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Pickin' and Grinnin' - Championship Week
Bob Cunningham
January 20, 2004

Straight-Up: 158-106 (60%)
Against-The-Spread: 128-129-7 (49%)

Straight-Up: 3-1
Against-The-Spread: 2-2

Comment: Doggone it, I should have known better than to go against the champion Patriots at home. Not only did New England's injury-depleted defense stymie the Indianapolis Colts again, it did so even more convincingly than in last year's AFC Championship game or this year's season opener. A tip of the cap to coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and the Patriots defense. Now the questions... can they avenge their loss at Pittsburgh and win a conference title game there for the second time in three years? Can the Philadelphia Eagles finally get over the hump and reach the Super Bowl, after three successive title game failures? Will we have an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl? This is exciting stuff.

Atlanta (12-5, NFC 2nd seed) at Philadelphia (14-3, NFC 1st seed)

Line: Eagles favored by 4 1/2. ATS Records: Falcons 8-9, Eagles 10-7.

Falcons Status Report: In a result that seemed to surprise a lot of people, but not me, the Falcons routed St. Louis in last week's divisional round, 47-17, at home and made it to the NFC championship game for the second time in their history.

Eagles Status Report: Philadelphia clipped Minnesota at home, 27-14, in a divisional playoff game on Sunday to advance to their fourth straight conference title game.

The Series: The most recent meeting was a 23-16 victory for the Eagles at the Georgia Dome in 2003, and prior to that it was a 20-6 triumph at Veterans Stadium in the 2002 divisional playoffs. Overall, Philadelphia has won four of the last five meetings.

Stat Worth Noting: The Eagles are 5-1 ATS in their last six games against Atlanta and haven't lost to the Falcons at home since the mid-1980s.

Game Summary: The one major thing working against the Eagles is NOT Atlanta QB Michael Vick. Oh, he's a concern of course. But virtually all opponent provide tests. For Philly last week, it was Minnesota's Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper. No, the biggest worry for the Eagles is dealing with the pressure that comes with this game. Not only are they favored and at home, but they're trying to avert the stigma of losing four conference title games in a row. Now that's pressure... and it could assist the Falcons a bit here. But you know what? I don't believe it'll matter. The Eagles have the defense to confuse Vick, as they did in the playoff victory over Atlanta two years ago. Their run defense doesn't rank highly, but it's been a lot better down the stretch (before the two games that didn't matter at the end of the regular season). They have the passing game, even without injured star wideout Terrell Owens, to exploit the Falcons' very average secondary. Sure, slowing Vick is something Philly should be focused on. But more importantly, in my opinion, Atlanta should be scared to death of QB Donovan McNabb. He is more likely to be the difference with his playmaking capabilities running AND passing. I also believe that the cold weather - the forecast says it will be windy and snowy - suits Philadelphia much more than a team from the deep south that calls a dome its home. The Eagles will finally... and convincingly... make it to the Big Dance.

Prediction: EAGLES, 31-10

New England (15-2, AFC 2nd seed) at Pittsburgh (16-1, AFC 1st seed)

Line: Patriots favored by 3. ATS Records: Patriots 11-3-3, Steelers 11-6.

Patriots Status Report: New England has reached the AFC Title Game for the third time in four years, whipping Indianapolis at home on Sunday, 20-3.

Steelers Status Report: Pittsburgh will host the conference championship for the sixth time in its history, rallying to edge the New York Jets Saturday, 20-17 in overtime. The Steelers have won 15 consecutive games.

The Series: Pittsburgh snapped New England's 21-game winning streak over two seasons with a 34-20 victory in Week 7 at Pittsburgh. The most recent previous meeting at Pittsburgh was the Patriots' 24-17 victory at Pittsburgh in the 2001 AFC Championship. In between, the Pats recorded a 30-14 home victory during the '02 regular season.

Stats Worth Noting: The Steelers have lost four of their last five conference title games and are just 3-6 in their last nine home playoff games, including 2-7 ATS.

Game Summary: Although it's certainly possible that the same team which won the October meeting between these two might again come away victorious, I feel fairly certain it won't under similar circumstances. That game, a 34-20 Steelers win, will sharply contrast what happens Sunday, when both defenses rule the day. What a difficult game to forecast, because there are prohibitive factors which favor both teams. The trick is to determine which are more important. For the visiting Patriots, there's experience above all else. They've been here before, having won numerous showdown games over the last few years (not to mention a couple of Super Bowls). Coach Bill Belichick has preparing for these contests down to an artform. His teams never looked outcoached, but opponents often do. New England also has a decided edge at quarterback with two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady facing rookie sensation Ben Roethlisberger for the Steelers. And apparently, there's nothing much wrong with the Patriots defense. Forget Ty Law... who needs him? Without arguably the best cover corner in the game, and pitted against the finest passing offense in the league by far, New England completely shut down Indianapolis last week. Wasn't even close. For Pittsburgh, there's the homefield advantage and a 15-game winning streak that included a decisive triumph over the Patriots. There's also the subplot that the Steelers may not be getting the nationwide respect they've earned. Consider that the oddsmakers have established this 16-1 home team as underdogs. That's mind-boggling... but probably accurate. So which fact mentioned above influences me the most? It's Brady vs. Roethlisberger. With all due respect to the rookie... and believe me, he's earned a bunch... that matchup is the most glaring difference between these two. The Jets thoroughly baffled Roethlisberger last week, and as long as the Patriots do as well at foiling the run as they typically do in big games, it's tough to envision the rook winning it for his team. Except for a glaringly dumb pass he attempted at Miami on a Monday night a few weeks ago that led to his team's last defeat, Brady is as good as they come in the clutch. Also, the weather is worth considering - the forecast calls for snow and wind, conditions similar to what the Patriots played in last week. In what I believe will be a close, old-school matchup... I like the champs.

Prediction: PATRIOTS, 17-13