Page 2 staff

From the Final Four to the Super Bowl ... it's all about Eagles-Patriots now.

OK, we know it's not that simple. There were still a couple games to play to get us into the two weeks of hype we're about to endure.

Still, everyone knows what happened by now ... the Michael Vick Express was blown off the tracks, and it was definitely past midnight for Cinderella QB Ben Roethlisberger. But you know Snap Judgment has more to say on all of this. So sit back and let our 20/20 hindsight amaze you.





Michael Vick or Peyton Manning: Which one will reach a Super Bowl first? They can both afford tickets, right? Vick. Better defense.Weaker conference. Manning. Manning ... now pass me another cup of that Kool-Aid. Manning, but not soon.
In three words or less, how much does Donovan McNabb need Terrell Owens to win the Super Bowl? Couldn't hurt. Real Bad. Lots. Lots. Lots. Too much. Not very much.
You have one question, and one question only: What do you ask Donovan's Mom? Um, what else do you cook? Do you feel that the way you are represented in the Chunky Soup commercials-- positive, bright, wholesome, All American -- might impact the way older black women (especially those who are mothers of prominent athletes) are seen by the media? Canned or home-made? "In three words or less, how much does Donovan McNabb need Terrell Owens to win the Super Bowl?" Do you still eat Chunky soup?
Give the weight, in pounds, of the monkey that was lifted off McNabb's back on Sunday? That's no monkey! That's Akebono! Depends on if you believe there was one. That monkey's a King Kong illusion -- in real life, 18 inches tall. In the imagination, 10 tons. Monkey? Heh. That thing was an 800-pound gorilla. How much does the Liberty Bell weigh?
The two Super Bowl defenses were tied for second-best in the league at denying points. So on a scale from 1 to 10, how important are the quarterbacks going to be in this Super Bowl? 10, unless a nipple pops out, in which case it's more like -4. Well, I dont think any more, or less than usual. So I'll go with at least 5. 8. 8, at least. Brady 7, McNabb 10.
Tom Brady's offense is like a well-oiled machine. Let's roll with the cliché. What kind of machine is Brady most like? A Honda Accord. Consistent, reliable production while flashier models are stuck in the shop. The Original Macintosh. Not attractive. Just dependable. Voyagers 1 and 2. Modest initial investment, extremely dependable, delivering bursts of wonderment. He's a machine, all right. He's T-1000, that freakish, blank-faced titanium bad boy in "Terminator 2." A Porsche engine in a Lexus body.
Ben Roethlisberger or Daunte Culpepper: Which will one will reach a Super Bowl first? Roethilsberger, if Randy Moss trade rumors are to be believed. Culpepper. Big Ben. In 12 months. Culpepper might get to one first, but he's not going to win it, at least not as long as he's a Viking. Easy. Brady

First down: Based on the two quarterbacks still playing, give us your early-bird preview of the kind of game we'll see in Jacksonville. And yes, that means you have to pick a winner and tell us which of the two QBs is more likely to be named Super Bowl MVP.

Alan Grant: The Patriots' defense may very well dictate the game. They'll drop eight, sometimes nine people into coverage, which will give McNabb a few opportunities to make plays on his own -- and this shall be the highlight. But when they come after him (and they will), I just don't think the Eagles' receivers -- Freddie Mitchell's impressario playoff personality notwithstanding -- will be up to out-fighting Rodney Harrison and his band of marauders.

On the flip side, I think the Patriots' offense, though not as talented as the Eagles', is a little smoother, and perhaps tougher, than the Eagles' D. Simply because the Patriots win, Brady has a better shot at being the M.V.P.

Eric Neel: I see 60-yard spirals capping perfectly-run post-patterns. I see quick-hit passes into the flat. I see sweet-spot balls over the middle and frozen ropes toward the sidelines. I see Brady and the Pats holding the Lombardi again, and I fear it won't be close. I know there are things that might cloud this vision. I know the Eagles front is fierce and their secondary is fiercer, still. But I also know the Steelers played a bit of defense, and the Patriots made them look like they weren't even there. So I'm saying, good as the Eagles are, I just don't see them come Super Sunday.

