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Opposites Set to Collide For NFC Championship

January 27, 2002

The teams that will play for the NFC championship in St. Louis today are polar opposites. A big game, truthfully, seldom matches athletes so different.


* Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb is a uniquely unstructured master of the broken play. A sandlot type who has risen to stardom in pro football, McNabb never knows where his next touchdown is coming from.

* Kurt Warner, by contrast, heads a Ram offense so highly structured that he hasn't called an audible for three years. The Rams rely, instead, on Coach Mike Martz's quick, scientifically pre-planned precise plays.

As coached by Andy Reid, the Eagles make good game plans, too, but there's no evidence that McNabb has ever read one.

A swift, gifted runner who passes well enough, he will give the Rams a conspicuously different kind of game from last Sunday's. The Green Bay Packers failed in St. Louis, 45-17, because, trying to keep up with Warner, they borrowed the Rams' fast-paced, high-tech offense for a day.

Packer quarterback Brett Favre is good enough to do that, but not without practicing it as long as Warner has. It was Favre's unfamiliarity with his new offense--more than Ram defense--that led to his six interceptions and a rout. McNabb may lose to the Rams, too, but not that way.


The Real MVP

In the other conference title game Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will confront the surprising New England Patriots with a different kind of passer-runner, Kordell Stewart, who is much more structured than McNabb. In fact, Stewart, a seven-year veteran, has become primarily a passer whose edge on New England passer Tom Brady is that he's more experienced. An NFL sophomore, Brady, the league's best new young quarterback since Warner was a sophomore, has the two things it takes to fight the Steelers: He's unflappable and very quick mentally. But he's never seen the complex Steeler blitz, which figures to beat him.

Stewart is the only visible difference this year in a Steeler team that otherwise looks almost identical with any other Steeler team of the last five or six years. What's changed in Pittsburgh is that Stewart is now in the charge of a bright new quarterback coach, Tom Clements, a personable lawyer who has taken Stewart's rudimentary talent--a talent that was unseen by many as recently as last year--and formed and furbished it, constantly reminding him that he's the greatest. Stewart needed that.

Thus, Clements, the Notre Dame man who was fourth in the 1974 Heisman Trophy voting, is the real Steeler MVP this year.


It was an Interception

The fumble play, so-called, that Brady rode to victory over the Oakland Raiders last Saturday night, 16-13, was incorrectly ruled on the field. Instant replay confirmed that under NFL rules, it was really an incomplete pass. The evidence is irrefutable. That is exactly why the NFL has instant replay. And the reversal was exactly what Referee Walt Coleman should have done. It's possible to argue with the rule but not with the referee. The Raiders, unhappily, were the victims--in the same sense that second-place sprinters in Olympic races are victims. They lose. The true victims would have been the Patriots if Coleman had lacked the courage to reverse himself.

The blizzard in which the game was played was considerably more instructive than the officiating to the NFL's many conservative coaches--if they were paying attention--providing a memorable lesson in how to succeed in winter weather. The lesson is that continuous passing is not only possible in such conditions, it's the best way to win. It's how the Patriots won--not on faulty instant-replay interpretations but by repetitiously throwing the ball.

Oakland believed in passing, too, for awhile, opening a 7-0 halftime lead on quarterback Rich Gannon's 50-yard pass-play drive ending in his good throw to wide receiver James Jett, who was open in the end zone 13 yards away. Then the Raiders went into a shell.

The irony of the game is that New England's coaches, who in the first half obviously feared to throw the ball in the snowstorm, had no recourse but to throw it in the second half, when, as the snow piled up underfoot, the Raiders cautiously advanced into a 13-3 lead. Thereafter, Brady, the coolest customer on the field if the youngest--younger by far than the Raiders--was authorized to throw pass after pass after pass. And he completed pass after pass after pass, usually on first down or second down, once or twice on third down, and once on fourth and four.

As the Raiders continued to run it, for the most part, Brady passed his way to a touchdown and then two field goals on three immense drives through the driving snow, starting twice from his 20-yard line and once from the Patriot 34. He scored once on a scramble and then set up the two makable field goals that first tied and then beat veteran Oakland quarterback Gannon, who, given the green light himself in the first half, would have routed the Patriots with good passes, most likely, before Brady's coaches got with it.

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