John Madden
John Madden
QBs key in championship games
By John Madden

NFC: Falcons at Eagles
The Eagles are playing in their fourth consecutive NFC championship game, and I think they've learned something from the previous three. I went through the exact same thing as coach of the Oakland Raiders, losing three straight AFC championship games from the 1973-75 seasons before winning the Super Bowl following the 1976 season.

You know that you just have to get over that hump and win that one more game, and you learn from that. You remember what it was like when you lost and you talk about those things, and then you ask, can we do anything differently next time?

In my case, we went up against the Miami Dolphins in the first round of the 1974 playoffs, and just as people said the Colts-Patriots game last weekend was the Super Bowl, people said that about Raiders-Dolphins, and I fell for it.

We beat the defending Super Bowl champion Dolphins 28-26, but all it meant was that we earned the right to go to the AFC championship game ... and we lost to the Steelers 24-13. They went on to win one of their four Super Bowls in the 1970s. So what you learn is that you haven't won anything yet, and you have to keep winning.

For the Falcons, QB Michael Vick's speed makes him such a threat to any defense. In last weekend's 47-17 blowout of the St. Louis Rams, on the first play Vick ran the ball with a sprint out to the left and he was going to throw, but then he stopped, reversed his field and ran around the right end for 47 yards. And that was it for the Rams' defense.

But that won't happen to the Eagles' defense, for a few reasons.

For one, they play much better defense than the Rams, and I keep coming back to this tackling thing -- the Eagles do a great job of tackling and they have more speed. You need guys with enough speed and the right angle to catch Vick. It isn't just having guys in the right position, because if you have guys in position but they don't have enough speed or quickness, then it's all academic vs. Vick.

I went through the exact same thing as coach of the Raiders, losing three straight AFC championship games.
Vick also needs to be effective with his arm, and an important target will be TE Alge Crumpler. Eagles middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter plays aggressively, and if you give him a good run fake with some play-action, he'll come up to defend the line of scrimmage, and that will open up the middle for Crumpler.

The middle will be open for more than just the tight end, but Crumpler will be a big target for Vick.

For Atlanta's defense, the most important guys are the front four. They've done a good job all year and must continue that against QB Donovan McNabb and his offensive line. If the Falcons are forced to bring a fifth or sixth guy to get pressure on McNabb, they better get there because that only leaves five guys back in coverage. That has been one of the keys for Atlanta's defense, because if you don't have to blitz to get pressure but you still want to bring additional pressure, you can send an extra guy or two and really force the issue.

On offense, the Eagles spread the ball around. RB Brian Westbrook is their second-leading receiver with 73 catches and their biggest playmaker in the absence of injured WR Terrell Owens.

But the biggest thing the Falcons have to worry about is McNabb's double threat of running and passing. That's why the Falcons' front four is so key. They need to get to him -- not only get to him, though, but also bring him down! McNabb is so big and so strong that would-be tacklers just fall off of him, and if he gets by that first guy and out to the perimeter he's really dangerous.

AFC: Patriots at Steelers
These teams are coming off very different performances in the divisional playoff round to get to this AFC championship game, but I wouldn't put much stock in that.

The Patriots, seeking a third Super Bowl victory in four years, dominated the Indianapolis Colts 20-3 last Sunday, shutting down the Colts' high-powered passing game led by league MVP Peyton Manning.

Meanwhile, the Steelers are a much better team than they showed in barely defeating the New York Jets 20-17 in overtime. The Steelers have a good running game and a good offensive line, and rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger is a much better than the way he played vs. the Jets. Pittsburgh's defense is tough and they tackle well. The Steelers had the NFL's best regular-season record (15-1) for a reason!

How will Roethlisberger, the so-called rookie quarterback, react to the poor showing? Well, I think he will come out and have a great demeanor. However, I do think weather is going to be a factor, but you just have to play through that.

New England's Bill Belichick-designed defense will give Roethlisberger some problems, but you have to remember that he has so many parts around him. Just because there might be questions about a rookie quarterback doesn't mean that you don't have to cover Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El. You still have to respect the parts, because Roethlisberger can still hurt you even if he makes a mistake here and there. He will have to make some plays, though.

It will be important for the Steelers' receivers to beat the press that will be put on by New England's cornerbacks. No one does a better job of knocking you off your route and off the timing of those routes than the Patriots' defensive backs. So Pittsburgh's receivers must be much more physical, which I think will be easier for them than it was for the Colts' receivers last Sunday.

The deeper you go into the playoffs, the more important the running game becomes for each team, and these two teams have very good running games. The Steelers are led by Jerome Bettis, who is the size of a guard but has the speed and moves of a halfback, and Duce Staley. The Patriots are led by offseason acquisition Corey Dillon.

Defense and defensive fundamentals are also important factors the later it gets in the playoffs. These teams tackle very well, and that will be important. Against some teams you might see that garbage stuff, like guys taking bad angles and not tackling well, but you won't get that garbage stuff against the Patriots.

The Patriots' D makes you hold the ball just a split second longer than you want to.
Last week, I felt that too much of a deal was made of the Patriots' cornerbacks being out. It wasn't as if they just got hurt on Wednesday or something. The Patriots' D has been without the starting corners most of the year, and the Pats still won 14 games in the regular season.

What their defense does, and what might get to Roethlisberger, is they don't let you do what you want to do and what you're comfortable doing. The Patriots' D makes you hold the ball just a split second longer than you want to, and that's how they got to Peyton Manning last weekend.

Meanwhile, QB Tom Brady is the best in big games. If I had to pick a quarterback to win one game, I'd pick Brady. Two things impress me about him: He's a really tough guy and he has a calmness as he goes about his business. He does the same things that all other NFL quarterbacks do, but he makes it look easier.

I've talked with Brady about the Steelers' defense, and what's most difficult for him is identifying the fourth or fifth rusher coming off the front line. Usually the nose tackle and two ends will come, but you don't know who that fourth or fifth guy is going to be.

Super Bowl-winning coach John Madden is an analyst for ABC's Monday Night Football.
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