Jeff Merron: If the Eagles have T.O., they'll be good enough on the ground to keep the Pats D just a little bit tired, which will open up room for some big plays, which will lead to four TDs -- enough to win. But four times out of five the Eagles sans T.O. can't beat the Patriots without getting very, very lucky. Brady's got the home field advantage: he's used to playing in the Super Bowl. And he has Corey Dillon. And he has the best coach in the game. So: with T.O, the Eagles in a squeaker. Without T.O., the Pats in a runaway, and Brady the MVP.

Patrick Hruby: From what we've seen this season, New England is the superior team, which means Tom Brady has a better chance of capturing another MVP award. However, Philadelphia's secondary -- more talented than any faced by the Patriots in this year's playoffs or their previous two Super Bowls -- gives me pause. If New England wins the game, I wouldn't be surprised if Corey Dillon or a defensive player earned MVP honors.

(One caveat: if Philly blitzes as ineffectively as Pittsburgh, and Brian Dawkins gives up the post route as often as Troy Polamalu, then Brady walks away with the award. Guaranteed).

As for Donovan McNabb, I don't think the Eagles can win unless he's the MVP -- Philadelphia needs his best, with or without a healthy Terrell Owens. Simply put, the club draws on his mojo, and an offense full of nice-but-complementary players is only as good as the man making the decisions. (The Pats are similar, with the exception of Dillon.) Can McNabb pull it off? Good question. He's probably the most complete quarterback in football, and his accuracy woes seem to be a thing of the past. Still, it's hard to pick against Belichick with two weeks to scheme, even though Andy Reid is no film-room slouch himself.

I guess this means I'm picking the Pats. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to break down Lingerie Bowl II. No slouching in this film room.

Aaron Schatz: If T.O. is somehow fully healthy, I think you've got a really interesting game on your hands, probably close with leads going back and forth. If not, though, I think the Patriots have to be heavy favorites. Sure, McNabb can go long to Greg Lewis maybe once a game; but for the most part, the Philadelphia weapons are all close in: Westbrook and Levens running, Westbrook on screens or in the slot, the tight ends, Mitchell on short routes. The Patriots are excellent at pursuit and tackling. They never give up the long running play. They are the league's best defense against tight ends. With a defense based around linebackers and Rodney Harrison, they are perfectly designed to make life so difficult for the other 10 Eagles that McNabb has nothing to work with. The Eagles had two games this season against 3-4 defenses with great linebacker depth: the Ravens, who nearly beat them (Owens was responsible for most of the Philadelphia offense); and the Steelers, who destroyed them. Brady . . . Well, the Eagles have a lot of great defensive players, and I'm sure Kearse will have him on his back a couple times; but the Patriots offense was better than the Eagles defense this season and it has a wider variety of weapons than the Eagles offense. That means a Patriots win and, yep, probably another Brady MVP.

Skip Bayless: The danger here is getting carried away with what the Eagles did at home against No Factor Conference opponents. On the other hand, you cannot overestimate what New England just did to one of the hottest offenses in pro football history -- Patriots 20, Peyton Manning 3 -- and the way the Patriots hung 41 points on the NFL's best scoring defense in Pittsburgh.

With or without Terrell Owens, the Eagles will have a tough time scoring on the Patriots. While Bill Belichick has two weeks to prepare, one of the NFL's best defensive tackles, Richard Seymour, probably will recover enough from a knee injury to play. Good luck, Donovan.

And good luck, Eagles defense, stopping what you struggled to stop all season -- the run. This game will belong more to Corey Dillon than Tom Brady. Dillon, MVP. Patriots, 27-10.

Second down: What showed you the most: McNabb's play against the Falcons, or the way he took all the pressure on himself last week in what was a put-up-or-shut-up game for the Eagles after those three straight NFC Championship losses?

