Where Eagles dare Pats

1-17-04, 5:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The way Marvin Lewis sees it, the Bengals head coach is probably going to end up watching tape of this year's Super Bowl when his team is preparing to play the Patriots and Eagles on the road next season.

Lewis gives New England and Philadelphia the edge in Sunday's conference championship games, citing the Pats' overall solid play spread out across the stat sheet and the Eagles' time-has-come appointment in their third straight NFC championship game.

The Pats have karma against the Colts; the Eagles have Donovan McNabb and the Panthers don't, and he doesn't see anyone getting in the way until they play each other in two weeks in Houston.

"No question that New England is playing the best football in all three phases of any of the four teams," Lewis says. "Indianapolis is playing great on offense, but they haven't had a tipped ball, or haven't had any kind of break go against them in two games and you've got to worry about that a little bit."

You can compare the AFC title game in Foxboro to what the Patriots faced two years ago in New Orleans, when they turned "The Greatest Show on Turf," into crab grass by holding the Rams' seamless offense to 17 points and winning it all. But Lewis says Colts quarterback Peyton Manning might be able to revise history in a game he thinks might come down to how efficiently the league's smartest quarterback adjusts to who could be the league's smartest coach.

"Indy is a little different (than the Rams) because the quarterback is controlling the things at the line of scrimmage (more) than what the Rams are doing," Lewis says. "If the quarterback can decipher the looks and get them into good plays, then they have a chance to be a little better (than what St. Louis did two years ago)."

But Lewis still gives the edge to the Pats and says "if they're able to grab and be physical with their receivers," as they are known to do, then they will stop the Colts. He disputes the notion that New England is a no-name, nondescript defense that lives on the brains of head coach Bill Belichick alone.

Although he does praise Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel for mixing up a plethora of looks (two deep man under zones, two deep zones, man-to-man) and matching it to personnel that has been together more than most.

"That's not necessarily true. They're not a bunch of no-name players," Lewis says. "Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison. There are four Pro Bowl players right there. They've got a bunch of other very good pros that could be in the Pro Bowl at any point. They've got a good scheme and Romeo and Bill do a great job using the players to the best of their abilities."

Lewis is also looking at one of the quarterbacks in the NFC game in Philadelphia, but he sees McNabb winning this one with his big-play ability testing Carolina's elite defense.

"That game is going to come down to how each secondary plays against the other's receivers and how Carolina can keep McNabb from running the football and beating them, and dealing with the screens and other things that come off of that," Lewis says.

Lewis likes Carolina's defense and he does like the matchup of the Panthers' running game against an Eagle defense that looked so vulnerable last week against Green Bay on the ground.

"Their offensive line is playing well, and they can run the football and they go right off tackle," Lewis says. "Defensively, they're good up front and they don't give up big plays and they're going to have to stop McNabb from doing that. They've got a good front group all the way around. Their linebackers are playing opportunistic and I thought their secondary played very well last week."

But, some times, that's not what matters.

"I think Philly is going to win the game," Lewis says. "Three times is the charm."

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