Cracking the Coad

STEVE COAD -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP

ATLANTA (12-5) AT PHILADELPHIA (14-3)

The line: Eagles by 4 1/2

The skinny: Sunday, 3 p.m. (Fox). National Football Conference final. Welcome back, Eagles. After not participating meaningfully in a game since Dec. 19 -- the day they beat Dallas 12-7 to secure home-field advantage through the playoffs and lost wide receiver Terrell Owens to injury -- the Eagles flipped the switch last Sunday and their game lit up Lincoln Financial Field in a 27-14 win over Minnesota in an NFC divisional matchup. Having said that, the Eagles lost the last three NFC championship games. They're still the first team to host three straight conference finals (including Sunday's matchup vs. the high-flying Falcons). Atlanta's Mike Vick set an NFL playoff record for most yards rushing by a quarterback when he scampered for 119 in last week's 47-17 victory over the Rams in another divisional battle. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb is second with 107 in last season's divisional playoffs. Vick will receive a whack of attention from the entire Philly D, a ferocious lot ranked 10th overall (16th against the run, 12th vs. the pass). The Falcons need to get after Eagles running back-slotback Brian Westbrook. With Owens on the shelf with a sprained ankle and broken leg, the Eagles need to establish a running game (Westbrook) and McNabb needs to hit targets down the field, says Associated Press football writer David Mordkoff. Sounds like a plan, Stan. The Falcons will send outside linebacker Keith Brooking after Westbrook, and if Brooking, a Pro Bowler with speed and power, is successful, it might just ground the Eagles altogether. Westbrook is no pushover, leading Philly in rushing this season with 812 yards and three TDs and finishing as its No. 2 receiver with 706 yards and six TDs in the regular season (trailing Owens' 1,200 yards and 14 TDs). Westbrook was the NFL's lone running back with 700 yards both running and receiving. Falcons running back Warrick Dunn has run for 100 yards in four of his last five games, including 142 last week. Atlanta's defence led the NFL with 48 regular-season sacks. The Falcons allowed 50, fifth most in the league. The Eagles surrendered just 37.

Cody's call: Eagles 27-24

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP

NEW ENGLAND (15-2) AT PITTSBURGH (16-1)

The line: Patriots by 3

The skinny: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. (CBS). The Steelers might be considered fortunate to be here -- a thank-you card has been dispatched to wonky Jets field-goal attempter Doug Brien -- but they're here and aren't likely to go away without a fight. And for all of those folks, ex-Steelers included, who got in a lather over Ben Roethlisberger wearing gloves, well, chill. The gloves are coming off, the rookie QB says. The track at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, where snowshowers are expected Sunday, is likely to be wet and sloppy. Roethlisberger and Steeler fans have a lot more to be worried about than whether he dons gloves -- the Patriots defence, for instance, which completely stifled Peyton Manning and Co. 20-3 last week. If Manning couldn't puncture the Pats, how can Roethlisberger expect to? As AP's Alan Robinson points out, Big Ben has already struck the Patriots. He threw two touchdown passes -- and no interceptions -- in a brilliant performance on Halloween, a 34-20 Pittsburgh victory that snapped New England's 21-game winning streak. The Steelers will hurl running backs Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley at the Pats D, which isn't likely to have star defensive tackle Richard Seymour. Seymour missed last week's Indy game and is listed as questionable with a knee injury. The Steelers are the top running team in the AFC (No. 2 overall), averaging 154 yards a game. Left guard Alan Faneca and fellow first-team all-pro Jeff Hartings, the centre, are the anchors on an O-line that run-blocks brilliantly. The Steelers led the NFL with 618 carries this season, nearly twice their total passes -- 358, fewest in the loop. Roethlisberger is 14-0 as an NFL starter while Pats QB Tom Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, is 7-0 in the playoffs. Brady was much less conspicuous than Roethlisberger in his rookie season in 2000, completing just one pass. We know the rest of the story. The next season, Brady replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe during Week 2 and led the Pats to a 14-3 record and the Super Bowl title. Pats running back Corey Dillon missed the Halloween game vs. Pittsburgh with a thigh injury and New England ran for just five yards.

Cody's call: Patriots 20-14

Playoff record

Straight up

Last week: 4-0; overall: 5-3

Spread

Last week: 3-1; overall: 6-2


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