Alan Grant: The two factors are linked. He really had nothing to lose by proclaiming that his shoulders were broad enough to take on an oxen-sized load of expectation. Really. What's he going to say? "Oh, good lawd, I'm scared to death! If we lose again, I'm a big, fat failure and my life is a waste!" Come on. One, that was hardly the case; and Two, McNabb knew going in that they were going to destroy the Falcons. Not only were the Falcons the worst of the Eagles' consecutive Championship game opponents, this year's Eagles team was the most balanced, best prepared, and most confident of all those teams the past three years.

Aaron Schatz: It is good to be disciplined enough to speak the team-first talk, but you've got to execute. I keep thinking about that 3rd-and-11 where McNabb danced around at least three different Atlanta tacklers and kept upright, found Freddie Mitchell, and got the first down -- through the air. Watching McNabb and Vick in the same game you really see how different they are, and how McNabb is always thinking like a quarterback first. McNabb uses the threat of the run, but he's always looking to pass until the moment that he crosses the line of scrimmage. That's how he finds guys who get open at the last second and makes plays even though he doesn't have the greatest receivers.

Eric Neel: His play. The pre-game stuff during the week is all scripted. McNabb's a pro; he knew what to say. But the way he played -- and I agree with Aaron, the hipping-and-hopping play on third-and-11 told us all we needed to know about his composure, his skill, and his hunger for the big game -- was the story.

Jeff Merron: In the first few drives of the game, McNabb looked like he couldn't figure out the wind, even when it was at his back -- he kept overthrowing. But it didn't take long for him to figure it out in both directions. That adjustment was impressive -- he didn't get flustered by the conditions.

What I've noticed in the last few weeks -- I'm sure I'm behind the curve on this -- is the way McNabb plants himself in the pocket. He's almost still, then takes these little hops, looks left, center, right, center, right, and he'll stand there for what seems like forever, and then make a decision. It's a classic passing pose. But the scary thing is that he can take off whenever he wants and gain big surface yardage.

Patrick Hruby: I don't care if McNabb promises to spread freedom, democracy and plum contracts for American oil companies across the globe, all while cutting taxes. Talk is cheap. Play's the thing. McNabb delivered. Nothing else matters. Or have we learned nothing from a certain presidential administration's quickly-forgotten feel-good vow to put a man on Mars?

Not that I'm bitter about the Inauguration or anything.

Skip Bayless: Everything McNabb did before and during the game was impressive. He appeared and sounded remarkably at peace last week, considering the career-threatening pressure on him; and his loose, confident aura surely rubbed off on his teammates. When asked how it would feel to finally win an NFC title game, he repeatedly said: "Our goal is the win the Super Bowl."

And that's the way he played. He orchestrated his offense like Magic Johnson at his most make-everyone-better contagious. He involved eight receivers. His offense committed no turnovers. And McNabb used his legs better than Vick was able to use his.

The signature drive of McNabb's career was the clincher that made it 27-10. Three times, McNabb converted third downs, the last by bolting up the middle. No matter how mediocre the competition, under the circumstances this was a masterful performance.

Third down: He's never let us see him sweat, but something must make Tom Brady nervous on the field. So let's give the Eagles a hand here. Cook up a football scenario that ought to rattle Mr. Brady when he faces Philadelphia in two weeks, and tell us how he'll react when he sees it.

Alan Grant: Before the game, one of the Eagles walks up to Brady and smacks him with a vicious hook to the chin. Brady drops like a stone and the pregame brawl ensues. Brady recovers and is able to play, but he's groggy and not at all crisp in his reads. See, nothing takes a man out of his game like a good, old-fashioned assault ...

But no, seriously. I'm sorry, but I just don't believe in the whole being "scared" on the field. There's no way you could ever get to that level if you're genuinely afraid of anything out there. Being nervous is one thing, and being anxious before the biggest spectacle on earth is understandable. But I just don't think "pee-down-your-leg" scared is a viable option for this guy. Even if the Eagles blitz him, and they will, I don't expect Brady to willfully go to the turf in a heap. Well, unless someone really does assault him.

Eric Neel: Seriously, the only thing that I can imagine that would scare him at all would be learning that Mr. Kraft worked some midnight back-room deal to trade him to the Eagles for McNabb ... And I'm pretty sure that kind of thing isn't even legal.

