The Championship Battles; An Early Look

Is this the year Philadephia wins it's conference championship? Does Atlanta QB Michael Vick run wild against an improving Eagles defense?<br><br> In the AFC, can the Pittsburgh Steelers relive the magic fo their 34-20 thrashing of the Patriots in the regular season or will the defending Super Bowl Champions rise to the occasion and continue their quest as a modern day dynasty.

Early Week Thoughts for the Championship Games

Atlanta at Philadelphia

The goal for the Falcons will be like always—run the ball successfully early and often. They don't want to be in passing mode on the road and in a hostile environment. The weather looks like it will be a factor as well and also keep in mind quarterback Michael Vick has only three games over 200 yards passing so it's imperative that they are successful on the ground. The last thing they want to do is to play from behind on the road in a big game.

When Vick does pass, pass protection will be very important, as the Eagles love to bring a variety of blitzes. They will do everything thing they can to confuse Vick so he will have to disciplined and not turn the ball over.

Defensively, the Eagles like to pass the ball more than they like to run it so the defenders will have to be disciplined in coverage especially on running back Brian Westbrook who has 30 catches in his last four games. The Falcons' front four must get pressure on quarterback Donovan McNabb and throw off his rhythm. Also, we would use press coverage on the Eagle receivers—something the Vikings didn't do last week and it clearly was a mistake. In covering Westbrook, they should use a defensive back, not a linebacker as the Vikings did.

For the Eagles, we liked their game plan last week against Minnesota of mixing in runs out of one-back formations. They did this a lot with Westbrook out wide and veteran back Dorsey Levens in the backfield. This makes it difficult for the defense to figure out what to expect with Westbrook out wide.

The Falcons' have one of the best front four's in the league so pass protection will be imperative if McNabb is going to get time to throw the ball down field. They also have speedy linebackers who can rush the passer so the Eagles may have to use fullback Josh Parry more in obvious passing situations.

Defensively, they have to not only get pressure off of the edges but inside where Vick can get jittery at times and will look to run not let a play develop. The Buccaneers have done a great job in the past of limiting Vick's effectiveness so we would study those tapes well. The goal would be to keep Vick from getting outside and keeping him inside on his runs where they can have more defenders. The linebackers also have to be disciplined and not get out of their gaps.

New England at Pittsburgh

Remember, running back Corey Dillon didn't play in the first matchup. They'll have him for this one and it's very important that they run the ball well or at least get him enough carries so the Steeler defense plays them honest. That means don't let the Steeler secondary double up their receivers by not respecting the run. The Patriot receivers are very fast and we would spread out the formations with lots of three and four wide sets. If the Steelers have a weakness, it's at cornerback and that's an area where New England can exploit them.

Defensively, they have to be able to control the Steelers' running attack. Quarterback Ben Roethisberger is very effective using play action fakes when the running game is going well.

The Patriots should go with a variety of blitzes to confuse Roethisberger. What could also give him fits is going from the pre-snap to the post-snap phase. New England often shows one thing before the snap then right after the ball is in the quarterback's hands, they will change it up and that often will present confusion.

The Steelers shouldn't change what is their identity—running the football early often. Remember, they ran for over 200 yards in the first matchup. It will be especially important in order to take the pressure off of Roethisberger. If the weather is nasty, it will be even more important to get the ground game going. The more runs the better off they will be. In fact, if the running game is successful, that will force veteran safety Rodney Harrison up to help against the run. Getting him out of pass coverage would really help.

The Steelers present a problem that Indianapolis didn't have—size at receiver. With veteran cornerback Ty Law out of the lineup, the Steelers will have a tremendous size and experience advantage over the Patriot cornerbacks. This is where they have a chance to make some big plays—especially off of a good run. Plaxico Burress had two scores in the first matchup. He has at least a six-inch height advantage over their projected cornerbacks (Asante Samuel and Randall Gay).

Defensively, they have to control Dillon and put the Patriot offense in a lot of their and longs.

We would also get physical with their receivers. Take them off their routes and disrupt their timing. The Patriot receivers can really get down field so they have to be taken off of their game by getting a jam on them within the allotted five yards.

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