The Superbowl is set, New England will defend its title against Philadelphia. What a great couple of games this weekend, a long hard fought season came down to two games between the four best teams in the league. And make no mistake about it, these were the four best teams in the league, fighting tooth and nail for a ticket to Jacksonville. Unfortunately, only two teams are able to advance, leaving two others left to wonder what could have been. Let’s get right into this weekend’s games…
At Philadelphia 27, Atlanta 10
Both bird teams wanted badly to get into the Superbowl, and it only seemed fitting that the two teams that were the top two seeds got to meet for the right to represent the NFC. As was well documented, Philadelphia was carrying some heavy baggage having been in the title game for the fourth year in a row, third time at home. On a cold and extremly windy day, it was the Falcons that would have the first chance at showcasing their offense. The Eagle defense was up to the task and Atlanta did not generate a first down. Philly’s offense had some mild success, but a fake field goal on fourth down did not net enough yards and the game remained scoreless, but they had made their point, Andy Reid was playing this to win, instead of playing not to lose.
The Eagles would click on their next possession, Dorsey Levens hitting paydirt from 4 yards out to start the scoring, sending the home crowd into a frenzy. The drive was kept alive by illegal contact on a third and ten, plus a Brian Westbrook (135 total yds) romp for 36 yards. Atlanta’s offense was next to get moving and they put together a long 17 play drive that chewed up nearly nine minutes of time, however it was only a three point effort that they were able to put up on the board. Philadelphia would come right back, going 72 yards in only 9 plays, Donovan McNabb (180 yds, 2 TD, 0 int) finding Chad Lewis (2 TD) on a nice catch in the corner of the end zone from three yards out. Down by 11, the Falcons would return the favor on the ensuing possession. Warrick Dunn (59 yds, TD) rumbled down the right side from 10 yards out closing the gap and keeping things close.
Philadelphia opened up the second half with the ball, and they did not disappoint the home crowd. A nice 11 play 60 yard drive ended with David Akers connecting from 31 yards out to push the lead back to seven. Later in the quarter, it was Akers again, this time from 34 yards out, a short drive set up by a Michael Vick interception. Atlanta would not be able to respond, the Eagle defense was playing very well, limiting the vaunted Falcon running attack while containing Vick.
The Eagles carried the ten point lead into the fourth quarter, and again the defense came up big, halting a Falcon drive and forcing a punt. Philly would chew up some clock, punt, and again the defense held true forcing a three and out. With a shade over ten minutes to play, the Eagles had a chance to put the game away, and they did just that. Chewing up clock and marching down the field, Andy Reid again went for the throat, not settling for a field goal attempt but going for the TD. He was rewarded as the 11 play and 65 yard drive ended with Chad Lewis catching his second TD of the day giving Philadelphia an insurmountable lead. The celebration began and Eagle fans were making plans for Jacksonville.
New England 41, at Pittsburgh 27
Make no mistake about the final score of this game, this was a game played between two very evenly matched teams that was close until the very end. Both teams had their chances to win this game, and I venture to say if these two played 100 times against each other, both sides would win 50 times. The pregame story lines were very well known, New England looking to avenge an early season loss in the same stadium where they lost their win streak…Pittsburgh being the top seed in the AFC, but a three point underdog at home…Bill Cower having the top seed in the AFC for the fourth time, having never been able to get to the Superbowl…etc, etc, etc. On a cold and raw night, these two teams would battle to see who would represent the AFC, and a great game took place.
Pittsburgh won the toss and they had the ball first. On the third play, third and short, Ben Roethlisberger (226 yds, 2 TD, 3 int) threw poorly, and the Patriots had the first turnover of the game. Despite the great field, New England would only get one first down, and Adam Vinatier would bang home a 48 yard kick, the longest successful kick by a visiting kicker and more importantly it was from nearly the same spot that Doug Brien had missed from the week before. The Steelers would regroup, and put together the makings of a nice drive of their own. They would end up with a fourth and one from the New England 39, and Bill Cower chose to go for it. Unfortunately, not only was it unsuccessful, but Jerome Bettis (64 yds, TD) would fumble the ball.
Seizing on their second turnover, Tom Brady (207 yds, 2 TD) hooked up with Deion Branch (116 yds, TD) for a 60 yard score on the very next play. New England was doing to Pittsburgh what they had done to them on that Halloween game. The Steelers would not get a first down on the following possession, but this time their defense held New England to keep the game from getting out of hand. Jeff Reed would put the Steelers on the board from 43 yards out, narrowing the Patriot lead to seven. Again the Steeler D did their part, but New England’s was also up to the task. Yards were becoming hard to come by on the ground for both teams.
New England went back to work, a great catch by Deion Branch for 45 yards put the Patriots in a good position to score again, David Givens taking a 9 yard Brady pass into the end zone and New England had extended their lead. Pittsbugh would drive on the ensuing possession, but Roethlisberger was late on a pass and Rodney Harrison picked it off and ran 87 yards the other way for a touchdown, 24-3 New England lead at the half.
There was no quit in this Pittsburgh team, they didn’t get this far by folding and they opened the second half intent on making this a game. They stuffed the Patriots offense on the opening possession of the half and their offense then went to work. Roethlisberger hooked up with Randle El for 34 yards to the Patriot 5, and Bettis did the rest from there. The Steelers were back within two scores and the crowd was more alive than ever. New England would scratch together a first down, then facing a third and 17 came a key series of plays. On third and seventeen, New England would misfire on a screen, but the Steelers were guilty of holding, giving New England the automatic first down. Then Brady would hook up with Givens for 18 yards to the Steeler 40 but he fumbled the ball while being tackled. Bill Belichick challenged the call on the field, and since Given’s knee was down, New England got the ball back. On top of that, in the scramble for the ball, Pittsburgh was flagged for a fifteen yard unnecesary roughness call that was tacked onto the end of the play. The next snap Corey Dillon (73 yds, TD) ran down the right sideline from 25 yards out for the score and 21 point lead.
Again, the Steelers did not give up. They ammassed a 10 play 60 yard drive that was capped by Hines Ward (109 yds, TD) hauling in a 30 yard TD pass. Still, New England was in a position to salt away the game, but the Steelers D rose to the occassion not allowing a first down. Brady had thrown to Givens for 44 yards on third down, but Cower challenged the play and though it was close, the official correctly ruled that it was an incomplete pass, forcing a New England punt. Bettis would then rumble for 25 yards, Ward would catch a 26 yard pass and Pittsburgh was right back in business, first and goal at the Patriot 4. This time it was New England’s D that held, forcing Jeff Reed to boot another field goal. Close game, the outcome still in doubt for both teams.
On the ensuing possession, New England would run some clock and move the ball, 10 plays and 5 and a half minutes later, Adam Vinatieri was good from 31 yards out to push the lead back to 14 with 8 minutes left to play. Looking to strike right back, Roethlisberger threw just high two plays in the next drive, and New England had the interception. Cower challenged the play, and though this one was also close, this time there was no reversal. The Patriots would work on the clock, and on third and nine from the Steeler 23, Deion Branch would cap off a great day by taking a reverse and running untouched down the right side to effectively end the game. Pittsburgh would drive the field for one last score, but after the on side kick was unsuccessful, an extremly hard fough game came to an end where either team could have won, but this time it was New England punching their ticket to Jacksonville for the right to defend their title.