The League

Leonard Shapiro
Columnist

Leonard Shapiro

Washington Post sports reporter, editor and columnist who has served on the NFL HOF Selection Committee.

Don't doubt the champs

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Let's assume the home team Atlanta Falcons drill the Carolina Panthers Sunday to clinch the NFC South title and home field advantage in the playoffs. But let's not assume the Falcons are going to be the NFC representative in the Super Bowl.

I know, I know, they've only lost two games in their comfy, cozy dome home in the Matt Ryan era, but one of those losses occurred on Monday night to the team I believe will make it to a second straight Super Bowl, barring any catastrophic injuries. That would be the New Orleans Saints, who just knocked off the Falcons this week and will enter the playoffs as a wild card team if the Falcons prevail against the Panthers.

They are the defending champions, playing with tremendous confidence these days, with a quarterback who keeps rising to any all occasions, as witnessed by that clutch 90-yard game-winning fourth quarter touchdown drive against the Falcons engineered by Drew Brees. That drive sent a very clear message to Atlanta: the Saints are eminently capable of beating the Falcons back to back should they meet again in the postseason.

New Orleans also should take some comfort in how its defense turned Atlanta into a one-dimensional offense Monday night, allowing 75 yards rushing, a total slightly skewed because Ryan gained 20 yards on a scrambling run out of the pocket. If you can't run the ball in the postseason, chances are you can't win a championship.

All of that being said, the team that ought to scare the bejabbers out of both the Saints and the Falcons will be the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFC East winner, and nevermind that strange loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Tuesday night.

The best story in pro football right now is the so-called redemption saga of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, arguably the most motivated man in the game, as well, for all the obvious reasons. I'll wait a few years of saintly behavior off the field before buying into the notion of St. Michael. But clearly he's had an electrifying season, culminating in his selection as the starting Pro Bowl quarterback unless his team makes it to the Super Bowl.

Vick in the Super Bowl would be a dream scenario for the NFL, but an NFC title game that would match the Falcons and Eagles back in Atlanta, where Vick began and almost ended his career, would also be something to behold. Surely that's the last team Atlanta would want to meet in the postseason, considering that Vick and his track star offensive mates would be even faster indoors with no weather worries slowing them down.

All of that being said, I'll still take the Saints. They're still the champions, and I believe they'll play that way again in January.

By Leonard Shapiro  |  December 29, 2010; 10:51 AM ET  | Category:  Atlanta Falcons , NFC , New Orleans Saints , Playoffs Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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