PHILADELPHIA – The Eagles advanced to their fourth straight NFC championship game Sunday with a 27-14 romp past the inept Minnesota Vikings. They will also host their third conference title game in a row, a league record, when they meet Atlanta on Sunday. The Falcons routed St. Louis 47-17 on Saturday.
For the next week, Eagles fans will wring their hands, furrow their brows and deal with the angst of Philadelphia's last three failed attempts to make their first Super Bowl (search) since 1981.
"We are excited about this win, but we are excited about moving on," Donovan McNabb said after throwing two touchdown passes.
The AFC championship matchup is a rematch of a Halloween game in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers beat the Patriots. This weekend, New England took apart Indianapolis 20-3 and Pittsburgh survived against the New York Jets 20-17 in overtime.
In October, Pittsburgh won 34-20 to end the Patriots' record 21-game winning streak. The Patriots beat the host Steelers in the 2001 AFC title game, then won their first of two Super Bowls in the last three years.
"We played our best 30 minutes of football in the second half," coach Bill Belichick said of Sunday's domination of Indianapolis and league MVP Peyton Manning. "Ran the ball, converted third downs, played good defense."
The Eagles are 4 1/2-point favorites, while the visiting Patriots are 3-point choices. Both games feature the top two seeds in each conference.
The last time the Falcons (12-5) met the Eagles (14-3) in the postseason two years ago, Philadelphia won a night game 20-6.
Back then, the Falcons were coached by Dan Reeves and were coming off a historic victory at Green Bay, the first team to win a postseason road game against the Packers. These Falcons have the NFL's top rushing offense, with quarterback Michael Vick and RBs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett, and new coach Jim Mora has revamped and revitalized the defense.
"This is a totally different team than was here, with a different feel and a different look," Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking said. "But it is similar in the sense that we are making plays when we need to."
Philadelphia has made the big plays all season and did so again Sunday even without All-Pro receiver and sparkplug Terrell Owens. The Eagles play the run pretty well, but do they have the right personnel to deal with the mercurial Vick?
"They're doing a good job with ball control," All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins said, "so we're going to have our hands full, especially with their quarterback."
And how well can the Eagles protect McNabb against a defense that pressures quarterbacks so well?
"We're confident and loose," said do-everything running back Brian Westbrook. "We don't have any reason not to be loose."
Judging by their play this weekend, the Patriots (15-2) seem ready for another Super Bowl trip, and the Steelers (16-1) seem lucky to be alive.
"It definitely tests your faith," running back Duce Staley said after the close call.
But Pittsburgh was plucky enough to survive, and underestimating such a well-coached and physical team would be a mistake.
The Steelers will need their hard-driving running game featuring Staley and Jerome Bettis to be at its peak. Offensive Rookie of the Year Ben Roethlisberger struggled against the Jets, and the Patriots bring even more confusing looks and experience in pressure games.
Not that coach Bill Cowher fears Roethlisberger has been unmasked.
"Ben is unflappable. He does display a calmness. ... You still have a sense that he's going to get it done," Cowher said.
It's the same sense everyone should have about New England, which was supposed to have problems matching up with the high-flying Colts. The nasty weather certainly helped the Patriots, but they so befuddled Manning that if the game had been played on the Jacksonville beach in August, it might not have mattered.
"We rattled them all game," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "That's what we do best."