CNNSI.com NFL Playoffs 2001 NFL Playoffs 2001


  Posted: Monday January 21, 2002 10:02 AM

Final Four
CNNSI.com's John Donovan looks at the NFL's Final Four and takes a shot at picking a winner in the AFC and NFC championship games scheduled for Sunday.

Eagles
Donovan McNabb

Rams
Kurt Warner

Patriots
Tom Brady

Steelers
Kordell Stewart

  Duce Staley broke through the Bears' defense for 66 yards rushing, 54 receiving and a touchdown. AP
 Philadelphia
 Eagles

HOW THEY GOT HERE
NFC East champs (11-5); beat Tampa Bay (in Philadelphia) in wild card round, 31-9; beat Chicago (in Chicago) in divisional round, 33-19.

THE GOOD
Donovan McNabb gets all the pub -- and, yeah, maybe he should -- but the Eagles had the second-ranked scoring defense in the NFL, allowing only 13 points a game (the just-vanquished Bears allowed 12.7). The Eagles' defense has picked off seven passes in the two playoff wins, including three picks by safety Damon Moore. McNabb has been his regular studly self in the postseason, throwing for four touchdowns, completing almost 65 percent of his passes, running for one score and picking up an average of 7.8 yards every time he runs. Running back Duce Staley, receiver James Thrash, tight end Chad Lewis ... the Eagles are far from landing yet.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD
If the Eagles' defense has a weakness, it's against the run. Opponents ran for 114.8 yards a game against Philly in the regular season (18th in the NFL). Expect Marshall Faulk and the Rams, like every other team, to test that run defense. The Eagles lost defensive back Troy Vincent with a groin pull in the win against Chicago -- his status for Sunday is uncertain -- so the pass defense may not be as sharp, either.

HOW FAR CAN THEY GO?
The Eagles haven't been in an NFC Championship Game since 1981. Their high-flying scoring defense will be tested to the max against St. Louis. But the Rams will be tested by the incomparable McNabb. If he can keep the turnovers down, something that plagued Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in their loss to the Rams, there's no reason the Eagles can't make it to New Orleans.

  Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams returned two interceptions off Brett Favre for touchdowns. AP
 St. Louis
 Rams

HOW THEY GOT HERE
NFC West champs (14-2); beat Green Bay (at St. Louis) in divisional round, 45-17.

THE GOOD
Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim -- what more do you want? Let's not forget, though: This Rams team is different than last year's because the defense is back. The St. Louis defense picked off Green Bay's Brett Favre six times. Cornerback Aeneas Williams returned two for touchdowns. It's a chicken-and-egg thing. The defense can play loose because the offense can score at will. And when the defense gives the offense chances -- well, 45 points. The Rams averaged 31.4 points a game during the season. And now they face a Philadelphia team that allowed only 13. Something's got to give.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD
This team won 14 games. They embarrassed a highly regarded Green Bay team. There's not much wrong here. Warner, the league's MVP, had 22 interceptions this season, a career high. That caused St. Louis to be on the negative side of the takeaway/giveaway ledger at minus-10. Sloppiness -- the Rams also had 22 fumbles -- is the only thing that can stop the Rams. In other words, the only thing that can stop the Rams is the Rams themselves.

HOW FAR CAN THEY GO?
Well, all the way, obviously. The prohibitive Super Bowl favorites, the Rams can hurt you on offense with Warner and Faulk (21 TDs this season, 12 running and nine catching, in addition to 1,382 yards running and 765 receiving) and maybe the best receiving corps in the NFL. The improved defense will help out the offense. The Eagles have their hands full.

  Adam Vinatieri kicked three field goals, including the 23-yard game-winning boot in overtime. AP
 New England
 Patriots

HOW THEY GOT HERE
AFC East champs (11-5); beat Oakland (in Foxboro, Mass.) in divisional round, 16-13 (in OT).

THE GOOD
The Patriots have a tad of luck on their side, for sure. How else can you explain that call -- if that's what you want to call it -- that led to the tying field goal in their OT win against the Raiders? Granted, Tom Brady, the Patriots quarterback, has a lot to do with it. He threw 52 passes, completing 32 (61.5 percent) against the Raiders, though he didn't throw a touchdown during the blizzard. David Patten had 107 yards receiving and Antowain Smith (1,157 yards and 12 TDs during the regular season) had 65 yards running in the horrible conditions Saturday night. Troy Brown had 1,199 yards in receptions this season.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD
The Patriots were 24th in defense among the 31 NFL teams, 19th against the run and 24th against the pass. When a safety leads the team in tackles (Lawyer Milloy had 113), something's going wrong up front. Still, the Patriots gave up just 17 points a game this season.

HOW FAR CAN THEY GO?
In a lot of ways, no one figured the Patriots would get this far. They have the emergence of Tom Brady to thank for that. Going against the league's best defense in Pittsburgh will be the ultimate test, and even if the Patriots get past the Steelers, they'll end up big underdogs against the NFC in the Super Bowl. But who knows? Luck may be on their side.

  Steelers backup running back Amos Zereoue rushed for 63 yards and two touchdowns.AP
 Pittsburgh
 Steelers

HOW THEY GOT HERE
AFC Central champs (13-3); beat Baltimore (in Pittsburgh) in divisional round, 27-10.

THE GOOD
The best defense in the league often is overshadowed by an offense featuring maybe the AFC's most valuable player, quarterback Kordell Stewart. But the Steelers' 3-4 defensive scheme has allowed only 13.5 points a game, the best mark in the AFC. The linebackers are run-stuffers and the secondary is adept at playing either man-to-man or zone. Still, Stewart (3,109 yards, 60.2 percent completion percentage and 5.6 yards a run this season) is worth the price of admission. He's turned his career around with a cool-headed season and he's playing with a confidence of a Super Bowl-type quarterback. Overlooked in the win against Baltimore was Troy Edwards, who had two kickoff returns (averaging 24.5 yards each) and four punt returns (averaging 16.2).

THE NOT-SO-GOOD
Jerome Bettis carried them much of the season (1,072 yards, 4.8 yards a carry), but a troublesome groin has kept him sidelined since Week 12 and he may well be out the rest of the playoffs. (Though Amos Zereoue had a nice two-touchdown game against Baltimore.) Inside linebacker Earl Holmes also hurt a knee in the decisive win against the defending champion Ravens. And kicker Kris Brown was only 21-of-35 from 30-49 yards.

HOW FAR CAN THEY GO?
They'll be favored at home at rowdy Heinz Field in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots with or without Bettis. In fact, they may be better without him. The Steelers have, arguably, the best defense left in the playoffs. They'll need it from here on out.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR
You can't count the Eagles out, but asking them to beat the Rams in St. Louis, with the Rams playing the way they're playing ... well, it's not going to happen. McNabb is good, but so is Favre. Look what happened to him. We'll call it St. Louis 34, Philadelphia 20.

It's hard to figure the Patriots, and it's dangerous to underestimate Brady, who has done little except win. But with that Pittsburgh defense, and Stewart playing with a renewed confidence, and the whole thing in Heinz Field, we have to go Pittsburgh 27, New England 20.

 


 
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