NFL conference championships

Jan. 22, 2005, midnight | By Pratik Bhandari, Isamu Bae, Nick Falgout | 15 years, 12 months ago

Conference Championships
Atlanta at Philadelphia
New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers

Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, 3:00 p.m. - FOX
Key Points: For the Falcons to win...
  1. Protect Michael Vick. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Michael Vick was pounded. Vick was pounded so hard, especially by Eagles safety Brian Dawkins, that he was nearly taken out of the game. If the Falcons let the Eagles get to Vick, particularly DE Jevon Kearse, they have absolutely no chance.
  2. Get the receivers involved. The Eagles' secondary proved itself as an elite coverage group last week by shutting down the Vikings. That means the job gets that much more difficult for the Falcons' underperforming receivers, particularly Peerless Price. They must begin to adjust to Vick much better to get the aerial attack goingÂ?c especially if Alge Crumpler is covered on a passing play.
  3. Get the running game going. Forget all of the talk of how the Eagles defense is soft against the run. It isn't. Ever since MLB Jeremiah Trotter was inserted into the starting lineup, the Eagles have been lights out against the run. That means there is a premium on the blocking of the Falcons if they want to get their offense going. Line coach Alex Gibbs has performed miracles before and he will need to work his magic to stop the Eagles' line consisting of three Pro-Bowlers and gives his runners space.
  1. Run run run. I can't say it enough. Run. Run the ball. Run it hard, run it often, run it, run it, and run it. Rushing is how they completely dominated the Rams a week ago, and it's how they need to beat the Eagles, who proved last week that they in fact are dangerous without TO. Vick, Dunn, and Duckett must churn out the yards, else the ever-inconsistent throwing Vick might be forced to rear his ugly, interception-prone head.
  2. Make McNabb a non-factor. Donovan McNabb, while overshadowed just a smidge by his counterpart on the Falcons, has been known to create yards on the ground, too. The Falcons impressive pass-rushers must not only force McNabb into short throws, but must also prevent him from taking off out of the pocket and picking up costly first downs. If the Falcons can corral McNabb, their own ground game should take over and lead them to the win.
  1. Run, run, run, then throw a pass, then run some more. The Eagles have one of the best passing defenses in the league. With that in mind, why even try to attack them where they are the strongest? Simply keep running the ball down their throats and sooner or later, their undersized defensive line will capitulate and yield up some big runs. Jeremiah Trotter and Brian Dawkins are there to back up the line, but Trotter has lost a step and a bit of the oomph that he used to put behind his tackles and I can easily envision T.J. Duckett running him over or Warrick Dunn slipping by him, to say nothing of what Vick might do. Brian Dawkins is a pretty big hitter, but when faced with a tough and speedy runner as Dunn is, he can be exploited. The secondary effect of the run will be to free up the Falcons receivers in man-to-man coverage as more emphasis is put on stopping the run. A play action bomb to Peerless Price might be a good idea if the run is working well.
  2. Don't worry about McNabb, worry about everyone else. Trying to stop Donovan McNabb is like trying to fly into space. You can do it, but it requires immense effort, discipline and ingenuity from everyone. Instead, the Falcons should focus on shutting down his options. Imagine the Eagles as a huge tank, let's say. Instead of trying to blow up the man inside the tank that's protected by layers and layers of armor (Donovan McNabb), the Falcons should try to destroy the gun turret and derail the treads. Then the man in the tank can't hurt you. In this case, the turret is Brian Westbrook. With Terrell Owens watching from the sidelines, other than McNabb, he is pretty much the one offensive star they have left. He is extremely versatile, capable of creating mismatches with linebackers and safeties as he splits out wide to become a receiver. The treads in this case are the various role players that the Eagles employ. Last week, Freddie Mitchell was the guy who stepped it up, next week it may be L.J. Smith or even Todd Pinkston. The Falcons need to identify who is playing well early on and shut him down.
Key Points: For the Eagles to win...
