Now that the NFL playoffs have separated the contenders from the pretenders, fans are left with a highly anticipated Super Bowl match-up.
Pre-season favorites Philadelphia and New England both dominated their respective conferences, combining for a measly five losses in 32 regular season games.
Each team fought through devastating injuries, but their paths leading up to this game could not have been any more different.
The Philadelphia Eagles finally conquered the demons that haunted them in the previous three NFC Championship games. Quarterback Donovan McNabb played brilliantly and proved he was worth, what was at one time, the heftiest contract ever given to a signal caller.
In the Divisional Round, the Eagles were slated against the Minnesota Vikings, who backed into the playoffs after losing in the final week of the season to the disappointing Washington Redskins.
In the week leading up to the game, the media focused a majority of its attention on the fact that McNabb and other key starters had not played in over three weeks. Once the pads were strapped on the Eagles showed no signs of rust,dominating a highly inconsistent Minnesota team 27-14.
A week later, the team that hails from the “City of Brotherly Love” faced an Atlanta Falcons squad that would scare any opponent.
Michael Vick scrambled unlike any other quarterback, and the tailback combination of Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett wore down even the best defense.
Many wondered if the Eagles would fold under the immense pressure of a possible fourth consecutive NFC Championship Game loss.
The Eagle defense shut down the Falcon running attack and forced Vick to make bad decisions including throwing a costly interception to All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins.
McNabb continued his flawless play under center, throwing for a pair of touchdowns to tightend Chad Lewis.
The 27-10 win got the Eagles to their first Super Bowl since the Ronald Reman administration and got the proverbial monkey off their back.
On the other side of the play-off bracket, the New England Patriots, continued their winning ways, sweeping through the competition and capturing their third AFC Championship in four years. This championship might have been the toughest yet for the Pats.
In a rematch of last year’s AFC title game, the Pats looked to stop the prolific Indianapolis Colts offense led by record breaking quarterback Peyton Manning.
This Divisional Round match-up had many critics believing this was the year Manning and the Colts would find a way to beat the Pats. Manning had been 2-8 all-time against New England, including an 0-6 mark in New England.
Those critics were proven wrong when Patriots tailback Corey Dillon ran for 144 yards and quarterback Tom Brady threw for a TD and ran for another in a 20-3 thrashing.
A week later, the Pats faced the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers, who claimed home field advantage throughout the AFC play-offs.
This was the team that had ended the Patriots’ historic 21- game winning streak in impressive fashion in week eight. Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played flawlessly, and the rushing attack of Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis looked unstoppable as the Steelers rolled to a 34-20 win.
New England drew inspiration from the loss and played the entire game with unmatched intensity.
The defense forced the rookie QB to throw three interceptions including one that was returned for a touchdown by hard hitting safety Rodney Harrison. Brady threw for two more TDs leading the Patriots to a 41-27 win.
Once again, the “experts” were silenced by a Pats team that, in the eyes of many, had no business even being this deep into the play-offs.
In the end, the NFL finally has a Super Bowl match-up featuring the two best teams in the league. Fans have everything they could want in this game: one team flirting with destiny and the other toying with the notion of becoming the next NFL dynasty; following in the footsteps of the Steelers from the 1970s and the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990s.
Regardless of who wins Super Bowl XXXIX, the game features two teams that truly deserve to be there. Both were heavily favored to win “The Big One” before the season started in Las Vegas, and it looks like some people are about to cash in.