We don’t usually rely on the New York Times for our sports news — for that we just cast freebie glances at the back page of the New York Post on the subway. But this week it’s been almost impossible not to notice a striking imbalance in quantity, placement and tone of the Times’ coverage of the four NFL football teams still standing in the playoffs — the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New England Patriots, the Atlanta Falcons, and the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Times, it seems, has a special place in its heart — and its news columns — for the big boys of Steel Town.

Since Monday, the Times has run five glowing stories on the Steelers, totaling about 4,400 words (and that’s not counting a story on how the team matches up against New England). Three of those stories have ended up on splashed on the front of the sports section, including a lengthy profile of Samoan safety Troy Polamalu and a bizarre piece today recounting the childlike manner in which the frightened Steelers bonded in their hurricane-whipped hotel in Florida last September. The piece speculates that surviving said hurricane created in the Steelers a team spirit that led to a 15-1 season. (Oddly, the same hurricane seemed to have no such bracing effect on the Miami Dolphins, who finished the season at 4-12.)

The Philadelphia Eagles have merited about the same volume of coverage as Pittsburgh — but most of it has been far more critical than the articles fawning over the Steelers. Indeed, aside from a piece today on quarterback Donovan McNabb’s mother, who shills for Campbell’s soup, the paper has featured three — count ‘em, three — stories focusing on the doleful Eagles’ loss of three NFC championship games in a row. The headlines say it all:

“In the Glow of Victory, 3 Losses Are Recalled”
“As Eagles Move On, Philadelphia Is Nervous”
“For the Eagles, Been There, Haven’t Done It”

While the Falcons and Patriots have attracted fewer words from Times scribes, they haven’t come in for the sort of staring-doom-in-the-face treatment that the seemingly hapless Eagles have received. This morning, the Falcons received an absolute valentine of a page-one story on quarterback Michael Vick, declaring him “the closest athlete the NFL has to Michael Jordan.”

As for the Patriots, who are, after all, the defending Super Bowl champions? With the exception of a recap of the game last Sunday in which the Pats made mincemeat of the Indianapolis Colts, the Times has relegated them to the inside pages, mainly in pieces that compare their merits to the skills of those steely Steelers.

Which raises this question: If the Eagles and the Patriots do meet in the Super Bowl (as logic dictates to many sportswriters), what will the Times cover — just the halftime show?

Bryan Keefer

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.