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Ground Gives Way in Playoffs

Special to The Times

An NFL running team can still win regular-season games, but the postseason belongs to passing teams.

Quarterbacks Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb have proved that again in advancing the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl.

The Patriots run for balance, the Eagles for change of pace.

The losers in the conference finals were two determined running teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons.

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No team is more renowned for running than Pittsburgh. And none of the others, even Pittsburgh, surpassed Atlanta this season in yards rushing.

Thus when the Steelers finally let passer Ben Roethlisberger pass last week, it was too late.

New England, the winner by 14 points, had taken a quick lead and never looked back.

Brady’s two perfect long passes moved the Patriots ahead, 17-3, when the Steelers were still doggedly running the ball.

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In Philadelphia, similarly, McNabb’s passing created an ultimate 17-point difference 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 MVP

The Steelers could now be on their way to Super Bowl XXXIX if their stodgy coaches had opened up earlier and told rookie quarterback Roethlisberger to play the first half the way he played the second half against the Patriots.

Roethlisberger, who is not yet a year out of college, 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 reduced New England’s 24-3 lead to 31-20, with nearly all of the fourth quarter to be played, all of New England was suddenly fretting.

But because Brady had been throwing the ball for three quarters to Roethlisberger’s one, the Patriots were still 11 points ahead, and that was too much to make up.

Roethlisberger’s 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 New England Coach Bill Belichick’s beautifully designed defense.

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Considering Pittsburgh’s coaching strategy all year, Roethlisberger remains the NFL’s MVP.

McNabb Master

The difference between McNabb and Atlanta’s Vick is that McNabb is more practiced against a heavy rush -- and by far a better passer.

Vick is the fastest and most gifted of football’s running quarterbacks, but he 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 get 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 when the Eagle lead was only 7-3 midway through a 72-yard drive.

As the Falcons rushed from all directions, McNabb stepped this way and that, fighting off tacklers, watching for a target.

Just before going down under the weight of what looked like half the Atlanta team, McNabb saw 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.

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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 to receiver Chad Lewis, who was pulled down at the Atlanta four.

A moment later, McNabb won the game with still another kind of pass, finding Lewis again, this time in the end zone.

How to Stop Vick

The defense that hamstrung Vick and Atlanta’s other runners, who for 17 weeks had been running over almost everybody, was a surprise to many.

Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, confronted Vick with a two-zone defense that left a gap of 25 yards between the two zones.

Johnson eliminated his trademark blitzing, except for an occasional run blitz, and played Vick with every defensive back face to face with him in a zone defense (ready for a run) instead of turning away in man-to-man coverages and reacting too slowly to his fast, brilliant scrambles.

The object was to patrol every area where Vick could theoretically run.

This season, Vick’s scrambling set up Atlanta’s running game, so the key to stopping Atlanta was stopping Vick’s scrambles.

Far back in the secondary, the Eagles presented a two-man deep-zone defense. The object was to cover every area that Vick could theoretically reach with a bomb. He has the arm, if not the accuracy, to hit any distant receiver.

What Vick can’t execute are 15- to 20-yard passes. These require pinpoint accuracy, which McNabb, Brady and Roethlisberger have, but Vick does not.

That’s why Johnson gave Vick 25 yards of uninhabited land between the Eagles’ two defensive zones where, in theory, he could make easy completions.

In fact, he couldn’t.

How to Stop Pittsburgh

Belichick and his defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, harassed Pittsburgh with multiple defenses.

On first-down plays, they filled the box with eight Patriots, denying Pittsburgh running room, then on subsequent downs stood back and waited for Roethlisberger to throw or run.

Thus, Belichick confounded precisely what Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher hoped to do.

Rarely, on such a big day of pro football, have there been two such predictable offenses and workable defenses.

Brady vs. McNabb

The Super Bowl will be won next week by the better quarterback, Brady or McNabb, or the better coach, Belichick or Reid. Or possibly even the better team, Patriots or Eagles, although, fundamentally, pro football is a game of quarterbacking and coaching.

Experience often counts, and defense is also vital, but the best coaches usually have the best defenses.

Brady and McNabb are similar quarterbacks whose difference as passers is largely a reflection of the offensive systems their leaders prefer.

Reid favors West Coast football, which usually puts McNabb in short-pass formations.

Belichick, a recent convert to passing, favors a more varied attack, which he can adjust from week to week.

This has been McNabb’s best season. He has finally learned how to unload straight passes fast. And when the Eagle system permits, he can throw Brady-like bombs.

A Super Bowl with McNabb vs. Brady? That could be some Super Bowl.


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