Jeff Merron: Corey Dillon gets badly injured on the Pats first offensive set, when he's brought down by nickelback Donovan McNabb, who's been inserted by Jim Johnson on third and long. Brady reacts calmly, but spends much of his sideline time in the first half asking to be allowed to shadow McNabb when the Eagles have the ball. Belichick, of course, says no, but Tom's attention has wandered enough to give the Eagles a 21-3 halftime lead. In the second half, McNabb is taken out of the defensive scheme, Brady refocuses, and the Pats go on to win, 27-24, on a 49-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, in a freak Jacksonville snowstorm as time runs out.

Patrick Hruby: Like Joe Montana before him, Brady is about to lead his club on a Super Bowl winning drive when he sees John Candy in the stands -- only this freaks him out, because Candy has been dead for years, and Brady is a big fan of "Canadian Bacon."

OK. You got me. I can't think of anything -- though, in my defense, sitting through an entire showing of "Canadian Bacon" would unnerve just about anyone.

Aaron Schatz: I seem to remember only one game this year where Brady seemed completely confused and flustered. It was the first game against Pittsburgh, when he had one tackle making his first NFL start and another tackle who had never even played tackle before, plus no running game. So what you need is three white-trash hoodlums from Portland, Oregon, to rush out of the stands in Jacksonville and whack Matt Light on the back of the knee with a lead pipe so that he screams "Why me? Why now?" You probably need to do the same with Brandon Gorin; and since a pipe probably wouldn't do enough damage to Corey Dillon, I'm guessing you would need to just kidnap him entirely.

Skip Bayless: The only hope the Eagles have is to take Dillon completely away from Brady and hope their blitzes create more blocking mismatches than Pittsburgh's did. Philly's cornerbacks are considerably better in coverage than Pittsburgh's, so maybe if Brady forced some early throws the way he did without Dillon in the regular-season loss at Pittsburgh, the Eagles could jump ahead and hang on.

But that's highly unlikely.

Quarterback Skinny DPAR
1. Tom Brady
14/21, 207 yards
2 TD, 0 INT
For the next two weeks, Terrell Owens will talk the talk, but we know that Deion Branch can walk the walk. 11.3
2. Donovan McNabb
17/26, 245 yards
2 TDs, 0 INT
On top of everything else he did well on Sunday, he had five strong runs of six yards or more, two for first downs. 6.9
3. Ben Roethlisberger
14/24, 226 yards
2 TD, 3 INT
Rating helped by garbage-time drive (3.1 DPAR) and by running (2.8 DPAR). Deserves credit for being only Steeler trying to tackle Rodney Harrison on his INT touchdown return. -0.3
4. Michael Vick
11/24, 133 yards
26 rushing
0 TDs, 1 INT
As soon as they took a timeout on their first 3rd-and-long, it was clear they had no idea how to convert if the Eagles stopped their runs on first and second. Vick didn't convert a single down of 3rd-and-7 or more. -7.1

Fourth down: Michael Vick's numbers: 11-for-24 with no TDs and a pick, for 136 yards. Four carries for 26 yards. So what finally stopped him? What percent was the offense the Falcons run? What percent was the Eagles' defense? What percent was Vick's own poor play? What percent was the weather?

Alan Grant: 1.0% 2. 70% 3. 30% 4. 0%

Eric Neel: 11-for-24 for 136? That's kind of what he does, right? Maybe a little down, but not radically so. What finally stopped him, or more to the point, what finally stopped the Falcons, was that Philly didn't let him break off a big run or three. He's not the great passer he someday will be, and that hurt his club Sunday. But the key to this game was the Eagles, who tailed him relentlessly, stayed at home on the line, and delivered big hits when he came a-creeping (Mr. Vick, meet Mr. Hollis Thomas), and so didn't let him become the great runner he already is.

Jeff Merron: You know, I don't know what the heck the Falcons' game plan was. Half the game, they're into a heavy wind, and the pass pretty much was taken away as an option. But there was no commitment to giving Vick a role as a running back. And with the wind -- well, sorry, but when Peerless Price is your second-best option downfield, you're pretty limited.

