I PICK THE PATS – NOW AND FOREVER

I’m taking New England. What about you?

Hurry. Pick now. It’s almost too late.

What’s the rush, you ask? There’s still 12 days until the Super Bowl. Please! That’s the rush. The 12 days are a trap, pure poison to any thinking fan.

Already I can feel the Super Hype oozing out of radio speakers. Already, I can see the television talking heads turning “pro” into “con” and “con” into “pro.”

Already, I can see newspaper ink thickening in evenhandedness: “Why The Eagles Will Win” and “Why The Patriots Will Win.”

Pretty soon, up will be down and down will be up. Pretty soon, Donovan McNabb will be a more reliable quarterback than Tom Brady. Andy Reid will be a better coach than Bill Belichick. Pretty soon, Terrell Owens will go from hobbled to never hurt.

Pretty soon, everything you thought you knew will be everything you knew you thought. Pick now. I’m warning you. Once the hype seeps in, it’s like driving in a blizzard. Can’t see forest. Can’t see trees.

I’m taking New England. By at least a touchdown.

And I’m not wavering.

Better team, better conference

Now, I hope my friends in Philly understand. This is not a quick pick because it’s easy. It’s a quick pick because from this point, it only gets harder.

For example, the closer you get to the Super Bowl, the more you’ll hear how the Eagles “aren’t just satisfied to be going, they want to win.”

Well, of course. Who doesn’t want to win? But deep down, I’m guessing, they may indeed be satisfied to be going. Oh, they’ll never admit it. They may not even realize it. But Sunday was likely the Eagles’ Super Bowl. The monkey is off their backs. The Patriots? What does Sunday mean to them? Their years are measured now by Super Bowl rings. That’s reason No. 1 the Pats get the nod.

Reason No. 2. Consider who they played. In the past two weeks, New England held the best offense in football (Indianapolis) to three points, then dropped 41 on the league’s best defense (Pittsburgh). That’s beyond versatile, that’s ridiculous.

The AFC was a better conference, and when the Patriots had to win in it, they did. They knocked off the Jets twice, Indy twice (counting the playoffs), and Seattle and St. Louis from the NFC – all of which turned out to be playoff teams.

The NFC, which fed the Eagles, was a lousy conference this year, and the Eagles only beat two teams that wound up in the playoffs. Beating Minnesota was no big deal. That team backed into the postseason anyhow. Atlanta, on Sunday, was tougher with Michael Vick, but still more smoke than substance: a good team, but not an Indy or Pittsburgh.

Keep that in mind, as the Super Bowl grows closer and ESPN blares and all these good, solid arguments start getting blurry, blurry …

There’s the Montana factor

Another reason to pick the Pats? They like the jugular. They have more taste for blood than a great white. Did you see Sunday, when Pittsburgh blew that fourth-and-one with a fumble? The very next play, Brady went deep to Deion Branch for a 60-yard touchdown. That’s how the Patriots work. You slip, they push you down. You overthrow a pass? They don’t get a hand on it, they intercept it. Plain and simple. They make you pay.

They also have, in Brady, this generation’s Joe Montana. Montana also played for a brilliant coach on a great “team” with a great “system” and it wasn’t until his numbers were undeniable – four Super Bowl victories – that people fully appreciated his skills. Brady has two championships and, like Montana, at least to date, he doesn’t lose big ones.

McNabb is terrific. But everything’s a learning curve. He just advanced on the NFC championship curve. He’s still at the start of the Super Bowl version.

And don’t tell me, with two weeks of preparation, the Philadelphia coaching staff will come up with a better plan than New England’s.

In the end, it’s simple. What you saw these past two Sundays from Belichick and his team was more impressive than what you saw from Reid and his. No knock on Philly. They’re the NFC’s best. But you have to pick one, so you pick the likely winner. And why do you do that now?

Because nothing changes between now and Super Bowl XXXIX. Momentum doesn’t shift. Personnel doesn’t shift. All that shifts is the thinking of the analysts, the pundits, the talk-show hosts and the fans, because, simply put, two weeks it too long to wait between games, and you have to fill the time with something.

So make your pick now, on what you saw Sunday, and hold with it. Hold with it through 50 hours of pregame hype, through news conferences and video clips and medical reports and declarations of “nobody gives us respect.”

The best team Sunday night will be the best team two Sundays from now. I say that’s New England. End of prediction.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get my earplugs and my eyeshades and go hide under a rock until Feb. 6.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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