The Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers worked overtime for their spots in the NFC championship game.
Philadelphia edged Green Bay 20-17 in overtime Sunday on David Akers' 31-yard field goal, putting the Eagles in the NFC final for the third consecutive year. The Eagles had to convert a fourth-and-26 pass from Donovan McNabb to Freddie Mitchell to get in position for the tying kick in regulation.
"This was such a test for us. What we did was, even though we were down, we showed heart and came back," McNabb said.
Carolina went even longer in St. Louis before winning 29-23 Saturday on Steve Smith's 69-yard reception to start the second OT.
The AFC championship features a classic matchup of what has been an unstoppable offense and a stingy, complex defense. NFL co-MVP Peyton Manning, as hot as a quarterback can be in the postseason, will guide the Indianapolis Colts against the host New England Patriots.
Indianapolis secured that matchup by winning at Kansas City 38-31 Sunday, with Manning throwing for 304 yards and three touchdowns. New England beat Tennessee 17-14 on Saturday night.
NFC Carolina (13-5) at Philadelphia (13-4)
Green Bay seemed in control at Philadelphia until some conservative Packers coaching late in the game helped the Eagles come back. Now, the Eagles must face an opportunistic Carolina team riding an emotional wave after dramatically snapping the Rams' 14-game home winning streak.
Being at home didn't seem to make much difference for Philadelphia against the Packers, and the Eagles have lost three times at Lincoln Financial Field. The fact Green Bay came so close to advancing should buoy the Panthers.
"We'll get a chance to get one back," Panthers running back DeShaun Foster said, recalling a 25-16 home loss to the Eagles on Nov. 30.
But the Panthers will need to stay calm, just as the Eagles did Sunday. Carolina blew an 11-point lead in the final moments, then survived a wild first extra period before winning on Smith's long touchdown reception.
The health of Panthers' star running back Stephen Davis (groin strain) might not be so critical if Foster can be as effective next week as he was in St. Louis. Philadelphia is vulnerable against the run.
What can't be measured is the lift the Eagles will get from such a gutsy comeback after trailing 14-0 against Green Bay.
AFC Colts (14-4) at Patriots (15-2)
The Colts' offense will present streaking New England with a huge challenge, but the Patriots, who beat Tennessee in frigid conditions, are the biggest obstacle Indianapolis could face.
Not only must Manning and his potent offense deal with likely arctic conditions, but they will play for a third straight week. New England's bye after winning the AFC East with the conference's best record, could be especially significant next Sunday.
Besides, the Colts must be tired from running into the end zone so much in their two postseason wins.
"It's not trickery, just running the same plays we've run all season," Manning said. "Hopefully we can keep it up next week. New England will be the toughest challenge of the season, by far."
Because, by far, the Patriots have the best and most opportunistic defense the Colts have seen since, well, they lost 38-34 at home to the Patriots - also on Nov. 30. Obviously, New England's defense didn't play particularly well in that game.
But at home, the Patriots are a different animal. The two touchdowns scored by the Titans were one more than New England allowed at home in the previous six games combined.
Manning will see a mixture of coverages that have baffled just about everyone so far. He loves to study film, and he'll be looking at it late into the night this week.
"I think this game will be tougher, bigger and obviously there is more riding on it than even the last game," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "At this time of year, every time you win, then the next game gets bigger."
Belichick certainly knows that. This season's coach of the year guided the Patriots to the Super Bowl title two years ago.
The Colts haven't been this far since 1995.
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