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Saturday, January 22, 2005 

Title Fights

After some upsets on wild-card weekend, all four home teams held serve last weekend. Now it's on to the conference championship games, which feature their own intriguing matchups.

NFC Championship Game
Atlanta at Philadelphia

This game is all about contrasts. The Falcons were the top rushing team in the NFL this season, which is obviously influenced by Michael Vick. The combination of Vick and Warrick Dunn is a great 1-2 punch with a lot of speed. Then they can bring in T.J. Duckett for power. Unfortunately, Atlanta's balance is awful - they were dead last in passing yards.

For most of the season, the Eagles's offense revolved around Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens. Even with Owens's injury late in the year, he accounted for nearly one-third of McNabb's passing yards. McNabb threw the ball a lot more, ran less, and handed off intermittantly; the Eagles were 7th in passing yards and 24th in rushing this season.

Atlanta's problem in this game is that Philadelphia has been a steady defensive team all year, good against both the run and the pass, giving up a fair amount of yardage but making the big play when they need to. The Eagles defense has given up nearly 60 yards more a game than the Steelers, but the Eagles held opponents to 260 points this season, just 9 more than the Steelers allowed. Atlanta allowed only a few more yards per game than Philadelphia, but their defense is almost as unbalanced as their offense - good against the run (better than the Eagles statistically) but weak against the pass.

If Terrell Owens has healthy, this game would be no contest. McNabb could stretch the defense and give Michael Westbrook room in the running game. But with Owens on the sideline, watch for Atlanta to take some chances defensively to stop the run and the short passing game. Atlanta's formula for victory is to get a lead and keep it on the ground, but the conditions might neutralize their speed - snow is expected tonight - and give Philadelphia an edge.

AFC Championship Game
New England at Pittsburgh

Last week, everyone loved Indy and Pittsburgh. This week, everyone loves New England. The truth is somewhere in between. Turnovers and injuries were the key to the Patriots loss at Heinz Field earlier this year. Corey Dillion did not play, then Matt Light got hurt, ruining the Patriots' running game. Ty Law's injuiry then made things easier for Big Ben, who spent the day throwing only when he wanted to, picking his spots.

Will Corey Dillion make the difference Sunday? It will help, but the Patriots will need to throw the ball a lot more (and more productively) than they did against the Colts. The Steelers were #1 against the run, and I expect Dillion to have some problems, especially early on. Like most road teams in the playoffs, you have to go into the game expecting the home team to be fired up - you have to survive against that emotion and not panic, as Phil Simms might say. The Patriots will not panic, but neither will the Steelers. I would be shocked if the Steelers didn't attack the Patriots deep. Look for big throws downfield if the Steelers get their running game going (which will be easier if Richard Seymour misses another game), but Pittsburgh's coaches have to walk a fine line. They don't want to put Roethlisberger in too many third-and-long situations, but if they are too conservative, they'll end up like the Colts.

Just like in Philadelphia, snow is in the forecast for Saturday, so the already legendary bad turf at Heinz Field should also be a factor.

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