Friday, January 20, 2006

This Sunday is Bigger than Troy Polamalu's Hair

Three weeks ago many NFL fans looked forward to a Colts-Patriots rematch and an intriguing Bears’ defense versus Seahawks’ offense matchup. There was even talk of an Eli and Peyton Manning Super Bowl. Then when the playoffs actually took place all hopes, wishes and media speculation got washed away. What is left are four teams all capable of winning it all. Considering the Super Bowl, even when the score is close, is rarely a good game, this is the weekend that football fans truly appreciate. The last team to win three road games to reach the Super Bowl was the 1985 Patriots led by Tony Eason. Both Pittsburgh and Carolina have a chance at that this year.

Pittsburgh at Denver
If not for a lot of key injuries the Steelers might have cruised all season. Instead they had to win their last four games just to qualify for the playoffs. Now they look like a serious Super Bowl team. The defense is playing very well and QB Ben Roethlisberger is emerging as one of the best in the league.

Denver by contrast has cruised most of the year. Anyone who lines up in the Broncos backfield is a 100yard threat. The difference this year is Jake Plummer. He is not going to win a shootout, but takes care of the ball and makes good decisions. The result last week was Denver’s first playoff win since John Elway retired.

Both teams are so similar in style that the slight differences will factor heavily. Roethlisberger is the better quarterback, and has shown he can win a game throwing 30 times. This is the 6th AFC Championship for the Bill Cowher’s Steelers, but the second on the road. Perhaps avoiding their expectant fans is what the team needs to advance to Detroit. If the Broncos can keep the game close they will have a chance in the fourth quarter.

Bottom line: Pittsburgh is hot right now and has more talent. Steelers win 17-13.

Carolina at Seattle
The Panthers’ game plan is simple and obvious: Get the ball to Steve Smith. No one has stopped him yet. Smith has 22 catches in two playoff games, while the other Panthers have caught 17 passes total. The fact that Smith is the only receiving threat makes it even more astonishing that he gets open. QB Jake Delhomme deserves credit as well for playing smart and avoiding turnovers. The pass rush is affected by DE Julius Peppers’ bad shoulder. They have played well on defense but have not faced an experienced quarterback like Matt Hasselbeck.

The Seahawks escaped last week thanks to a stout defense and WR Darrell Jackson. Shaun Alexander will return from his concussion, to give the Seahawks a home run threat in the backfield. The chief problem last week against the Redskins was special teams, giving the ball away twice. Seattle has the NFL’s best record, the MVP and home field advantage and still nearly lost to a Washington team with next to nothing on offense. Seattle will need to get a pass rush on Delhomme, establish Alexander and Hasselbeck must avoid stupid throws. If this happens Seattle can win.

Bottom Line: The Panthers are rolling and John Fox will outcoach Mike Holmgren. Carolina 31-24.