- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Football history will be made tonight in Super Bowl XXXIX.

Either the defending champion New England Patriots will join the 1992 to 1995 Dallas Cowboys as the only teams to win three Super Bowls in four years or the Philadelphia Eagles will end their 44-year championship drought.

Either New England’s Bill Belichick will join Hall of Famers Joe Gibbs, Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh as the only coaches with three Super Bowl victories or Philadelphia’s Andy Reid will join Gibbs, Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren as the only first-time Super Bowl coaches to win the Lombardi Trophy by beating a rival who already had one.

And either the Patriots’ 27-year-old Tom Brady will join Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to win three Super Bowls or the Eagles’ 28-year-old Donovan McNabb will join Doug Williams as the only black quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl.

“I’m sure somewhere in America, some black kid is going to be watching the game and saying, ‘I want to be like Donovan McNabb,’” said Williams, who inspired the 11-year-old McNabb when he led Washington past Denver in Super Bowl XXII. “But [hopefully] some white kids will want to be like Donovan, too. That’s when we’ll have really made it.”

Belichick, two-time Super Bowl MVP Brady and the Patriots already have made a place for themselves in NFL annals with their victories over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI and Carolina last year and by joining the 1997 Green Bay Packers and 1998 Denver Broncos as the only teams in the last decade to return to defend a title.

Aikman, who quarterbacked those ‘90s Cowboys, said the Patriots have had a harder road to glory in the era of the salary cap. And unlike Aikman’s star-studded teams, Brady is the only Patriot with much national name recognition though five of his teammates, including powerful running back Corey Dillon, also are Pro Bowl-bound.

“You can put together an All-Star team and if they can’t play together, you aren’t going to have much success,” said receiver/nickel back Troy Brown. “That’s not what we’re about. We play as a team.”

So do the Eagles, who have an NFL-high 10 Pro Bowl players led by McNabb and receiver Terrell Owens, who tonight is likely to play — if not start — just seven weeks after fracturing his right fibula.

“We’ve let guys go, but the nucleus remains of guys that are talented and have great character,” said Pro Bowl free safety Brian Dawkins, the leader of coordinator Jim Johnson’s aggressive defense, the cornerstone of four straight NFC East titles. “When other guys come in, they watch the way we do things, and it just keeps on going.”

Though Pittsburgh had a better record than the Patriots and Eagles — each of whom lost to the Steelers — New England and Philadelphia have been the best teams over the last four seasons. Their combined 27-5 regular-season record this year has been topped in only one Super Bowl (1985) in the 27 seasons of 16-game schedules. And only the Broncos matched the Patriots and Eagles in having offenses and defenses ranked in the league’s top 10.

Clearly, the Patriots and Eagles both deserve to be here. And Reid has no problem with Belichick’s team being a seven-point favorite.

“You’re playing the world champions, and they deserve to be the favorites,” Reid said. “It’s important that we come out and prove ourselves that we’re worthy of playing. I don’t think our players look at themselves, though, as underdogs, which I think is important.”

Owens’ return should make McNabb and versatile running back Brian Westbrook even bigger headaches for the Patriots to defend with the complex schemes of Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel, who is expected to become Cleveland’s coach later this week.

“There are times that you’re not going to have as many people as you would like in certain areas, but you’re going to have to give that up to get something else done,” said Belichick, whose defense shut down Indianapolis’ league-best offense three weeks ago and welcomes back Pro Bowl end Richard Seymour from a knee injury tonight.

Owens, Seymour, Westbrook, Dillon and kickers Adam Vinatieri of New England and David Akers of Philadelphia could be key performers tonight. Belichick has matched the immortal Vince Lombardi’s 9-1 playoff mark. Reid is 9-0 with two weeks to prepare for an opponent. But there’s a reason why 20 of the 38 Super Bowl MVPs have been quarterbacks. Winning this game is a big measure of their success.

“People talk about it being the pinnacle of your career,” McNabb said. “Whenever you get as close as we are right now, you can taste it.”

While McNabb finally cleared the NFC Championship game hurdle on his fourth try, Brady is an impeccable 8-0 in postseason.

“You need to be very, very prepared,” Brady said. “You’re playing against the best teams that usually have the best defenses and are very well-coached. When you go into the game prepared, you can be confident. You feel like you have the answers to the test.”

Brady’s usual unflappability will be tested as he plays after the death of his grandmother Wednesday.

“My mind has been here, but my heart has been at home,” said Brady, who grew up just a mile from her in San Mateo, Calif. “Now I have an even better reason to play this game. We were really, really close. She was a great woman. She’ll be looking down and cheering us on.”

Philadelphia’s rabid fans, who have packed Jacksonville in hopes of celebrating their hometown’s first title since the 76ers captured the NBA championship in 1983, couldn’t care less.

“I’m carrying a lot … it’s going to be a heavy load, [but] I’m just going to focus in on my job,” McNabb said. “When it’s all said and done, hopefully everybody will be happy.”

By 11 o’clock, one of these quarterbacks won’t be.

“Both of us are big-time competitors, big-time leaders,” said McNabb, who led Syracuse past Michigan and Brady in 1998 but lost to him in Week2 last season. “We’re passionate about what we do and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to help win the game. … Tom has pretty much what we want.”

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