When head coaches Andy Reid of Philadelphia and Bill Belichik of New England lead their men onto the field at Alltel Stadium this Sunday, the complex chess-match that will ensue could give us one of the best Super Bowls ever. However, to analyze that would occupy more space than we’ve got here, so I’ll focus on a few key team match-ups:
Eagles D vs. Patriots rushing attack
Despite the brilliance of Brady, New England begins and ends on the ground and that tends to mean this year’s breakout runner, Corey Dillon.
In his first year at Foxboro after spending seven in Cincinnati, Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns. His absence was a big reason why the Patriots were steamrolled by the Steelers on Halloween, but he is alive and well for the battle royale against the Eagles on Sunday.
Look for Dillon’s bruising, slippery running style to spread the field and open things up for Tom Brady to get the ball deep. If he rushes for more than 120 yards, the Birds could be in trouble.
Enter Jeremiah Trotter, the latest Eagle to tempt the SI cover jinx, the prodigal Bird who flew away south to hated rival Washington before suffering a knee injury that eventually left him on the cutting-room floor.
His humble return to Phillie was the precursor to a season that has only built up momentum as he’s played. Almost single-handedly, he’s slashed opponents’ rushing yards, using his enormous strength, intelligence and quickness to, among other things, stop the league-best Falcons’ running attack to under 100 yards total. He will be the keystone to stopping Dillon and crew.
Patriots secondary vs. Eagles Wrs
Eagles wide-out Freddie Mitchell, being Freddie Mitchell, managed to fire up the maligned Patriots’ secondary by publicly disparaging them this Monday, saying he "had something" for cornerback Rodney Harrison. Already a "me-against-the-world" kind of player, it was all Harrison needed to whip his teammates into an Eagle-killing frenzy.
Much better than they are reputed (for some reason) to be, this crew has a maddening habit of playing half the field in zone, half in man-to-man, which utterly frustrated Peyton Manning. McNabb’s legs will likely keep them in solid zone coverage, but look for these fabulous athletes to step it up.
Mitchell, Todd Pinkston and emerging star Greg Lewis – all of whom have played very well this postseason – had better bring something for this crew.
Which leads us to the big mystery: will T.O. play? If you’ve had the television on at all this week, you’re probably sick of hearing about it. So let me tell you, I think he’ll play.
How effective he’ll be is another thing, but his amazing conditioning and work ethic might let him pull off the improbable.
"If you believe in miracles," he said on Media Day, "watch on Sunday." He might need one.
Donovan McNabb vs. Tom Brady
Most people are beginning to concede that Tom Brady is on his way to the Hall of Fame. The steely-nerved Boston Beauty has infamously low numbers, but a shockingly high win-to-loss ratio.
This year, however, his "low" numbers have been 3692 yards, with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
It will be essential for the Eagles to unleash their ferocious blitz packages and penetrate the Pats’ O-Line, or Philly risks being surgically dissected, play after play, like Indianapolis was.
With Brady it’s all about the intangibles. Time after time fan and player polls show that he’s the most trusted passer in the league when the game is on the line.
It’s probably not exaggeration to call him the Joe Montana of our era. In fact, it might end up that it’s not saying enough.
That said Eagles’ QB Donovan McNabb might just end up in Canton as well. McNabb has arrived at the point in his career where his body and mind are coming into sync with one another, and the results have been devastating.
This year he became the first QB in modern history to throw over 30 touchdowns with fewer than 10 interceptions. In the course of his career he has fewer turnovers than any QB in the league. And his maturation from an inconsistent, "running" QB to a muscle-bound Elway-like passer, eminently comfortable in the pocket, has been remarkable.
Moreover, his confidence is vast and calm. He showed it this week when he was asked if Terrell Owens had made him a better quarterback.
"No," he said. "If that’s the case, I made him a better wide receiver.