JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ One of the most impressive aspects of New England's third Super Bowl title in four years was who the Patriots beat this year.
That's also a stumbling block the Philadelphia Eagles won't have to deal with in trying to get back to the big game.
The Patriots beat the three best teams outside of New England in certifying their dynasty: the Colts, Steelers and Eagles. By far, those were the four best teams in football this season, and all should be formidable again come September.
Several other AFC teams the Chargers, Jets, Ravens, possibly the Bills, Chiefs and Jaguars could provide a roadblock for the champions.
But other than Philly, who is a contender to meet the AFC champion in Detroit next February?
Perhaps Atlanta, although the Eagles manhandled the Falcons in the NFC title game and are eons ahead of them in talent, organization and experience.
A healthy Carolina might be a factor, but these Eagles match up better than they did against the Panthers in their January '04 playoff meeting.
Anybody else? Some team always comes out of nowhere to contend, but to think any NFC club is ready to knock off the Eagles especially after they finally scaled their biggest hurdle by getting into the Super Bowl doesn't make much sense right now.
We'll be back,'' All-Pro receiver Terrell Owens said.We have more to do.''
And they have been through the Super Bowl crucible.
I think that the positive you get out of it is that the guys got a taste of it,'' coach Andy Reid said,and I'm sure they will want to come back.''
Of course they want to come back, and they probably want another shot at the Patriots. The Eagles don't have any salary cap woes and most of their free agents are expendable. Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Jevon Kearse, Lito Sheppard and Michael Lewis are only approaching their primes. Older veterans Owens, Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter and David Akers are coming off superb seasons.
New England hardly is falling apart, either. While the Patriots don't have as much salary cap space as the Eagles, they aren't hard against the spending ceiling. Their biggest questions are how well they can replace coordinators Romeo Crennel, now Cleveland's head coach, and Charlie Weis, now at Notre Dame.
Romeo and Charlie have done a great job. A lot of the success we've had should go to them,'' coach Bill Belichick said Monday.I've been with them both a long time. I go back to 1981 with Romeo and I'll miss both of them a lot.''
Still, Belichick is a master not only of game-planning but of player procurement. The Patriots have a model for their players: versatile, intelligent, selfless. Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli find the right guys for their system, and that system produces championships.
Every time we play, it's a total effort from everyone,'' said receiver Deion Branch, the Super Bowl MVP with 11 catches for 133 yards.It's a total organizational effort from the top down.''
Unquestionably, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Diego, the Jets and Baltimore all must get better to compete with the New England dynasty. But none of them need to make the quantum leap required of an NFC team to overtake Philly.
So that makes the Eagles the favorite for Super Bowl '06?
Not quite. Not as long as Belichick, Brady and the Patriots are still around.