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Dr. J's Conference Championship Outlook
Tampa Bay at Philadelphia
It wasn't Donovan McNabb that looked rusty in his first game in two months, going 20-30 for 247 yards and a TD pass, it was the entire Eagles offense that was rusty, failing to score a TD until midway through the 4th quarter and going only 4 for 14 on 3rd down conversions. Luckily for them, the defense (in particular their secondary and their 3 Pro Bowlers) stepped up, keeping the high-flying Falcons out of the end zone for only the second time this season. If the Eagles think they had a hard time moving the ball against the Falcons, wait till they get a load of the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay's many accolades on defense are well deserved. They stay mostly in a cover two zone, but can do so because of the pressure that they give with their front four and the speed of their linebackers. It is a perfect scheme to stop the West Coast offense. Short passes stay short and the receivers are not allowed to make yards on their own. The Bucs forced four turnovers from a Niners offense that had a league low 17 all season and kept Terrell Owens to a rather pedestrian four catches for 35 yards. Not to be overlooked is Brad Johnson's efficiency on offense. He's not flashy or spectacular but this offense will move with him behind center.
This game is probably the more evenly matched game of the two this weekend. Each team will be leaning on their defense and neither will look to their offense to make the big play. It will be a short pass here, a run off tackle there, and a game of field position. The Bucs have shown that they can handle the mobile QB's (as their two games against the Falcons and Michael Vick show). What will give the Eagles the edge will be their defense and not because I think it is better than the Buccaneers defense. The 49ers got pressure on Johnson with blitzes, but because of the injuries in their secondary, Johnson was able to escape (albeit not so nimbly) and exploit one on one coverages that the Niners tried with their safeties. The Bucs will not have the same luxury this weekend. The Eagles will blitz and Johnson will be forced to throw into that Pro Bowl laden secondary, and that will be the difference. I'm picking the Eagles to outlast a very tough Bucs team and advance to their 1st Super Bowl since 1980.
Tennessee at Oakland
You want to know why Steve McNair has not practiced with his team all season? How's this for a list of reasons: problematic right shoulder, bruised right thumb, right shin contusions, turf toe, sore ribs, and a concussion. You want to know why Steve McNair finished 3rd in the MVP voting? Despite of all of those injuries, McNair missed 0 games for the Titans. It must be nice to have a wife that is a registered nurse when you've got all of those aliments.
This may be the Silver and Black's last chance at a Super Bowl with this current roster. We've all heard the stories of how far they are over the cap and how players like Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Rod Woodson, Rich Gannon, and Bill Romonowski may have to restructure or be released in order to make room under the salary cap or make way for younger, less expensive players. But that doesn't mean anything until this season is over. As it stands, the Raiders are proving to be the team to beat. They are moving the ball through the air with ease and establishing Charlie Garner on the ground when they need to. They can power the ball with Zach Crockett or Tyrone Wheatley. They can run the deep seam pass with Brown and Rice and Jerry Porter and if that's not available, rookie TE Doug Jolley is there for the outlet pass. Despite the multitude of injuries in the secondary, the defensive pressure is cutting the time that the QB has in the pocket and stopping the opposing passing game. The Raiders mix their blitzes well and disguise coverage well as Chad Pennington found out, the hard way.
Tennessee is not without questions. Is Eddie George ready to go after getting KO'd on the first play of the second half against Pittsburgh? Despite their deep defensive line, can they pressure the quarterback enough? Will McNair continue working through his many injuries? How will they respond to playing in the Black Hole?
So after having said all that, why am I picking the Titans to upset the Raiders? Mainly because one way that the Raiders can be had defensively is via the power running game. The Titans offensive line was very impressive against a tough Steelers defense giving up just one sack. And while Eddie George was held to just 33 yards rushing, the Titans picked up 10 first downs on the ground. The other way the Raiders can be had is with a defense that likes to mix things up. The Dolphins were able to pressure Gannon with a fierce pass rush mixed in with a dime defense. Jeff Fisher has a similar defensive scheme installed in Tennessee, a "hybrid defense": 4 down linemen, and a mix of linebackers and as many as six DB's. The Titans' defensive line may not be the most talented, but it could be the deepest. Along with team sack leader Kevin Carter and rookie Albert Haynesworth, the Titans have DT Henry Ford, rookie Carlos Hall, and a finally healthy Jevon Kearse that can stay fresh and keep the pass rush heavy. The Raiders may establish their running game to counter, but the Raiders are much more effective when they pass the ball which could play into the Titans' hands.
This is a long shot pick because all the factors point the Raiders' way, but the last time both #1 seeds in the playoffs made the Super Bowl was nine years ago. There is always a stinker in one of these games. What could be a bigger stinker than Tennessee beating the Raiders?
Dr. J can be reached at: Dr. J
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