American Football: Patriots favoured to reach Super Bowl

There is a chance that next month's Super Bowl will be an all-Pennsylvania affair, but the bookmakers in Las Vegas and Atlantic City are not betting on it. True, the Philadelphia Eagles are expected to prevail against the Atlanta Falcons, but following the manner of their 20-3 humbling of the Indianapolis Colts last week, few are prepared to bet against the New England Patriots.

There is a chance that next month's Super Bowl will be an all-Pennsylvania affair, but the bookmakers in Las Vegas and Atlantic City are not betting on it. True, the Philadelphia Eagles are expected to prevail against the Atlanta Falcons, but following the manner of their 20-3 humbling of the Indianapolis Colts last week, few are prepared to bet against the New England Patriots.

The Patriots will have to visit Pittsburgh, to take on a Steelers side that manhandled them during the regular season. Even with home advantage, the bookies think the Steelers are in trouble, and have installed last season's Super Bowl winners as three-point favourites.

"They deserve it," said the Pittsburgh defender Chad Scott. "They are the champions. They played very well against the Colts, and we just barely beat the Jets, that's why they're favoured." Nor should too much be read into Pittsburgh's comfortable 30-17 triumph over their rivals in October. That day, New England were without their leading running back, Corey Dillon. Now fully fit, he tormented the hapless Colts last week, rushing for 144 yards. A similar showing tomorrow will see the Patriots in their third Super Bowl in four years.

However, Pittsburgh possess a pair of bulldozing power-backs of their own, and if Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley are on song, the Steelers may not need any heroics from their young quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

This is familiar territory for the Philadelphia Eagles, who are playing in their fourth NFC Championship game in a row. The last three ended in failure, but with a punishing defence, and the poise of the quarterback Donovan McNabb, they look primed to end their 24-year Super Bowl drought.

However, the Falcons have been a revelation under their first-year coach, Jim Mora, and he is entering the game in confident mood. "We don't feel any pressure," he said. "Its house money we're gambling with, so we're just going to go up there and fling it around." Nor should the snowstorms forecast for tomorrow adversely affect Atlanta's gifted quarterback, Michael Vick. Two years ago, he led them to a play-off victory in Green Bay, the most inhospitable venue in American sport. Not even the elements seem capable of shackling his extraordinary running ability.

The experts may well be right: one Pennsylvania team could indeed be participating in next month's Super Bowl. How ironic it would be if Philadelphia fall at the final hurdle once more, only to see Pittsburgh claim their place at the expense of the seemingly unbeatable Patriots.

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