Atlanta Falcons (12-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (14-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 3:00 ET
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Collinsworth
SERIES: 22nd meeting. Eagles lead 11-9-1. Each team has beaten the other once in the playoffs, the Falcons winning in 1978 at home, and Philadelphia after the 2002 season at home. Last season, Philadelphia overcame a halftime deficit to beat Atlanta 23-16 in the Georgia Dome in a November game.
2004 RANKINGS: Falcons: offense 20th (1st rush, 30th pass); defense 14th (8th rush, 24th pass). Eagles: offense 9th (24th rush, 6th pass); defense 10th (16th rush, 12th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons need a strong start so they can stay close and stick with the running game. They're a dome team, but the Falcons' ground game should serve them well in what is expected to be very cold conditions. The Eagles will move an eighth man into the box and try to force QB Michael Vick to win the game through the air. But Atlanta will attempt to run regardless and the game could hinge on how well the Eagles tackle. If Vick or RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett get past the front eight, the Falcons can generate the big pass plays their offense needs to score. Atlanta won't put together many sustained drives, so it needs Vick to create big plays with his feet or off busted plays, and for someone other than TE Alge Crumpler to have an impact in the passing game. The Eagles offense isn't the same without WR Terrell Owens, but Freddie Mitchell stepped up last weekend and RB Brian Westbrook often lines up as a receiver. For Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, a solid start is important to avoid images from three consecutive poor NFC Championships to creep into his mind. In what should be a close game, special teams will play a big role. Atlanta K Jay Feely is not a strong outdoor kicker, but return man Allen Rossum is coming off a huge game against St. Louis. Eagles K David Akers is not only one of the best in the game, he's very experienced in the cold conditions of Lincoln Financial Field.
FAST FACTS: Eagles RB Brian Westbrook has a streak of seven straight games with at least 100 rushing and receiving yards. He's averaged 6.5 yards per touch in those seven games. ... Eagles QB Donovan McNabb has a 53.5 percent completion percentage in the last three NFC Championship games. Has averaged only 5.1 yards per attempt. Has thrown only one touchdown and five interceptions. ... 35.4 percent of the Falcons' NFL-leading sacks that came on the road. Atlanta had 31 sacks at home, 17 in road games. ... The Falcons are the only team undefeated in NFC Championship Games, beating the Vikings 30-27 in overtime in their other appearance, on Jan. 17, 1999. This is the fourth straight season, eighth in the last nine, and 14th in the past 17 that at least one team from Atlanta's division has appeared in the NFC title game. ... Atlanta lost at home to the Eagles last season and fell at Philadelphia 20-6 in the playoffs after the 2002 season. That was in Veterans Stadium. ... As a member of a division champion team, each Falcons player -- and many employees -- will receive an $18,000 playoff share (before taxes) and another $36,500 for advancing to the NFC Championship Game. Players on the Super Bowl championship team get $68,000 more each, and players on the losing team another $36,500 each.
PREDICTION: Eagles 20-17
-- RT Todd Weiner (sprained left ankle) did not practice again Thursday, but may try on Friday.
-- Reserve WR Brian Finneran's sprained right wrist/thumb will not keep him out of Atlanta's lineup Sunday at Philadelphia.
-- Right CB/nickel Kevin Mathis missed practice with the Falcons again Wednesday, but he may go on Friday. Even if he does play Sunday at Philadelphia, Jason Webster is likely to return to the starting lineup.
-- CB Allen Rossum isn't the only candidate to replace CB Kevin Mathis in nickel and dime situations Sunday in the slot if Mathis' sprained right ankle does not heal in time for Sunday's game at Philadelphia. Other candidates run the gamut from DB Aaron Beasley (not very likely) to RCB Jason Webster and rookie Christian Morton. Mathis, though, hopes to play.
-- OL Steve Herndon remains most likely to play in place of RT Todd Weiner (sprained ankle) if Weiner can't go Sunday at Philadelphia. Herndon started the second game of the season at LT, when Kevin Shaffer had a knee injury. The other candidate is Austin King. Weiner's questionable on the injury report.
-- DL Travis Hall (chest injury) missed practice again Thursday, but while he's listed as questionable (50-50) for Sunday's game at Philadelphia, there seems to be a good chance he'll play.
--LB Mark Simoneau practiced for the second consecutive day Thursday, but still was listed as questionable on the club's injury report for Sunday's game against Atlanta. Simoneau, the club's starting WLB, is recovering from a high ankle sprain.
--DE Jevon Kearse, normally the club's left end, probably will line up quite a bit on the right side Sunday to counter the Falcons' mobile left-handed quarterback, Michael Vick.
