JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Patriots' Corey Dillon always seems to fall forward. Tiki Barber of the Giants is as slippery and elusive as a water bug. The Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson has blinding speed and crazy acceleration. Edgerrin James of the Colts is swift, smooth and powerful.
Coming into this season, no one would have dreamed of placing the Eagles' Brian Westbrook in this celebrated company. In 2003, his second season out of Villanova, he distinguished himself primarily as a punt returner. But after Duce Staley left for Pittsburgh as a free agent and Correll Buckhalter wrecked his knee in the preseason, Westbrook was the Eagles' first option at running back.
Now, he's first in the NFL.
It is infinitely arguable that Philadelphia's chances of winning Super Bowl XXXIX rest more with Westbrook than a certain under-the-radar wide receiver, who may or may not play.
"I don't think I'm a forgotten man," Westbrook said. "They deserve all the attention they get."
Westbrook paused and a smile blossomed across his face.
"I hope those guys get double-covered all day long," he said, "so I can do what I have to do."
Westbrook seems to have spent the week answering as many questions about Owens and McNabb as himself. After landing here, Westbrook found out he was going to the Pro Bowl. Typically, he got in through the back door; the NFC's second alternate was added to the roster when Seattle's Shaun Alexander and Clinton Portis of Washington excused themselves with injuries.
By now, that's OK with Westbrook. Patience, which has allowed him to cope with his chronic disappointment, is his major virtue. He's another overnight success story that was a dozen years in the making. He played point guard at legendary DeMatha Catholic High School, but wound up playing football at Division 1-AA Villanova. He scored 84 touchdowns (in 46 career games) and became the first college player -- at any level -- to gain more than 1,000 yards on the ground and through the air.
His size -- he is listed at 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, but appears about two inches shorter -- dropped him to the third round of the 2002 NFL draft. When the opportunity came this season, he seized it. His 73 catches and 703 yards were first among all NFL running backs. His 4.5-yard-per-carry average is a respectable number indeed.
Since Owens was injured against Dallas in Week 15, McNabb has relied on Westbrook even more heavily. Westbrook led the Eagles in rushing and receiving yards against the Cowboys and then broke loose in the two playoffs games. He produced 117 total yards and a touchdown against the Vikings, then rushed for 96 yards and caught five passes for 39 yards against the Falcons in the NFC championship Game.
No wonder several Patriots players have compared him to the versatile and original Marshall Faulk. A comparison to Tomlinson might be even more appropriate. Westbrook is startlingly fast and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been raving all week about his hands.
Football is all about matchups, and Westbrook creates some brutal mismatches. He is too fast for linebackers in pass coverage and too big for cornerbacks or even safeties. Clearly, the Patriots have some decisions to make.
"I hope I can get a linebacker matchup," Westbrook said. "Hopefully, I can take advantage of that."
Hope, truth be told, is not in the equation. The Patriots will likely use a combination of linebackers and safeties to keep Westbrook under control.
"Good," Westbrook said. "If they do that they open themselves up to get hurt by our other players."
There is talk that Westbrook will be asked to return to his roots and return a few punts on Sunday to give the Eagles a little more punch on special teams. When he says he wouldn't mind, you believe him. He seems at peace. Finally, he is where he thought he'd be all along.
Westbrook might be the NFL's 29th-ranked running back in terms of yards -- behind such luminaries as Carolina's Nick Goings, Kevan Barlow of the 49ers and the Cowboys' Julius Jones -- but after McNabb he is the Eagles' least replaceable player.
Over the last two seasons the Eagles are 22-1 when Westbrook touched the ball 10 times.
"I don't feel any pressure," he said. "I'm going to do the things I've done all season long. Believe me, I'm happy to be here."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.