I'd say at least a third of Vick's limitations were weather-related. You have to give the Eagles D the credit for containing the Falcons on the ground.

Atlanta looked lost, especially in the second half. And a big part of the responsibility for direction is on the QB.

Patrick Hruby: 10-60-20-10. That's my percentage breakdown, not a low-cost long distance alternative (and what happened to all the commercials for those services, anyway? John Stamos needs work).

Atlanta's offense is run-heavy and somewhat unimaginative, but that didn't stop them from rolling St. Louis. Vick made one lousy decision -- his inexplicable bullet toss to Brian Dawkins -- yet otherwise didn't sabotage the Falcons. And while nasty winds whipped through the stadium, they didn't make passing impossible (see McNabb, Donovan).

No, the bulk of the credit -- or blame, if you're wearing red and black -- goes to Philadelphia's defense, which one-upped its Rams counterpart by making one-on-one tackles. Imagine that. Who do these guys think they are, professional football players?

Beyond containing and corralling Vick's scrambles, the Eagles managed to stuff the Falcons' NFL-leading ground attack while taking away every receiver not named Alge Crumpler. Of course, the latter isn't much of an accomplishment: Atlanta's receivers are the most statistically feeble group in the league, and did little to disabuse their status yesterday.

Hmmm. Maybe Peerless Price and company -- heck, is there a company? -- deserve a few percentage points, too.

Aaron Schatz: Well, from a passing perspective, this game was no different than most of the other games Vick played this season. He was an awful passer on Sunday and he was an awful passer all year. The running thing -- that is a bigger issue. I would definitely congratulate the Philadelphia defense for keeping Vick from running. He would drop back to pass, have nobody open, go to take off, and discover there was a Philadelphia defender right on his heels. Four sacks and a ton of balls that were thrown away. Plus, at the goal line, they were spying him with not one but two guys to prevent the kind of play Vick made against Carolina a couple weeks ago.

Skip Bayless: The percentage depends on your point of view. Mine is that Vick's offense struggled to score all season and that what he and his running game did to a lousy, clueless Rams defense was terribly misleading. Yet the Eagles' defense deserved 50 per cent of the credit because it had the athletes, the quickness and the disciplined scheme to repeatedly turn Vick into what he struggles to be: a pocket passer.

When forced to stop and throw, Vick's mechanics are still some of the worst this side of a fly-by-night garage. So Vick deserved 30 per cent of the blame. His coaches deserved 15 per cent for getting away from running Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett and repeatedly asking Vick to throw downfield against the wind. The weather, which gets the final 5 per cent, obviously took away some of Vick's enthusiasm for getting hit and made him feel like he couldn't get warmed up.

But in the end, Vick as a playoff quarterback was an overrated product of perhaps the weakest NFC ever.

Overtime: Big Ben's shaky first half ... how much leeway does he get for still being a rookie?

Alan Grant: Gets leeway for being a rookie. And gets more leeway for facing the most disciplined defense in the league.

Eric Neel: From who? From me? Sure, I'll say, "He's young. It's been a terrific year. He'll learn from this and he'll be back." Thing is, what I say doesn't matter at all. Ask The Bus how much leeway he gets. Ask Cowher. They weren't thinking of him as a rookie yesterday. They were thinking of him as the quarterback. And as the quarterback, much as it pains them to say it (because I think they genuinely like the guy), he came up short and stiff. There's no shame in that -- the Patriots do it to most everyone, including a certain southern gentleman we all know so well -- but there's no glory in it, either.

Jeff Merron: Some. He hasn't seen enough and experienced enough to be able to quickly thin-slice everything that's thrown at him, especially by a great defense playing at its best. One more year should solve that &

On the other hand, framing every discussion of Roethlisberger around the rookie theme is limiting and, I think, a little bit lazy. We (writers, announcers, fans) are prone to calling every mistake he makes a "rookie mistake," as if veteran QBs don't make the same errors. They do.

