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A popular yet precise prediction

Is it just me, or is everybody picking the Patriots Sunday?

Seriously, I clicked onto http://www.espn.com to see who those in the know are going with and 18 of the 22 took New England.

Just as telling is the fact that two of the four who picked Philadelphia, were Ron Jaworksi and Sal Paolantonio. Jaworski, of course, quarterbacked the Eagles in their last Super Bowl appearance – a 27-10 loss to the Raiders in Super Bowl XIV – and Paolantonio has covered the team for both the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine.



But even those two homers know Philly’s facing an uphill climb, made clear by the fact that the most confidence they could muster allowed each of them to pick the Eagles to win by a convincing three-point margin.

On the other hand, of ESPN’s 18 experts who picked the Pats, only six believe Philadelphia will be able to stay within a touchdown of New England.




On the local front, The Union’s experts unanimously predicted the defending champions to win their third Super Bowl in the past four years.

Count me in.

I have no doubt that the New England Patriots are about to join a club that has merely a handful of members: the Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the ’70s, the 49ers of the ’80s and the Cowboys of the ’90s.

And here’s why:

Sunday’s matchup is one between two teams built in similar fashion, franchises dominated by championship-caliber defenses that are complimented by balanced offensive attacks with knacks for finding ways to win.

The only difference?

The Patriots play that game better than anyone else in the NFL.

Such a matchup basically comes down to three keys: rushing, third-down conversions and turnovers. And in each of the three, the Patriots hold a decided advantage over the Eagles.

New England ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing with 2,134 yards, with free-agent acquisition Corey Dillon collecting 1,635 of those yards.

Philadelphia’s ground game ranked 24th in the league.

Advantage: Patriots.

The Patriots converted 45.1 percent of their third-down situations in 2004, good enough to rank fifth in the NFL. That means when the going gets tough, needing a key play to keep a drive alive, few teams come up with the right call as often as New England.

The Eagles were the 16th-best in third-down situations, converting 36.9 percent.

Advantage: Patriots, but just barely in the playoffs: New England converted 48.1 percent of third downs in its first two playoff games, while Philly picked up the first 48.0 percent of the time on third down in its two playoff matchups.

Rushing and third-down conversions are so vitally important for both of these teams because of their ball-control oriented offenses.

For example, in the Indianapolis-New England matchup, it was because the Patriots rushed for 210 yards and converted 8 of 15 third downs that New England was able to dominate Indy. The Pats kept pounding away on the ground, keeping the clock in the motion and Peyton Manning and the Colts offense off the field.

The end result was New England controlling the ball for 38 minutes, while Indianapolis had the ball just more than 22 minutes.

That’s how you hold down a high-octane offensive like Indy’s and how you emerge with a convincing 20-3 win.

Of course, though, the third key to victory is the most critical, one capable of wiping away any other advantage in as much time as it takes to shout “Fumble!”

Turnovers, the most important TO of all.

Terrell Owens or not, give the ball away and you will pay – and that’s especially true for the Eagles. Philadelphia ranked 11th in the NFL in turnover margin, meaning the Eagles took six more turnovers away than they gave up in 2004.

New England, though, was even better.

The Patriots produced a +9 in turnovers during the regular season, but has been ridiculously stingy with the ball in the playoffs with seven takeaways against zero giveaways.

The Eagles have a 3-1 margin in the playoffs.

Advantage: Patriots.

Those three keys – the running game, converting third down situations and taking care of the ball – comprise the same formula that Bill Parcells used in leading the New York Giants to a pair of Super Bowl titles.

It’s no mistake that Bill Belichick, a Parcells understudy, plays the same way.

Why wouldn’t he?

It works.

Patriots 24-13.

ooo

Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. His column appears each Saturday. He may be reached via e-mail at brianh@theunion.com or by phone at 477-4240.


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