The losers in the conference finals Sunday were two determined running teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons, who rush the ball as a way of life. Of the nation's 32 pro clubs, none is more renowned for running plays than Pittsburgh. And none of the others, even Pittsburgh, surpassed Atlanta this season in yards gained rushing.
New England, the winner by 14 points (41-27), had taken a quick, early 14-point lead and never looked back.
Brady's bombs, two perfect long passes, made the early difference (17-3) for the Patriots in Pittsburgh at a time when the Steelers were still doggedly running the ball. In Philadelphia, similarly, McNabb's passing created an ultimate 17-point difference (27-10) as the Eagle defense held the Falcons to 99 yards rushing — an average of 33 yards apiece for Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. First to last: a triumph of air power.
Big Ben Beats Brady (for a Half)
THE STEELERS could now be on their way to Super Bowl XXXIX — and victory over cross-state Philadelphia — if their stodgy coaches had opened up earlier and told rookie quarterback Roethlisberger to play the first half (as well as the entire season) the way he played the second half Sunday against the Patriots.
As Roethlisberger's team outscored Brady's team in that second half, 24-17, Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher gave up on his dream of running his way into the Super Bowl and allowed his boy passer to pass. The result: Roethlisberger, who is not yet a year out of college (at Miami of Ohio), drove the Steelers to 17 points in his first three series of the second half, matching Brady's 17-point output to begin the first half.
When a Pittsburgh field goal shortened New England's once-commanding 24-3 lead to 31-20 — with all except two minutes of the fourth quarter yet to be played — all of New England was suddenly very afraid. But because Brady had been throwing the ball for three quarters to Roethlisberger's one quarter, the Patriots were still 11 points ahead, and that was too much to make up, even for Roethlisberger, who out-passed Brady for the day, 226 yards to 207, each completing 14.
The country's Roethlisberger-doubters are mysteriously still alive and well after a game in which he drove the Steelers five times to three touchdowns and two field goals — against Belichick's beautifully designed Patriot defense — on a day when, half the time, Cowher thought the Steelers could run Jerome (The Bus) Bettis. Against Belichick! Considering Pittsburgh's coaching strategy all year, Roethlisberger remains the NFL's MVP.
McNabb a Better Quarterback than Vick
THE EAGLES won a duel of quarterbacks Sunday when McNabb out-ran Atlanta's man Vick, 32 yards to 26, and out-passed him, 180 yards to 136. The difference between them is that the more mature McNabb is the more practiced technician against a heavy rush — and by far the better passer.
Vick, the fastest and most gifted of football's running quarterbacks, hasn't yet learned to run properly when rushed. He often leaves the pocket too soon, without moving around to evade the rush while waiting for a receiver to come open. And when pulling away from the pocket, he seems continually to be searching for a running lane instead of a receiver.
McNabb has mastered his role in all that. He best illustrated what a pro quarterback must do when, in the second quarter, on the big play of the game, he expected an angry blitz and got it on third and 11 at a time when the Eagle lead was only 7-3 midway through a 72-yard drive.
As the Falcons rushed at him from all directions, McNabb stepped this way and that while hanging in the pocket, fighting off tacklers while watching constantly for a target. Just before going down under the weight of what by now looked like half the Atlanta team, McNabb saw Eagle receiver Freddie Mitchell run free of a Falcon cornerback and dart toward the sideline. And at that instant, McNabb hit Mitchell for 12 yards and a first down.
On the next play, Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid made the call of the game. Figuring, correctly, on another blitz and single coverage, Reid asked McNabb to fire a 45-yard bomb against a big wind to tight end Chad Lewis, who was pulled down at the Atlanta 4. A moment later, on second and goal at the Atlanta 2, McNabb won the game with still another pass, reaching Lewis again, this time in the end zone.
Ideal Defenses for Predictable Offenses
THE DEFENSE that hamstrung Vick and Atlanta's other runners, who for 17 weeks had been running over almost everybody, was the surprise of a strange Sunday to most sports fans (as well as to the Falcons). Basically, Philadelphia's defensive coordinator Jim Johnson faced Vick with a two-zone (or two-level zone) defense that left a gap of 25 yards between the two zones.
This was a dramatic change from the defense Johnson had used only a week earlier to end the season for Minnesota's quarterback Daunte Culpepper and receiver Randy Moss. That day, as usual, Johnson relied on a variety of blitzes and single coverages to confuse the Vikings.