For Football Purists, Super Bowl is this Weekend

What a day it will be on Sunday for Pennsylvania as both Conference Championships take center stage in Pittsburgh and Philly. What an even bigger day it will be for the state if both the Steelers and Eagles win however.

For football purists, the Super Bowl really is this Sunday at 6:30 p.m. as the league's two best teams meet in the AFC Conference Championship game. There are few that would challenge the notion that the reigning champ Patriots, 15-2 on the season in spite of a host of key injuries, and the 16-1 Steelers are the best two teams in the NFL. So speaking for many, this game will take on more meaning than the actual Super Bowl will this year in what has pitted the powerhouse AFC vs. a shameful collection of teams over in the NFC which has become an embarrassment of sorts for the NFL.

Last week in the divisional round, once again, defense and rushing offense won out in grand fashion. Had the Jets had to play any other team than the Steelers or Pats, given the way that they had played, they would still be alive this week as one of the top 3 defenses represented in the playoffs this season. As fate would have it, the structure of the playoff system between conferences has allowed three teams utterly undeserving of playoff appearances to make the playoffs.

Neither Seattle nor St. Louis could score more points on the season than they allowed. Seattle, St. Louis, and Minnesota were all ranked among the bottom 11 teams in the league allowing from 373 to 395 points to opponents with Green Bay in the mix as well at 380. Meanwhile, the Jets, with a scoring defense ranked only behind the Steelers, Patriots, and Eagles, and ahead of Washington and Baltimore, had the breaks of being in the AFC.

The only two teams worth mentioning as playoff caliber are the two teams currently in the NFC Championship game this weekend. The football gods were smiling on the NFL and the TV ratings to be sure! Over in the AFC, every team that made the playoffs deserved to be in them.

Of the top nine teams in scoring defense, the NFC features only two, the Eagles and Redskins. The other seven are in the AFC. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they have only beaten two teams on the season that finished with winning records. This does not include last week's playoff win over the now 9-9 Vikings. They beat the Ravens (9-7) and Packers (10-6), neither of whom even approaches the well-roundedness that the Steelers and Patriots bring to the table in any way, shape, or form. The Packers possess a bottom-10 scoring defense and the Ravens an equally if not more horrid offense. In fact, the only decent team that the Eagles have played, the Steelers, beat them soundly 27-3. "Overrated" and in a week division are a word and circumstances that spring to mind.

As to Atlanta, they beat San Diego and Denver at home and on the road respectively in weeks 6 and 8 of the season. They lost to Seattle on the road in a meaningless game for them to round out their record vs. teams that finished the regular season with a winning record to 2-1. The Ram team that they beat in the playoffs last week gave up nearly 100 more points than it allowed on the season rendering the game, much more so the victory, dubious at best. So the Falcons will have a prime opportunity to face a solid defense on the road in likely inclement weather conditions to test how good they truly are.

All of the "on any given Sunday" nonsense aside, barring some very strange circumstances, neither team has a chance vs. either of the two AFC teams in the Super Bowl however. Sadly, the Super Bowl should be a real snoozer this year with the AFC in control by the half. So the importance of this weekend's AFC Championship game gets raised to an even higher level as a result.

It's been said numerous times, but defense and rushing win championships. Teams with the ability to do that win Super Bowls. Those that don't, do not. Indianapolis, a team with a superlative offense yet one with an emphasis on its passing game, coupled with an abysmal defense once again bore out that maxim in spades vs. the Patriots last week in the divisional round.

In the AFC Championship game, the Steelers bring their 2nd ranked rushing offense and 11th ranked scoring offense to face-off against the Patriots' 2nd ranked scoring defense and 6th ranked rushing defense. On the other side of the ball, the Patriots' 7th ranked rushing offense and more balanced 4th ranked scoring offense to square off against the Steelers' 1st ranked rushing defense and 1st ranked scoring defense.

Rookie and budding superstar Ben Roethlisburger has had a tremendous rookie run this season, but Bill Belichick and the changing looks of the New England defense will be his undoing in this game. While the Steeler D will challenge the Patriot offense, unless the Steelers' rushing game can carry the day offensively, and they may, expect the Pats to win this game. The Patriots' weakness, which sounds almost silly, is their banged up secondary missing two starting CBs, should not be nearly the factor that it was in the Colts game where it was not a factor at all.

The fans at Heinz Field will be alive and well and will turn this game into the showdown that everyone is expecting. Expect the playoff and championship experience of the Patriot players and coaching staff to win out in this one however. Expect rookie inexperience and jitters to get the best of the young Roethlisburger as he tosses 2+ interceptions in this game thereby making the difference.

While much of the media seems to translate Pittsburgh's earlier season's 34-20 victory into yet a second victory this weekend, fans should keep in mind that neither Corey Dillon nor Deion Branch played in that game. Corey Dillon is the consummate NFL rusher and posted the best season of his career this season. Branch adds to what is perhaps the broadest collection of capable receiving talent in the league coupled with a quarterback deft at spreading out the ball like warm butter over toast.

Dillon's versatility adds to New England's options on offense much more so than Bettis and Staley do. Add to that Kevin Faulk, who's had an outstanding season in relief and support, along with Patrick Pass (Questionable) who is an excellent receiving option out of the backfield, and the Steelers' D will certainly have their hands full. Bill Belichick has truly done a remarkable job in New England.

On a side note, the Steelers bring a 15-game winning streak into Heinz Field on Sunday looking for that 16th victory in a streak that will kick off next season challenging the Patriots NFL record run of 21 wins. Ironically, it was the Steelers that ended that streak earlier in the season. Should the Steelers win on Sunday, a likely victory over the NFC in the Super Bowl would put that total at 17 heading into next season where a 5-0 start would break the Patriots' current record. The Steelers host the Patriots again next season, however, if that game is not among the first five of the season, then this may be the Patriots' last opportunity for paybacks as well as for defending their record streak.

The weather for the game will not be a significant factor for two teams that are used to temps in the teens and snow.

Pats 27, Steelers 17

Over in the "sideshow" and undercard NFC, Atlanta simply does not have the defense to win the Super Bowl. That same defense will likely be their undoing in Philadelphia this weekend. Having stated that, the Eagles' rushing defense is ranked only 16th and they face Atlanta's 1st ranked rushing offense featuring the whilings of Michael Vick in addition to Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. The Eagles rank 2nd in scoring defense however, so who is to ask how they achieved that overall ranking.

The question for the Eagles is how will their passing oriented offense, ranked 8th in scoring, fare against the Falcons' 8th ranked rushing defense, 22nd ranked passing defense, and 14th overall scoring defense. The game should be entertaining if less than meaningful on the grand scheme of things.

The weather for the game will likely be a significant factor for the Falcons hailing from an indoor stadium in far more temperate Atlanta, Georgia. Look for Vick and the Falcon O to make this an exciting game, but look for the Eagle fans and homefield advantage including inclement weather to be the difference in this one.

Eagles 23, Falcons 20

As in both games, the weather can be a factor in overall scoring. It appears now that the snow to hit both areas will have ceased prior to or near game time leaving only remnants of snow on the field as well as temps in the teens (Pittsburgh) or low 20s (Philly). Field conditions should be good with ground crews having had plenty of time to clear the fields.

Pennsylvania's chances for winning a Super Bowl fall onto the Steelers this year however. The winner of the AFC Championship game goes on to win the Super Bowl easily this year in a game which should be over at the half for all intents and purposes.


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