The bottom line is that time after time after time this season, and even yesterday, Roethlisberger has played with the poise that great veteran QBs possess. There's been a lot of talk about how Roethlisberger has been the beneficiary of a great running game, excellent receivers, good pass protection, and the league's best defense. There should be just as much talk about how the runners, receivers, O-line, and defense have benifitted from Big Ben. If he'd been inept, or half-ept, the Steelers wouldn't have won 15 straight and gotten to the NFC title game.

One other thing before I get off my soapbox: the Steelers weren't out of yesterday's game until the fourth quarter. Which says a whole lot, considering they were playing against the Pats.

Patrick Hruby: None. And I doubt he'd ask for any. If you need rookie leeway, you shouldn't be playing in the AFC Championship game.

Aaron Schatz: End of the first quarter, I called my friend Ian. I said, "What do you think? Is he good Ben or bad Ben today?" Ian said, "It doesn't matter. What I want to know is, how stupid was he to do that Chunky Soup rookie commercial? And then to have that broadcast during the most important game of his career? He's totally screwed." So that was Big Ben's rookie mistake: jousting with the Chunky Soup curse. I wouldn't be surprised if he hurt the thumb opening a can of soup. He's now doomed to blow three shots at the Super Bowl before he finally makes it.

(Oh, you want a serious answer? Everybody has played a full season of football at this point. They've had a year to learn the NFL. There are no rookies left in January.)

Skip Bayless: Roethlisberger has this (and only this) in common with Vick: He's better throwing on the run. Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who says he was suprised during training camp at how mobile Big Ben is, lived on that mobility much of the season. Roethlisberger made many of his most crucial completions outside the pocket. His best throw against Pittsburgh came when he rolled right on fourth down and floated a pass to Hines Ward, who broke loose for a touchdown.

But when contained in the pocket, Roethlisberger's mechanics break down like Vick's. No way should he have been asked to throw downfield on his second and third offensive plays. The third resulted in an interception that shattered the kid's confidence until it was too late.

Best Throw of The Week:
Jeff Merron: Second quarter, Eagles third-and-11 on their own 38, McNabb scrambles for what seems like minutes before finding Freddie Mitchell on the sideline for a 13-yard gain and a first down. Next play, he hits Greg Lewis for 45 yards against a fierce wind to set up the Eagles second TD. Amazing sequence.

Patrick Hruby: Tom Brady's 60-yard strike to Deion Branch. Brady duped Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu into breaking on an underneath receiver, then dropped a tight spiral into Branch's waiting arms. Next to an end-zone fade, there's nothing sweeter than a perfectly-executed post pattern.

Aaron Schatz: Tom Brady's 60-yard TD to Branch, which I really can't describe any better than Hruby did.

Worst Throw of The Week:
Aaron Schatz: You know, Vick's bullet interception to Brian Dawkins was not the worst throw of the day. Think about it: There's NO reason for him to throw that unless Crumpler was supposed to be there. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that it was a missed route.

No, the dumbest, worst throw of the week was Vick just chucking it up into the wind on 3rd-and-7 when nobody was open. The ball ended up coming down in a group with Alge Crumpler and something like six Eagles; and just because none of the Eagles managed to actually catch the thing and run it back doesn't make it a smarter throw. After the commercial, I heard the TV guys saying that the Atlanta coaches were telling Vick that it is OK to throw it away in that situation. Michael Vick has been an NFL quarterback for FOUR YEARS. His coaches still have to tell him it is OK to throw it away in that situation?

Jeff Merron: I'm with Aaron on Vick's silly third-and-seven balloon pass into the wind early in the first quarter. The Eagles were just all over it, and Crumpler saved him by being smart enough to turn instantly into a defender.

Patrick Hruby: Ben Roethlisberger let a number of balls slip away, but Mike Vick's bullet to Brian Dawkins stands alone. Funny enough, the pass itself was a crisp, tight spiral. Problem was, Vick should have thrown a lob -- he had Alge Crumpler one-on-one with Dawkins, and a jump ball would have put Dawkins at a severe disadvantage. Instead, Vick fired the ball short and low, giving Crumpler no chance to make a catch.