JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This would be a dead-even game if Philadelphia wide receiver Terrell Owens could be here today in top condition.
Minus Owens in the Super Bowl — or with Owens playing tentatively on an injured leg and ankle — the Eagles can't beat the New England Patriots.
To have any chance, they'll have to successfully run Donovan McNabb, the fast-thinking, fast-moving Eagle quarterback, and, against a Bill Belichick defense, that seems unlikely.
Even if he plays, Owens' injuries are bound to rob him of some of his speed — the quality he brought to the Eagles that made them a Super Bowl team. Playing two regular-season roles for Coach Andy Reid, he has been both a long-pass touchdown maker, scoring repeatedly, and an effective decoy.
Owens, as a decoy, has the speed and athletic ability that perfectly suits him for the only role that can open up the Eagles' short-pass West Coast offense: the threat of the bomb.
If that's gone, Belichick, the Patriot coach, can be expected to saturate those short passing zones with defensive players who will be right in front of McNabb if he takes off.
The deal that brought Owens to the Eagles last summer was orchestrated by McNabb, who understood that the only way he could outscore Patriot quarterback Tom Brady in this game — they've been probable opponents since at least the Fourth of July — was to hire the world's fastest receiver.
The deal that sent running back Corey Dillon to the Patriots was second in NFL significance only to the Owens trade — but it was clearly second.
Brady might have needed a Dillon threat to beat AFC powers Pittsburgh and Indianapolis — but not the NFC Eagles minus T.O.
The Patriots' Edge
If New England wins as expected, the underlying explanation will be that Belichick and Brady, as a combination, are incomparable.
They've been all but invincible in big games, in part because Belichick's defense sometimes seems all but impregnable in clutch scenes, and in part because Brady's offense sometimes seems all but unstoppable.
What unites the Patriots is that they are so detail-oriented on both sides of the ball that they almost never make mistakes. There are few Patriot errors of execution, and even fewer errors of the mind.
Watching the Minnesota Vikings or St. Louis Rams or any number of other teams, you'd swear that no pro club could be that meticulous.
Vince Lombardi's was, to be sure, but that was 40 years ago
The Eagles' Challenge
What's happening to McNabb this season simply isn't fair.
His only useful running back — against a team that has Dillon carrying the ball — is a 205-pound wide receiver playing out of position, Brian Westbrook.
On the injured list, Owens has now been joined by tight end Chad Lewis, who caught two big touchdown passes in the NFC title game.
McNabb's opposite number, Brady, is football's hardest-to-beat quarterback. The opposing coach, Belichick, is football's hardest-to-beat defensive expert. A 30-year NFL veteran, Belichick will keep the pressure on McNabb from beginning to end.
Eagle fans, the NFL's most demanding, have been predicting a win all week and will keep the pressure on until they see that they've been wrong, after which they'll boo until the end.
McNabb knows all this — he knows he's the only threat Philadelphia has. And trying to live up to that, against Brady and Belichick, means that he'll keep the pressure on himself to the end.
The City of Brotherly Love, starved for a champion, has informed McNabb that this game is entirely up to him — which it is — so forget the bad breaks that keep coming your way, baby, every team has bad breaks. Forget Terrell Owens. Forget Belichick over there. Win it!
Can McNabb meet that challenge?
Nobody could meet that challenge.