--RT Jon Runyan, who suffered an MCL knee sprain Sunday, practiced for the first time Thursday and is listed as probable for Sunday's game against Atlanta. He expects to play Sunday, but how effective he'll be remains a question.
--RG Jermane Mayberry still is nursing a triceps injury. He'll have the most difficult blocking chore Sunday against the Falcons, going up against left tackle Rod Coleman.
--LG Artis Hicks likely would slide over to right tackle Sunday if injured starter Jon Runyan isn't able to play or comes up lame during the game. Hicks has played both guard and tackle slots during his career.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
A lot of would-be football pundits are making a big deal out of the weather forecast for Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the Falcons and host Philadelphia.
Atlanta coach Jim Mora said he's not among them.
"I've never been a guy that's worried about the weather and how it affects our team or the other team," he said. "I think that both teams have to go out and handle the environment, no matter what that environment is."
There is likely to be snow on the ground when the Falcons arrive Saturday, and more is predicted to fall Sunday, perhaps a lot of it. That's good theater, but it may not necessarily help one offense more than another.
Yes, Atlanta runs the ball a lot, but unless there's so much snow falling during that game that visibility is dramatically impaired, it won't likely be a problem in the passing game any more than the running game, although you can find people who disagree with that philosophy.
Now, if the high winds that also are predicted for Sunday's game come to fruition, that could be another matter.
The Eagles (14-3) are going to want to pass more than the Falcons (12-5), who figure to get pass-happy only if they have to should they fall significantly behind.
If the wind is strong enough in Lincoln Financial Field, where both ends of the stadium are partially open, that could hurt the Eagles. But Mora's not going there.
"I think that to be great, you have to be able to play in any conditions," he said. "I'm sure that neither team is real concerned about the weather."
Right tackle Jon Runyan, who is nursing an MCL knee sprain, expects to play in Sunday's NFC Championship Game against Atlanta. How effective he'll be is another question.
"I'm doing better," Runyan said Thursday. "It's something you have to deal with. It gets better every day, so hopefully, by Sunday, I'll be alright."
Runyan is listed as probable on the Eagles' injury report. He participated in practice Thursday, but really wasn't able to do much.
Runyan's situation is a concern because he will be lining up across from the Falcons' top pass-rusher, Pro Bowl left end Patrick Kerney, who finished third in the NFC in sacks this season with 13.5.
"There's no doubt in my mind (that I'm going to play)," Runyan said. "If I'm limited, I'm limited. I'm sure coach (Andy) Reid will take care of me that way. So I don't see it as being a problem at all."
By "taking care" of him, Runyan means giving him some blocking help on Kerney with a tight end or running back. The problem is, Falcons left tackle Rod Coleman is even more dangerous than Kerney and usually commands double-teams. If the Eagles have to give Runyan blocking help on Kerney, it's going to be tough to give right guard Jermane Mayberry, who also is hurt (triceps strain), help on Coleman.
Asked what he would do if Runyan can't go or comes up lame during the game, offensive coordinator Brad Childress mentioned two possibilities. One would be sliding Mayberry to the outside. The other would be moving left guard Artis Hicks over to right tackle.
New England Patriots (15-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (16-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:30 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
SERIES: 21st meeting. Pittsburgh leads series 13-7, but New England won three of the last four. This is the fourth playoff meeting between the teams since the 1996 season. The Patriots trounced Pittsburgh, 28-3, in a Divisional Playoff game on the way to Super Bowl XXXI only to lose to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 7-6, the following season in the Divisional round. The 2001 Patriots captured the AFC Championship in Pittsburgh. The series dates back to 1972 and has been dominated by the Steelers. Four of New England's seven wins against Pittsburgh have come since 1997.
2004 RANKINGS: Patriots: offense 7th (7th rush, 13th pass); defense 9th (6th rush, 19th pass)
. Steelers: offense 16th (2nd rush, 28th pass); defense 1st (1st rush, 4th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots' main goal is to avoid falling into a deep hole like they did in the regular season meeting. Having RB Corey Dillon this time around should help, and QB Tom Brady must do a better job of protecting the ball. The Patriots' big concern on defense is still the secondary. CB Randall Gay, who was torched by WR Plaxico Burress after Ty Law went down in the first meeting, is more experienced but will still come under fire. The Steelers rushed the ball 49 times in the first meeting. If they can repeat that performance, it means they're winning. Pittsburgh's offensive line is one of the few physical enough to push the Patriots' front seven backward. But if New England is successful in slowing the ground game, the Patriots will then get to come after QB Ben Roethlisberger, who is coming off a very shaky first playoff game.
