JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Eagles will win.
I promised I would never pick against the Patriots because picking against a sitting champ at the top of its game is stupid, because the Patriots have the best coach in the NFL, because Tom Brady is the most clutch quarterback in the NFL, because the Patriots are the better team. In a best-of-seven series, New England would beat Philly four times in five games. The Patriots don't ever beat themselves, they don't ever do dumb stuff. They're almost perfect -- the best-prepared, smartest, toughest team in football. The Patriots are so good they're admirable. They remind me a little of the Georgetown Hoyas who were going for a rare college basketball repeat in 1985 when the perfect opponent came along, a team from Philly as a matter of fact, and scored a huge upset.
It's more a hunch than anything else, but the Eagles seem to have some of that Villanova magic in them. Peyton Manning was the most prolific player in the NFL this season, but Donovan McNabb has been at least as valuable. Any team that's going to beat New England now has to have two components: a defense that can make a great quarterback miserable and a great quarterback of its own who can beat a superior team by playing out of his mind.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick walks across the center of the field with son, Steve, a few hours before the start of Super Bowl XXXIX.
(David J. Phillip - AP)
The Eagles have both. McNabb was great with Terrell Owens in the lineup and great when T.O. was sidelined with his ankle injury. McNabb said before the season, coming off a third straight NFC championship game loss, that the Eagles were going to break through this year and he delivered. He stood in the middle of the locker room after Owens went down and said, "Put the pressure on me," and delivered in the playoffs. The most valuable player on the Eagles this season wasn't Owens; it was McNabb. He increased his completion percentage nearly seven points in one season. He finished with essentially a 4 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio. And even if the Patriots are successful in making him struggle as a thrower, McNabb can go to a Plan B Manning doesn't have. McNabb can run. He doesn't want to, doesn't at the moment plan to, but he can if he needs to, particularly on third downs, in order to maintain possession and allow Philly to patiently move the ball. If the Eagles get impatient, the Patriots' defense will grab interceptions and force the Eagles into three-and-out series.
Raiders Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long told McNabb this week that the toughest thing he ever had to do as a defensive player was chase around John Elway. McNabb's legs might be more important to Philly than Owens's.
Just as critical, though, will be what the Eagles' defense does to Brady. If Brady can sit back and pick out receivers, as he did against the Colts and Steelers, the Patriots not only will win, they'll score 30 or more points. But the Eagles know their chances of winning are tied to their ability to harass Brady. Philly sacked opposing quarterbacks 47 times this season, second best in the NFL. The Eagles employ some of football's best zone blitzes, but they also go seven-deep along the defensive line and can generate a pass rush without blitzing. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is no more likely to take a passive approach dealing with Brady than former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan would have.
What the city of Jacksonville needs more than anything is a great Super Bowl. Ultimately, that's how these things are remembered. Does anybody remember where it was that the Rams stopped the Titans at the one on the final play of the game? Does anybody remember where it was that Joe Montana drove the 49ers to victory in the final minute against the Bengals?
One would think this will be Jacksonville's one and only shot at a Super Bowl, great game or not.
Don't expect some anti-Jacksonville rant here, about the number of Waffle Houses and Hooters. But don't expect an endorsement of the league's second-smallest market as an ideal Super Bowl site, either.
Super Bowls need to be held in big places, metropolitan areas with thousands of hotel rooms, not cruise ships. And thousands of taxis, not hundreds. Jacksonville became near-impossible to negotiate once streets and bridges were shut down and converted into pedestrian walkways. It doesn't mean Jacksonville is a bad place; it just means the Super Bowl is too big for it, just as it's too big for most cities.
Nevertheless, Jacksonville is going to be the site of an upset Sunday. Despite being an underdog, despite playing against the champs, despite playing against what most football people think is a better team, the Eagles have the exact formula to not only match up well with New England, but to leave Florida with a historic victory.