewis took a handoff for a crucial first-down run; and McNabb wound up carrying ten times, more than Atlanta's Michael Vick. To be fair, a few of those McNabb carries were probably busted pass plays, but the result was that for the first time in memory, Philly ran it more than they threw it.

Can they beat New England and take home a title? I think the betting line--Patriots by 7--is fair, but I also think the Eagles have a great chance to win the game. Donovan McNabb won't make the mistakes Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did in his team's 41-27 loss, and I have a feeling Westbrook will find more holes than did Pittsburgh's Duce Staley--the ex-Eagle who has now been on the losing side in four straight conference championship games--and Jerome Bettis yesterday. New England's secondary is still vulnerable, as the Steelers showed in putting up 24 second-half points; in terms of gameplanning, it will be easier for Reid and offensive coordinator Brad Childress to draw up plays than it was for the Steelers with their rookie QB.

Defensively, the Eagles shouldn't allow as many deep passes as the Steelers did; those three Pro Bowl defensive backs have to count for something. And JJ should be able to get more pressure on Pats quarterback Tom Brady than Pittsburgh did. On the other hand, the Eagles' front seven is probably more vulnerable to the run. Hopefully Mark Simoneau will be back and able to play--his speed at LB will be important in containing Corey Dillon.

It should be a very good game with more than enough storylines to keep the press frenzied for 13 days--two great head coaches and their justly lauded coordinators, two great QBs, Dillon and (hopefully) Terrell Owens making their first Super Bowls. I'm just planning to enjoy the ride.

Back tomorrow with some thoughts on the Democrats' possible spine transfusion and Hillary Clinton's abortion... um, "triangulation" might be too harsh, especially considering that what she said is pretty close to what I think about the issue... but it sure sounded like political positioning.

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