FAST FACTS: The Patriots' turnover ratio is plus-45 in wins and minus-13 in losses in winning 32 of their past 36 games. ... Since 2001, the Patriots are 13-0 when facing a quarterback for the second time in a season. ... Patriots coach Bill Belichick is 8-1 in the postseason and would tie Vince Lombardi for the best career playoff winning percentage with a win this week (minimum of 10 games). ... This is the Patriots' fifth trip to the conference championship game in team history and they have won all of the previous four to advance to Super Bowls XX, XXXI, XXXVI and XXXVIII. They are 2-2 in the Super Bowl with wins over Carolina and St. Louis and losses to Green Bay and Chicago. ... This will be the ninth AFC Championship Game played in Pittsburgh, the most championships in one town since the NFL merger in 1970. ... Pittsburgh's five offensive linemen have started 85 games this season, seventeen games each for five players.
PREDICTION: Patriots 19-13
--LB Tedy Bruschi understands that the 16-1 Steelers are home underdogs and will use that disrespect card played so well by the Patriots in recent years for motivation. Asked how he would counter that, Bruschi said, "All we need to do is put on the film of the last game. That's enough for me. Clearly, they're the best team in the league. There's a reason we're going to Pittsburgh. They finished 15-1 and we finished 14-2."
--PK Adam Vinatieri kicks in some tough weather and field conditions in Foxborough where the Gillette Stadium surface takes a beating from summer concerts along with football and soccer games. But he has had a tremendous season, missing just two field goals all year, one at home. Pittsburgh has proven to be difficult on visiting kickers. The longest kick made at Heinz Field since it opened in 2001 is 48 yards. "That stadium hasn't been around long, but you would think that there would be some longer kicks than that," he said. "Obviously with the conditions, it becomes difficult to hit 50-yard field goals this time of year. They have the same type of weather that we have. It gets cold and windy there. It's hard to grow grass in January, so the field is what it is. That probably causes some of the adversity there."
--WR Bethel Johnson could be a big part of this weekend's game as a kickoff returner. He had one of his better games of the season against Pittsburgh, returning six kickoffs for a 26.3-yard average, his second highest average of the season in games where he returned at least three kickoffs. His 41-yard return against Pittsburgh was second only to his 93-yard touchdown return vs. Cleveland.
--DL Vince Wilfork will likely get work subbing in all the way across the defensive front this week. With Richard Seymour likely out of action, Jarvis Green will start at right end, but Wilfork will work at both ends and nose tackle in what is likely to be a four-man rotation. Green, for his part, was very emotional after the team's win over Indy because he read reports that said New England could not win without Seymour. "To me, they spit in my face," he said. Green played well in the game with a couple of tackles and a couple of quarterback pressures.
--CB Ty Law told the Boston Globe that he no problems with the Patriots' diagnosis of his foot injury as was reported last week. "I was very upset by (that report)," he said. "It's inaccurate. Completely untrue. I've had absolutely no issues with the Patriots and the way they treated and diagnosed my foot. None. They know that. To have that reported in the newspaper and people trying to start things up again, was very unfair and inaccurate."
--DL Richard Seymour worked through some individual drills at practice Thursday as he did Wednesday. Bill Belichick reported that Seymour is doing better, but offered nothing more than the injury report, where Seymour is listed as questionable, in terms of his playing status. A player who is questionable is considered 50-50 to play. Seymour was not in the Patriots locker room while it was open to the media. It would be considered a surprise if he played.
--It seems more and more every day that Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will be the head coach of the Browns next season. Cleveland has yet to publicly announce their new head coach, likely because he is still among the playoff coaches. There have been rumblings that Pittsburgh's Russ Grimm has a shot, but most reports now indicate that Crennel is the choice, an announcement that should come next week whether or not the Patriots win the AFC Championship Game. That would mean New England would lose both of its coordinators with offensive coordinator Charlie Weis headed for Notre Dame when the Patriots' season ends.
-- WR Plaxico Burress had a big game against the Patriots in the regular season meeting, but said the Steelers won't force the ball just to get it to him.
"We are not going to call plays any differently from what we have been doing all year," Burress said. "Hopefully we can get some big plays off of play action and run the ball effectively so we can create the one-on-one situations for us outside. I think if we can do that, we can be successful."
Burress said he's not upset he hasn't received a new contract from the team as of yet.
"I am here right now, and this is probably the best team I have ever played on in my life with all of the guys playing together," he said. "We have so much respect for one another and we just want to go out and get the job done. All of the free agent stuff will get taken care of when this is all done, and I am pretty sure that whatever happens, it will be the best thing for my family and my future. That being said, the only thing on my mind right now is trying to go out and win on Sunday."
-- RB Jerome Bettis is expected to start Sunday, but isn't concerned with how many carries he has to give up to Duce Staley. "It doesn't matter," he said. "It could be 40 to 0 either way. It doesn't matter as long as we win the game."
