Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A Championship!

Monday morning, the ancestral homestead was afflicted by a terrible sewage disaster. The details are unimportant- sewage is all you really need to know. And as I was crawling around on my hands and knees- in the snow, in said sewage-looking for a sort of valve on the front lawn, in order to access the system in order to unclog it, my heart was filled with joy. You see, Philadelphia is going to the Super Bowl. The George Halas trophy is secured.

Honored by just about every announcer, player and pundit there as the “best fans in the NFL”, the Linc denizens finally had a chance to just roar and party and spontaneously sing. At the two minute warning, the catharsis of just standing and screaming dementedly seemed to cure the crowd of two decades of troubles. Somewhere Buddy Ryan flipped off his television and grunted contentedly.

After the victory, the party spilled out into the parking lot. The cops ceded control to Philadelphians almost immediately- but it never felt dangerous. Yes, totally illegal, yet strangely organized and impressive fireworks displays lit up the night- in multiple locations over the Linc. Some nut was cranking a twenty-minute Rocky theme “dance mix” very loudly out of his RV- and almost a thousand people did the Mummers' Strut in circles around it. Barrels flamed cheerily, beer and vodka handed to all passer-bys. I will never forget it.

Despite the fact the NFL has seemingly decreed the NFC Championship game will be in Philadelphia- until further notice- it never feels jaded. This was about a clinical dissection of a twelve win team as you are apt to see. Last week, the reason I wrote the Eagles were such a stone lay-up in this spot is that it was patently obvious the Falcons would be able to do nothing on offense. The howling wind, Vick’s passing incompetence and mostly the Eagles secondary took away the perimeter and deep passing game- largely with only three defensive players. That meant eight were freed up to stop the run.

The Eagles were so disrespectful of Vick’s passing the entire afternoon. Frequently, Johnson played a corner as the deep safety, in order to free up both safeties (superior tacklers in the box than the corners) to stuff the run. I have never seen that in a pro-game. But if you don’t fear a deep pass play- why not? All those guys in the box had two ramifications. First, the Falcons could not rush the football. Second, with so many defensive players near the line of scrimmage, totally free of deep and perimeter responsibilities, Vick had no where to turn his own marvelous legs up field.

Since scoring two touchdowns was a mountain Vick was plainly not going to be able to climb, the Eagles played like Missouri Synod Lutherans- that is to say- conservative on offense. Their offensive effort was sort of very clinical, very safe. Turnovers, leading to easy points, were the only way the Falcons had a hope of scoring somewhere north of twenty. The wideouts did not contribute much- but they were asked to do much either. In the gusty conditions, it was far more prudent to dump the ball to Westbrook and work in the tight ends in the red zone. The Eagles ran the ball surprisingly well; I was surprised as by all accounts Atlanta's front four are powerful. The drive to start the second half was notable- immediately after the Falcons had cut the lead down to 14-10, to get points and relieve pressure, was a big score. As usual, the Eagles play offense with intelligence- and almost always tailored to the moment. On Sunday, it was enough to cruise to 27 points.

I want to remark on one point about the game- that gives me some robust hope for the coming Super Bowl with a superb Patriot’s outfit. Candidly, the Eagles dominated most of the game- and yet it was only 14-10 at half- and 17-10 deep into the third quarter. First, let’s put aside the two obvious factors: the Falcons are certainly a good, very well-coached team and the brutal weather made the explosive offensive numbers necessary to bury a club pretty impossible. What kept the Falcons in the game was their refusal to turn it over. The minute they did- then the game ended.

If you are a good football team- and you play a game near turnover free- with no other turnover like plays (blocked punts, conceding big returns), you are almost always in the game. Seriously- always. Look at the Steelers. The Pats are great, but I refuse to believe they are normally three scores better than Pittsburgh- particularly in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh largely got scorched due to their inability to protect the football, particularly early. Down a bunch of scores, forced to throw a lot more than they wanted, meant even more turnovers. Philadelphia’s singular excellence on offense since Reid’s arrival is a stubborn refusal to turn it over. If the Eagles enter the fourth quarter against the Patriots with one or fewer turnovers, particularly with the way the defense is playing, I guarantee they will be positioned to rock those guys.

Most importantly, the game raised my record picking the Birds ATS in the play-offs to a stupefying 8-1 over the past four campaigns. I’ll blog later on the Super Bowl, but my gut feeling, today, is the spread is a little rich. “Minus” seven? That is an awful lot for anyone to be spotted- particularly playing a good team that is playing frankly very well. I would have been shocked had Atlanta come into the Linc and won that game. Yes, I would be surprised, but not shocked, if Philadelphia won the Super Bowl. And yet, the Eagles are a bigger ‘dog? Unlike the last two games, Philadelphia does not feel like a stone lock- but I am leaning their way.