  1. Close the doors on the passing game. There is no denying that the number one priority against the Falcons is to lock down the running game, but that is not the only thing you must do to win. Vick's passing numbers aren't great, but the important thing is that he passes just enough to get first downs or touchdowns. Vick's passes are absolute lasers, so the secondary cannot let up against the pass. Ever.
  2. Don't get too fixated on taking down Vick. One of the biggest problems with playing against Vick is that it takes so much work to take him down that players tend to forget that they're playing in a football game. You see some players make all-out dives in an attempt to make a play on Vick, just to see him pull some miracle-move or pass it for a first down. The Eagles were able to play normally two years ago, but Vick has become a totally different quarterback. Unless the Eagles keep their heads out of just going after Vick, they could find themselves giving up some highlight-reel big plays.
  3. Lock down the #1 running game. This is why Jeremiah Trotter was placed in the starting lineup. This is what the Eagles struggled to do in the first half of the season. Anchored by three Pro-Bowl defensive linemen and a Pro-Bowl linebacker, the Eagles will be faced with the tough task of keeping the running game contained. If they can, the Falcons may run away with a win.
  1. Play smart. The defining moment of last week's Rams/Falcons game was watching a Rams linebacker rush across the field full-tilt to wrestle Warrick Dunn to the ground for an apparent short gain, only to realize far too late that Vick had actually faked the handoff and was now bootlegging for 20 yards. The Eagles cannot afford costly mistakes like these. Their defense must recognize what is going on: who has the ball, where the play is going, if/where Vick is going to throw. If they can keep their wits about them, the three-pronged rushing attack of the Falcons will be far less effective.
  2. Force Vick's hand. If the Eagles can establish lanes to Vick, he will be forced into throwing mode. This is potentially disastrous for the Falcons, especially with the solid veteran secondary of the Eagles. The name of the game is going to be stymieing the run and forcing quarterbacks to make poor decisions, and the Eagles better hope they can do it more.
  1. Stop the run. Fortunately for the Eagles, the game is predicted to be in snowy conditions at Lincoln Financial. The decreased traction will stop Vick and the rest of the Falcons runners from making the sharp, precise cuts they are accustomed to make in their Georgia Dome. But the Eagles still need to be wary because this is the team that led the league in rushing yards per game and they will find a way to move the ball on the ground against the Eagles. The Eagles are a very good defense overall, but they are not especially suited to match up against the run and that will hurt them in this game. Philadelphia must be content to simply contain the running game rather than stop it all together as long as they can stop the pass.
  2. Get to an early lead. The Eagles are no slouches themselves when it comes to running the ball and if they get an early lead, they will not hesitate to run the ball repeatedly to run time off the clock. Also, by getting an early lead and holding it, the Eagles will force the Falcons to abandon their running game and if you take away the Falcons running game, their offense doesn't really strike fear into Philadelphia. Let's not forget that the eagles were a pretty good team before T.O. and that they can play well regardless of whether or not he's on the field. By playing disciplined defense and using controlled aggression, the Eagles can win this game and get that three-year-old monkey off of their backs.
  3. Attack the Falcons secondary. Philadelphia no longer has any star wideouts, but they can still attack the Falcons weakness on defense: their secondary. DeAngelo Hall has played remarkably well for a rookie, but he is susceptible to the double move (who isn't?) and if the Eagles o-line can give McNabb some time, he can capitalize on that. The Eagles shouldn't be afraid of putting the ball up there every once in a while because if they don't, then the Falcons will simply sit on the short and intermediate routes and make the game harder and harder for the Eagles offense. Look for a couple of deep passes to Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell to set the tone for Philadelphia.
Key Matchups
  1. QB Michael Vick, RB Warrick Dunn, RB TJ Duckett vs. ILB Jeremiah Trotter, DE Jevon Kearse
  2. RB Brian Westbrook vs. ILB Keith Brooking

