Now that's more like it

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

There will no rookie quarterbacks in the Super Bowl and no rookie coaches.

Just the best two teams in the NFL, which is as it should be, but doesn't seem to happen often enough.

The defending-champion New England Patriots yesterday made an emphatic case for a repeat with a 41-27 pasting of the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in the AFC Championship.

Across the state in previously hard-luck Philadelphia, the Eagles finally advanced after losing three consecutive NFC Championships by hanging a 27-10 defeat on the Atlanta Falcons.

Bookmakers in Las Vegas were quick to react, making the Patriots, who are bidding for their third championship in four years, decisive 6 1/2-point favourites.

They'll settle the score in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville on Feb. 6 in what will be one of the most anticipated title games in several years.

"They're a great team, best in the NFC," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said of the Eagles. "They will be our biggest challenge yet."

As they have done with so many quarterbacks -- including the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning the week previous -- the Patriots made life miserable for Steelers' rookie Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben was a bust again, throwing three interceptions.

Next up for the Patriots is Donovan McNabb who was as calm and confident as the Patriots' Tom Brady is in the playoffs in knocking off the Falcons and rookie head coach Jim Mora.

Now that he has come this far, McNabb is anxious to take the next and biggest step.

"We're excited about putting ourselves in this position, but we're not done," said McNabb, who led the Eagles to their first Bowl berth since 1981. "Our goal is to win the Super Bowl."

The combatants have something in common -- both were defeated by the Steelers in back-to-back weekends in Pittsburgh earlier in the season.

But with all due respect to the Steelers, who lost for the first time in 15 games last night, the Patriots and Eagles were the two most talked-about teams coming into the 2004 season.

DOMINANT

Led by Brady and a suffocating defence, the Patriots have been dominant for the past two seasons and had a 21-game win streak snapped in that earlier loss at Pittsburgh.

Led by McNabb, the Eagles strengthened their credentials as contenders yesterday by bolstering a defence that stuffed the vaunted running attack of the Falcons.

The Eagles, who finished the season with a 13-3 record, will meet the Patriots, who finished 14-2. Oddsmakers expect some scoring with an initial over/under line established at 47 1/2 points.

At stake for Pats coach Bill Belichick is the chance to eclipse a record he shares with the man whose trophy his team will play for. With the victory yesterday, Belichick improved his won-lost count to 9-1, an NFL record he shares with former Packers legend Vince Lombardi.


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