Sun, Jan 23, 2005 - Page 23 News List

Eagles may have edge on Falcons as Pats face Steelers

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Two big offenses face two dominating defenses. This is the fourth straight conference championship game for the Philadelphia Eagles (they are 0-3), and they are favored over a dome team that is 4-4 on the road this season and not enamored of the cold weather it will see this time.

The Atlanta Falcons (12-5), under a new head coach in Jim Mora Jr., led the league this season in rushing. Warrick Dunn, their underrated running back, has bettered 100 yards in four of his last five games.

The Eagles' defense often overloads up front with a six-man rush and still plays a zone in the secondary. That may limit Dunn, but can the Eagles (14-3) stop him and still handle Michael Vick, the Falcons' quick quarterback?

If Vick is contained -- and the Eagles may use their speedy defensive end, Jevon Kearse, as a keep-him-in-the-pocket spy -- Vick becomes just another good but not game-breaking quarterback. Easier said than done. As Brian Dawkins, the Eagles' safety, said, "We're going to have our hands full, especially with their quarterback."

The Eagles are a veteran team with a big, solid and versatile quarterback in Donovan McNabb, a tricky runner in Brian Westbrook and a punishing defense with an excellent secondary. Offensive tackle Jon Runyan, the key blocker, is expected to play despite strained knee ligaments.

New England (15-2) at Pittsburgh (16-1)

This figures to be a pitched battle between the resourceful Patriots, who have won two of the past three Super Bowls, and the battering Steelers. The Patriots are so creative that they are favored on the road against a team that has won 15 straight games. The winner will probably be favored in Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla.

This season, the Steelers' offense has averaged 39 rushes and 154 yards rushing. Jerome Bettis rams the middle, takes a few plays off and watches Duce Staley hammer off tackle. Bettis weighs 255 pounds, Staley 242, and opposing defenses tend to wear down. Coach Bill Belichick of the Patriots routinely comes up with defensive twists, but as his nose tackle, Keith Traylor, said, "Nobody's going to trick anybody."

Hines Ward, the Steelers' receiver, predicted what the Patriots' defense would do. "We are going to see eight men in the box, probably," he said. "We are still going to run the ball."

Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers' rookie quarterback, is 14-0 as a starter. He has cooled off in recent weeks, but coach Bill Cowher of the Steelers said, "He is unflappable. You still have a sense that he's going to get it done."

Cowher, whose team has the best record in pro football, called the Patriots "the best team in football." Quarterback Tom Brady is 7-0 in career playoff starts. Corey Dillon rushed for 144 yards against the Colts last week in his first playoff game.

The Patriots should get their points on offense.

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