The New England Patriots will have to figure out a way of stopping Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts if they are to reach Super Bowl XXXVIII via tomorrow's AFC championship game.
Later on the same day, the Philadelphia Eagles will make their third consecutive appearance in the NFC title decider, looking to book their ticket for Houston with a victory over the unfancied Carolina Panthers, a team that just two seasons ago lost 15 out of 16 games.
While the Patriots, Eagles and Colts could have all expected to be in the NFL final four, the Panthers were not tipped to be in the running for a Super Bowl spot. But behind a tight defence and an attack led by the unheralded quarterback Jake Delhomme, the Panthers enjoyed play-off wins over the Dallas Cowboys and St Louis Rams and sit one win away from reaching their first-ever Super Bowl.
"I think to the rest of the world we were a surprise but here in Charlotte I don't think so," the defensive end Mike Rucker said. "We were a good club when we were 1-15, we just lost a lot of close games. You have to learn from your mistakes."
Philadelphia will have home advantage as they welcome Panthers to a hostile and biting cold Lincoln Financial Field. But having stumbled at the final hurdle in the last two seasons, the patience of the Philly fans is wearing thin.
"With our experience in the last two years, we've got a whole different mindset," the quarterback, Donovan McNabb, said. "Our sense of urgency is so serious, we want to play right now."
The Eagles, having recovered from defeats in their opening two games to win 12 out of the next 14, are still savouring their dramatic extra-time victory last weekend over the Green Bay Packers.
However, both teams enter tomorrow's game missing key personnel. The Carolina running back Stephen Davis is rated as doubtful, while the Eagles will also be missing their leading back, Brian Westbrook, the linebacker Carlos Emmons and possibly the cornerback Troy Vincent.
On a run of 13 consecutive wins and unbeaten at home this season, the Patriots are the NFL's most in-form team. But the Colts, with a record of eight away wins this season, will not be intimidated by the reception that is awaiting them at Gillette Stadium.
The stingy Patriots' defence, who surrendered just one touchdown in the final six regular home games of the season, will have to find a way to stifle the Colts' high-powered offence. That means shackling Manning, who in two play-off games has thrown for 681 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions.Reuse content