This is the way it should be. This is the perfect world. All of the cutesy teams are gone. What's left for our championship-game viewing this weekend are the four-best teams in the league.
There is no disputing that fact. The Eagles, Falcons, Steelers and Patriots represent the top two seeds in each conference. They also speak of some other distinctions that accurately portray their might.
You might remember that none of the wild-card-round games had a 100-yard rusher. Wild-card weekend was about passing the football. Well, that all changed this past weekend in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Steelers rallied to beat the Jets on the strength of a pounding running game in the overtime period, as Jerome Bettis went over 100 yards and the Steelers stamped out 193 yards rushing. At the same time, the Steelers held the Jets offense to three points.
Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn each went over 100 yards for the Falcons, who totaled more than 300 yards rushing. Atlanta's defense bludgeoned Marc Bulger and the Rams into submission.
Philadelphia, a team not known for a strong running game, went over 100 yards rushing against the Vikings, while the Eagles defense intercepted Daunte Culpepper twice and held Randy Moss to three harmless catches. Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter dominated a game that left the Vikings looking meek and physically intimidated.
Then there are the Patriots, who everyone figured would become another Colts road-kill victim. After all, how do you stop Peyton Manning with a secondary whose best man-to-man cover guy is a wide receiver?
Well, here's how you do it. You run Corey Dillon 23 times for 144 yards. You rush for 210 yards and a 15:26 time-of-possession advantage, while TV cameras focus on the Colts bench and a frozen-looking Manning, made even colder-looking by his white uniform cast against the snowy New England night.
Hey, wait, I get it! You run the ball and keep the other team's explosive offense on the bench. Wow! That's genius. Who came up with that one?
Uh, maybe it was Vince Lombardi's high school coach? It's a kind of old strategy, you know. It's time-honored. George Halas did it. Paul Brown did it. Lombardi stole it. Don Shula used it, until he got tired of winning Super Bowls. Then Chuck Noll used it. Jimmy Johnson borrowed it. The Broncos finally embraced it. You get the point, right?
It's called run the ball, stop the run. Most fans hate it. Boring, they say. They can't wait to see somebody make it go away, and every so often some team, some quarterback does make it go away. It's the big tease. Just when you think "run the ball/stop the run" is dead, it pops back up for another 10-year run.
This was the season it was going to die, right? Enforcement of the chuck rule was going to kill it and Manning was going to be the guy who pulled the trigger. Yeah, the same Manning who put three on the board Sunday in New England.
Sorry, folks, but "run the ball/stop the run" is still alive and it's prospering in this postseason. Here are the facts:
· Atlanta is number one in the league in rushing and eighth against the run. In contrast, the Falcons are 30th in passing.
· Pittsburgh is number one against the run and number two in rushing. In contrast, the Steelers are 28th in passing.
· New England is sixth against the run and seventh in rushing. To the Patriots' great advantage, and this is what makes them the favorite to win it all again, they are an impressive 11th in passing.
If you're looking for a team to carry the "throw the ball" banner in the conference-championship games, it's the Eagles. They're 24th in rushing and seventh in passing, though the West Coast offense they employ effectively runs the ball by throwing it in short-yardage increments to its running back. At that, running back Brian Westbrook had 73 receptions this season. The Eagles, however, do not fall into the same category with teams such as the Colts and Rams because the Eagles play a stout brand of defense. They are 10th overall and tied for second in the league in points allowed.
The four teams that will play in this Sunday's conference title games would each be worthy of a trip to Jacksonville for the Super Bowl. They represent the league's "muscle division." They win because they are physically superior.
It is how it is supposed to be. It is the perfect football world.