-- RB Duce Staley is not 100 percent, but he will play more on Sunday against the Patriots than he did the previous week against the Jets. Coach Bill Cowher said he will work Staley into the game in the first half.
"I don't have anything really predetermined going in," Cowher said. "I think certainly we'll get him in the game in the first half. I know we didn't get him into the game until the second half last week. I think from there it is almost a type of feel thing. We want to get him involved a little bit more, earlier in the game and we'll kind of go from there."
-- QB Ben Roethlisberger's personal winning streak stands at 27 consecutive games. He won his final 13 at Miami (Ohio) and is 14-0 with the Steelers.
-- RB Verron Haynes, the third-down back, returned to practice Thursday as every one of the Steelers' 53 players practiced. Haynes has a minor knee injury but will play Sunday.
-- LB Kendrell Bell will suit up but won't play much Sunday. Bell, the former starter, has played only three games this season because of injuries.
-- WR Antwaan Randle El expects to be covered by receiver-turned-nickelback Troy Brown of the Patriots.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Sunday's AFC Championship Game pits two teams that feature a 3-4 base defense with linebacking corps that make up the strength of their unit. The inside linebackers are stout guys who can take on guards while the outside linebacker are hybrid rush ends who can play the run, cover and rush the passer. Versatility is a staple for these anchors of the 3-4.
Any 3-4 defensive coach would be ecstatic to march out the likes of Pittsburgh's James Farrior, Joey Porter, Kendrell Bell, Clark Haggans or Larry Foote. The same is true of New England's Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Roman Phifer.
Both teams depend on the linebackers to make big plays and both groups deliver. Bill Belichick believes versatility makes his group successful.
"The players are very interchangeable," Belichick said. "They work well together. They are unselfish. They communicate well. It doesn't really matter who is in there. That doesn't affect what we call or what we try to play. I know that is comforting. I have been there calling defenses and I know that is a comforting thing for Romeo (Crennel).
"The worst situation in the world is to be sitting there saying, 'Well this guy is in there. We need to call this. Well, now that guy is in there. I have to call something else. Somebody else is in there. We don't want to be doing this. We want to be doing that.' It is just hard to call a game like that. It is much easier when you have players who can go in there and really you don't even notice or care who is in there. They are able to do what you want them to do. That is a good situation that we have at linebacker with basically the six guys that play."
The players are a close-knit group. Johnson, Bruschi and McGinest have played together for nine seasons. Phifer and Vrabel joined them in 2001 while Colvin was added to the group last year.
"Last year, Rosevelt came in and got hurt, but we've gotten to know him," Bruschi said. "We've had some of the same guys for a long time. I think I know what Willie McGinest is going to do before he does it. I think I know what Ted Johnson is going to say before he says it. And when Roman and Mike come in, I feel the same way. We just know each other inside and out."
"I think we can all do each others' jobs," McGinest added. "We can all do a lot of different things. Having guys like Tedy Bruschi, Vrabel, Ted, Rosey, you can do a lot of different things. You can move guys into different positions and rotate. You have versatile players who can rush, cover tight ends and cover backs. When you face different offenses, if you can move around and have guys doing different things all the time, you can fool people. We try to fool people. We try to disguise a lot. We try to turn it into a chess game."
Both linebacking groups, while playing a different style within the same base formation, take the same approach. The Steelers use the blitz zone much more than New England, but both teams make it difficult on opposing offensive fronts to identify the rushers, which keeps the mental pressure on the offensive line and a quarterback trying to identify where the rush will come from and who his hot receiver might be on a particular play.
It's a chess match for sure. And the winner of this week's will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXIX.
While everyone is praising New England's defense, represented by linebacker Tedy Bruschi on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, Pittsburgh feels it has the advantage with a dominating defense of its own on Sunday.
The Steelers ranked No. 1 in overall defense in yards allowed and also in points allowed. Their rankings beat New England's up and down every statistical category.
It was also the Steelers defense that led the way in their 34-20 victory against the Patriots Oct. 31. They intercepted Tom Brady twice with cornerback Deshea Townsend returning one for a touchdown. Linebacker Joey Porter sacked Brady three times, once causing a fumble that led to a touchdown five plays later.
"We put pressure on Brady, that was the main thing," linebacker Larry Foote said.
They must stop Corey Dillon on Sunday, something they did not have to do Oct. 31 because the Patriots running back was hurt. But they have stopped running backs all season as the No. 1 defense against the rush as well.
"Of course he's tough, he's a great runner," nose tackle Chris Hoke said, "but if we play defense the way we did the last time, it's going to be tough for any back."
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