NFL's Sixth-Seeded Teams Are Looking "Super"

Patrick WallCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2009

The year was 2005.

Led by young quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers—the number six seed in the playoffs that year—shocked the world by winning three playoff games on the road en route to a Super Bowl XL victory against the Seattle Seahawks.

Flash forward to this season. Both sixth seeded teams are alive in the playoffs. And you can bet they would both like to have a little bit of that 2005 magic on their side.

In the AFC, the Baltimore Ravens travel Saturday to face the Tennessee Titans, while the Eagles in the NFC will face division rival and defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on Sunday.

The Eagles and Ravens have more in common than the species of their mascots. Both teams are riding winning streaks, thanks to the play of their respective defenses.

For the Ravens this comes as little surprise. Baltimore has long been known as a defensive juggernaut, despite their 5-11 record last season. Under new head coach (and former Eagles assistant) John Harbaugh, the team finished 11-5 and made the playoffs.

Ed Reed and the Ravens' defense have been nearly unstoppable in recent weeks. During last weekend's Wild Card round, the Ravens notched four interceptions against the season's most efficient passer in Chad Pennington.

It has been a different story in Philadelphia. The Eagles have long been known as an offensive team. In recent weeks, that mentality has changed. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has assembled arguably the best defensive unit since the Buddy Ryan era. After being left for dead only one month earlier, his unit has helped pave the way for Philly's improbable postseason run.

The Eagles are also led by playmaking safety Brian Dawkins. The 35-year-old (going on 25) safety has revitalized his career after family issues and injury affected his play last season. This year Dawkins forced six fumbles and made the Pro Bowl for the seventh time in his thirteen years.

The only thing more important than a good defense in the playoffs is a good running game. Both teams have impressive ground attacks with two distinct styles.

For Philadelphia, it's all about Brian Westbrook. Mr. Everything, as he is affectionately called in The City of Brotherly Love, is a dynamic runner who is also a threat in the passing game. A defensive coordinator's worst nightmare, he can move around the backfield and create mismatches against even the stoutest of defenses.

Last Sunday in Minnesota, Westbrook took a screen pass 71 yards for a score that crippled the Vikings and won the Eagles their first playoff game since the 2006 season. "I want to try to make plays for this team. Westbrook said Wednesday. "[N]o matter how many times a team stops me, I still continue to try to make those plays. The effort is there."

Baltimore's run game is threefold. Willis McGahee, rookie Ray Rice and second year veteran Le'Ron McLain combined for over 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground this season. Their mix of speed and power helped make the Ravens the top rushing team in the AFC.

“It’s good to have each one of us because all of us have different styles of running. Le’Ron McClain is a pounder. Ray [Rice] is a slasher." McGahee said Tuesday. "I can just go in there and try to do both. So it’s nice because it throws the defense off balance with our running attack.”

For all their similarities, both teams do have one big difference: quarterback.

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is no stranger to the playoffs. In his ten-year career, McNabb has won eight playoff games, the most of any active player. That’s right--more than three-time MVP Peyton Manning.

For the embattled Eagles signal-caller, this season is the first time he has seen the postseason since the team's 2004 Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots.

"It's no different than it was in 2004." McNabb said. "Anytime that you have an opportunity to continue on with your season and play in a playoff, you just want to relish the moment and continue it on."

The situation could not be much different for Baltimore's rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. He became the first rookie quarterback to win his first playoff game after last week's dismantling of the Miami Dolphins.

But to Ravens' offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Flacco hasn't been a rookie in awhile. “Really, from our perspective, he lost [the "rookie" tag] a long time ago. The expectation is to play and play well. The good news for all of us is that he expects to even play better than we expect him to play. I think that’s probably the important thing.”

Most importantly, the Eagles and Ravens have veteran leadership and experience. Both teams have been to the Super Bowl. In 2000, the Ravens won it. In the playoffs, experience can be more effective than a potent offense or defense ever could.

"We're playing for one another and giving everything we have for one another." Dawkins said Wednesday. "We're making sure that we go into this game not making mental mistakes and giving ourselves the best opportunity to win the game. I love playing against [the Giants]. It's always a physical battle. 'Out' is not in our vocabulary right now."

With the way both teams are playing, don't be surprised to see a Bird Bowl conclude the 2008 season.