01/21/2005 12:00AM

Falcons should run down Eagles


LAS VEGAS - This is the way it's supposed to be: No. 1 vs. No. 2. The best vs. the best.

The top two seeds in each conference - the Steelers and Patriots in the AFC and the Eagles and Falcons in the NFC - won their divisional playoff games last week and now meet in their respective conference title games for the right to go to the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 6.

On Friday morning's "Stardust Line" radio show, Ken White of Las Vegas Sports Consultants gave a sneak peek at the likely point spreads for the four possible Super Bowl matchups. He said the Patriots would be a 5 1/2- or 6-point favorite over the Eagles and between 7 1/2 and 8 1/2 over the Falcons. If the Steelers prevail, they would be 2 1/2- or 3-point favorites over the Eagles and either 4 or 4 1/2 over the Falcons.

But before we tackle the Super Bowl lines, we have to get past this Sunday's matchups.

Falcons (+5 1/2) at Eagles

This is the game I've been waiting for. In the seventh week of the season, I wrote the following: "The Eagles defense can be run on, but the problem for most teams is they get too far behind and abandon the ground attack."

I have repeated that many times, and I've had moderate success going against the Eagles this season, with a 5-4 record. When I've won my bets, it was because the opposing team controlled the game on the ground. My losses have come when teams abandoned the running game.

That's not likely to happen Sunday with the Falcons, who are the No. 1 rushing team in the league. The Eagles are ranked No. 16 in rushing yards allowed, but again, they're much worse than that because teams usually stopped running against them in the second half. Philly apologists will say the Eagles run defense has done much better since Jeremiah Trotter has been in the lineup. That's true, but the Vikings still averaged 4.6 yards per rush against the Eagles last week, and there have been plenty of holes in other recent games when the starters were in the lineup.

Now, I don't expect Warrick Dunn to run into the secondary untouched like he did several times last week vs. the Rams, but he'll get his yards, as will power back T.J. Duckett. And then there's the X-factor, Michael Vick. I'm counting on the Falcons to get their rushing yards on traditional running plays, but Vick is also capable of big plays, either on designed runs or when improvising.

Some arguments I've heard against Vick this past week have been that he'll be slowed down by playing outdoors in cold weather. Again, I'll go back to a previous article of mine. Two years ago, the Falcons traveled to the frozen tundra of Green Bay for a playoff game. Even though the Packers had never lost a home playoff game, I picked the upset and this is part of what I wrote: "Some people will say that the weather conditions will slow down Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, but he will still be the fastest player on the field, and the conditions will make it even harder to catch him. He knows where he's going, and if defenders aren't able to get to him quick, he'll be gone."

Even if the Eagles get their points, I expect the Falcons to keep up with them. But I also like the matchup when the Eagles have the ball. Last week, without Terrell Owens and with a few weeks of rust, Donovan McNabb looked sharp, but that was against a sieve-like Vikings defense. His receivers will have a harder time against Atlanta, and McNabb likely won't have as much time to throw, as the Falcons led the league with 48 sacks.

All in all, I love how this game comes together. I haven't made a 2-unit best bet all season. That ends now.

PLAY: Falcons for 2 units.

Patriots (-3) at Steelers

Some offshore sports books had the Steelers favored between -1 1/2 and -2 1/2 in this potential matchup, but that was before the Patriots shut down the Colts. The public sentiment has swung back toward the defending world champions, and they're a 3-point favorite here.

A line swing like this will usually find me taking the other side, but in this case I'm staying with the Patriots. I just believe they're the slightly better team in just about every area: I'll take Bill Belichick over Bill Cowher, Tom Brady over Ben Roethlisberger, Corey Dillon over Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, and the Patriots defense over the Steelers defense. With Heinz Field being a tough place to kick, I have to give the edge to New England's Adam Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker in postseason history.

Pittsburgh bettors are hanging their hard hats on the Steelers' home-field advantage, which they basically earned with their 34-20 rout of the Patriots on Halloween.

But that game was when the Pats were ripe for the picking. The Patriots had run their winning streak to 21 games, and it's impossible to expect a team to get sky-high week after week like that. The Steelers were also coming off their bye week and were out to prove they were for real after a hot start.

So, yes, the Steelers won easily, but a few things happened to give the Steelers early momentum. Brady fumbled to set up one TD and had an interception returned for another TD to fall behind, 21-3, by the end of the first quarter. It was a pretty even game from that point on. To the Steelers' credit, they capitalized on the Patriots' rare mistakes, but the final score is in no way indicative of how these teams match up.

In addition, New England's Corey Dillon did not play in that game and the Patriots rushed only six times for five yards. That won't happen again.

The Patriots don't need much motivation to play their best with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. But if they needed any, getting revenge for that earlier loss should do it.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Last week 2-2 for a net loss of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 46-45-3 for a net loss of 3.5 units.