Sunday, January 23, 2005

Football Preview

All eyes of the sporting world will be on Pennsylvania this afternoon as the Keystone State plays host to both NFL conference championship games. After 17 weeks of regular season play and two weeks of playoffs, the field of NFL contenders has been whittled down to 4 teams. The Philadelphia Eagles will take on the Atlanta Falcons for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. A few hours later, the New England Patriots will invade Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to play the Steelers for the AFC title. It's only a few hours before kickoff, so it's a little late for these previews. Still, I figure better late than never.

NFC Championship

For the fourth straight year, the Philadelphia Eagles will host the NFC title game. They fell short the last three years despite being a solid favorite. No team has ever lost four straight conference championship games, and the city of Philadelphia is keenly aware of that fact. Governor and former mayor of Pilly, Ed Rendell was seen on ESPN this morning pleading with the Lord to finally allow the Eagles to break through.

This year's challenger is the Atlanta Falcons led by Super Man himself, Michael Vick. The Falcons will be leaving the comforts of the dome in Hotlanta to brave the arctic conditions along the banks of the Schuylkill River. A blizzard blasted the City of Brotherly Love for the last 24 hours, but the snow should be over in time for kickoff. Nonetheless, the weather will be a factor. Temperatures at kickoff will be well under 20 degrees and the winds will be around 25 mph or better.

Initially, one might think that these brutal conditions will favor the Eagles since they are used to playing outdoors. But, in the words of Lee Corso, I say, "Not so fast, my friend." Many teams who play in domes take on a very dome oriented persona -- fast but a little soft (see the Colts, the Rams and the Vikings). Not so the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons feature a stout defense and bruising rushing attack. Neither of these will be affected by the wind or cold of Philly. The Falcons proved their cold weather capabilities two years ago when they handed the Green Bay Packers their only post season loss ever on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. Meanwhile, the Eagles have been vulnerable against the run all year and do not center their offense around a power runner. McNabb is a great quarterback, but this will be a horrendous day for throwing the ball to his depleted receiving core.

Banshee Prediction:
Falcons 24
Eagles 10

AFC Championship

This game could go down as one of the greatest games in NFL history. This will be an old-school ballgame. The weather will be frigid on the banks of the three rivers of Pittsburgh. But, these are two cold weather teams that are designed to win in harsh conditions. The Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champs. During the offseason, the Pats added the first rate runner, Cory Dillon, to their roster. Despite a rash of injuries to the defense, the Patriots have adapted and continued to win -- sometimes playing a wide receiver in their defensive backfield. The Pats enter this game with only two losses on the season. The only meaningful loss came at the hands of the Steelers on Halloween

The Pittsburgh Steelers only have one blemish on their record. But, they are undefeated since rookie Ben Roethlisberger took over the reins at quarterback. Perhaps more than any other team in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers match the city where they play. This is a working man's team. There's nothing flashy about these guys.

Both teams in this game are capable of playing lock-down defense. They can both grind out the clock with the running game. These things we know. The big question is at the quarterback slot. The Patriots' Tom Brady is a proven winner. He has twice piloted his team to Super Bowl victories. There is nothing extremely picturesque about Brady. He's not the fastest. He's not the strongest. He's certainly not the biggest. But, you play to win the games, and Tom Brady wins games. In contrast, you have Big Ben. No rookie has ever led his team to a Super Bowl. None. But, Big Ben has overcome a lot in his life already -- a shortsighted high school coach who benched Ben in favor of his own son, a college career at the second tier Miami of Ohio, and the recent death of his mother. And through it all, we have seen no chinks in the armor. Thanks in large part to the legs of Jerome Bettis and the blocking Penn Stater Jeff Hartings, today will not be the end of Big Ben's glorious run.

Banshee prediction:
Patriots 7
Steelers 10