New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, 6:30 p.m. - CBS
Key Points: For the Patriots to win...
  1. Establish the running game. When they lost to the Steelers in the regular season, the Patriots were missing 1600 yard rusher Corey Dillon. Now that he's back and used to the playoff atmosphere (quite used, given his yardage against the Colts last week), he will be asked to carry the load against the #1 defense in the league. Make no mistake, the Patriots cannot win without the running game going. This is what Dillon was brought in to do.
  2. Protect Tom Brady. The Steelers brought back the Blitzburgh defense, so it will be imperative the Patriots respond and slow down the rush. Without doing that, Brady will be forced to scramble, and scramble is something Brady absolutely cannot do.
  3. Don't over-think on defense. Belichick always wins the second match-up against a quarterback and there is no reason to doubt Belichick will force Roethlisberger into similar types of situation as he did to Peyton Manning last week. The problem is, there could be a chance the Patriots over-think on defense, trying to confuse a rookie quarterback.
  1. Gum up the ground. The Jets had their way with Roethlisberger last week because they forced him into situations where he made bad decisions. Rookie decisions, if you will. This is the sign of a halted ground game for the Steelers. The Patriots linebacker corps must pound Bettis and Staley for losses, else they let the Steelers establish tempo and walk all over them.
  2. Use Corey Dillon. But not just on the ground. One of the most effective tools the Patriots have at their disposal is the play action, which Brady has down to almost a science. The Patriots should establish a nice blend of run and fake run, which will help them control the clock as they move down field.
  1. Rattle Roethlisberger. The Patriots did a good job last week keeping Peyton Manning in check, mainly by stopping the running game early and then pass rushing him. It also helped that the defense put some huge hits on the Colts receivers and there were a lot of dropped balls. Rattling Roethlisberger will not be that easy, however, as the rookie has a great offensive line, arguably better than the Colts. Also, Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley form the core of a fearsome running game that has pounded opposing defenses into submission.
  2. Stop the run. If you can stop Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley from having big games, you have pretty much shut down the Steelers offense. Most of Pittsburgh's big plays come off of the play action and it is rendered ineffective if the Steelers can't run the ball.
  3. Don't forget about the receivers. With so much attention fixed on the Steelers excellent running game, its easy to forget that the Steelers have one of the best wide receiving duos in Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. If the Patriots don't give them the respect and attention they deserve, they will slaughter the Patriots beleaguered secondary.
Key Points: For the Steelers to win...
  1. Pressure Brady. Want to know the secret to beating Tom Brady? It's rather simple- you pressure him. That is, however, easier said than done. The Steelers, however, have managed to pressure Tom Brady this season, and the "Blitzburgh" defense will need to do the job again or they will be picked apart like the Colts.
  2. Control the clock. We know the Patriots obviously can control the clock. This will be the true epitomy of ball-control games, as the Patriots can absolutely extinguish time (right, Colts?) while the Steelers play a hard-nosed ball-control game of running. Whoever controls the clock better is likely to win, and the Steelers will need to keep that in mind.
  3. Calm Roethlisberger. The pressure is officially at peak. The winning streak lives on, Roethlisberger had a horrible game, and they play against Mr. Cool (Brady). This game likely is the most pressured game Roethlisberger will play this entire season, even if they get into the Superbowl. That means the Steelers will need to make sure Roethlisberger feels loose, or he may force some bad throws.
  1. Make good decisions. Roethlisberger almost threw the game away last week, and was lucky to escape with a win despite his interceptions. The Steelers must establish their tempo and their game, so that Roethlisberger is comfortable and the ball lands in the hands of his receivers, not the Pats patchwork secondary.
  2. Win the special teams battle. Last week, the Jets returned a punt for a touchdown, which proved (almost) critical to the outcome of the game. New England has notoriously good special teams, behind the likes of kick returner Troy Brown and kicker Adam Vinaitieri. The Steelers must make big plays on special teams if they hope to sway the game in their favor.
  1. Run the ball. The Steelers staple on offense is the run, and with their powerful and bruising offensive line, it's easy to see why they rank among the league leaders in rushing yards per game. What with a rookie quarterback that is unproven in playoff situations going up against one of the all-time great postseason quarterbacks in Tom Brady, the Steelers must run the ball so that the game does not fall into the hands of Big Ben. He maybe a good quarterback, but the fact is that he is still a rookie and when pressured, as he was against the Jets, he is still prone to rookie mistakes. By running the ball well, the Steelers can insulate him against the small but opportunistic Patriots defense.
  2. Keep Dillon from having a big game. Corey Dillon tore up the Colts last week for more than 140 yards in his first playoff game. If he gets anywhere near that mark on Sunday, you can pencil in the Patriots for the Super Bowl. Dillon helps the Patriots run down the clock, keeps the defense fresh and provides another problem for the opposing defense to deal with other than Brady's five to ten yard passes. Dillon is one of the best contact runners in the game and he, much like Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, will make the defense tired of tackling him as the game goes on. Bottling him up will dramatically improve the chances of the Steelers winning this game.
Key Matchups
  1. Tom Brady's Playoff Undefeated Streak vs. Ben Roethlisberger's Overall Undefeated Streak
  2. RB Corey Dillon vs. ILB James Farrior

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Pratik Bhandari. Pratik Bhandari is (now) a 5'6" SENIOR who (still) weighs about 125 pounds. He came from India, which could explain his diminutive stature and lived there for three years before moving to Albany, the capital of New York believe it or not, and finally to … More »

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