PHILADELPHIA - The closets will be creaking now.
Skeletons of playoffs past are about to materialize in the countdown to the Super Bowl, and that means a nervous week in Pittsburgh for Steelers coach Bill Cowher and in Philadelphia for Eagles coach Andy Reid.
The NFL's final four has lots of tradition, a heavy dose of defense and a delicious matchup of mobile quarterbacks. What it also brings is the pressure of past failures, a theme that is certain to haunt championship week.
Reid enters his third straight NFC championship game at home with unqualified expectations. The Eagles must beat the Atlanta Falcons and advance to the 39th Super Bowl, or forever wear the label as one of the biggest chokers in league history.
Cowher resurrected the Steelers from a miserable 6-10 season a year ago, and Sunday's AFC showdown against the New England Patriots will mark his fifth championship game at home in 11 years. That he has won only one of them - in the 1995 season - is the burden he carries.
The other half of the coaching foursome has no such ghosts to shake. Bill Belichick is 2-0 in championship games with the Patriots, not to mention a 2-0 Super Bowl record as well.
Atlanta's Jim Mora Jr., meanwhile, comes in as a veritable novice. But the Falcons rookie coach has a score or two to settle himself, as he noted before Saturday's 47-17 thrashing of the St. Louis Rams. His father, Jim Mora Sr., went 0-6 in the postseason with two different teams, and that's a family matter he wants to take care of.
That's three coaches chasing history - and Belichick - or so it would seem.
When the smoke and mirrors show of wild-card weekend cleared yesterday, the NFL was left with a No. 1 (Steelers, Eagles) vs. No. 2 seed (Patriots, Falcons) in each conference. Whereas three road teams won a week ago, none won this weekend. And those unsightly 8-8 NFC wild cards? Gone, thankfully.
The Patriots earned their trip to Pittsburgh with a punishing 20-3 romp over the Indianapolis Colts. Not only did quarterback Tom Brady outplay Peyton Manning, but Corey Dillon (144 yards) dwarfed Edgerrin James (39 yards) in the running game.
Earlier in the day, the Eagles bashed Minnesota, 27-14, when Reid bedeviled the Vikings by moving running back/receiver Brian Westbrook all over the field in search of exotic matchups. Usually, he found them. Westbrook delivered 117 yards from scrimmage.
Perhaps more importantly, the Eagles prepared for Atlanta's Michael Vick by harassing Minnesota's mobile Daunte Culpepper into a two-interception game.
"We got a little bit of a taste of what Vick can do [by facing Culpepper]," Eagles middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "Obviously, [Vick] is a lot faster and a lot looser, but that definitely helped us to plan game-plan wise, so we will get kind of the same look."
Vick's running wasn't a big problem for the Eagles in the 2002 playoffs, when they notched a 20-6 victory over the Falcons in the divisional round. The Falcons had just 30 rushing yards and Vick passed for 274.
Roll call for quarterbacks in next week's games is decidedly youthful. The Eagles' Donovan McNabb, at 28, is the old man of the crew. Tom Brady is 27, Vick 24 and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger a mere 22. Perhaps not surprisingly, Roethlisberger showed that age in a scattershot performance in claiming a 20-17 overtime win against the New York Jets on Saturday.
And if Belichick can foil a quarterback as good as Manning, what will he do with a rookie? Roethlisberger, however, was the first rookie quarterback to beat a Belichick team in Week 8, when the Steelers won, 34-20.
But the Patriots were playing without an injured Dillon, and as the Colts learned yesterday, the Cincinnati Bengals castoff makes a big difference.
Finally, there is this piece of playoff history: Just three seasons ago, the second-seeded Pats upset the first-seeded and host Steelers in the AFC final, 24-17. Cowher will hear a lot about that one, in particular.
NFC TITLE GAME
Atlanta (12-5) at Philadelphia (14-3)
Time: 3 p.m. Sunday
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Line: Eagles by 4 1/2
AFC TITLE GAME
New England (15-2) at Pittsburgh (16-1)
Time: 6:30 p.m. Sunday
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Line: Patriots by 3