STEELERS AT BRONCOS
CREDENTIALS: The Broncos ended the Patriots reign by beating them 27-13 last week. The Steelers stunned the football world by beating the "invincable" Colts, 21-8.
ODDS: Broncos by 3
WTF??? Pittsburgh is the first #6 seed to make a Conference Championship game. The last time both home teams won the conference championships was back in 1997 when the Patriots and Packers both won at home to earn trips to the Super Bowl.
OUTLOOK: This is the exact opposite of the game most people [and CBS] wanted....Pats-Colts. Instead of a tired storyline....you get two teams who, despite their pedigree, haven't sniffed Super Bowl success. The Steelers came close last year, losing in this round to the Pats. In 14 seasons as Steelers head coach, Bill Cowher has taken his team to the AFC Championship Game SIX times. He is 1-4 in the other games.....all of which were played in Pittsburgh. One of those, in 1998, was a loss to the Broncos, 24-21, which the Broncos went on the win the Super Bowl.
Since that 1998 AFC Championship game....only one of the seven games played has been decided by less than 10 points. It was 2002....a Steelers loss to the Patriots.
There are a ton of key matchups....but the main one will be how the Steelers deal with Jake Plummer, and how Plummer performs accordingly. Pittsburgh got pressure on Peyton Manning which forced the Colts into rushing plays....something not good for a timing offense. Can they do the same to Plummer? Well, the Broncos offense isn't as predicated on timing.....and Plummer is actually a better QB when he's on the move. Denver will try to combat the Steeler pressure by designed rollouts for Plummer. If Plummer can get the ball deep...it will force the safeties to play a bit back [something that they didn't have to worry as much aboutagainst Cincy or Indy]. If that happens, look for Denver to start running the ball effectively.
SPORTZ PICK: This game will feature near mirror image teams. Both want to run the football. Both have solid D-lines that can stop the run and get in the QB's face. Both QBs have a nice ability to scramble, buy time, and make something out of nothing. Both team's secondarys have been hot over the past month. But only one team can win. My pick is the Denver Broncos. Before the postseason began, I mentioned to a friend that Denver was the one "elite" team that still looked good in December. The Colts and Bengals packed it in, while the Pats were winning a weak AFC East. Not to mention that the Jags just seemed weak. I just like the poise that Denver has displayed all year long [well, except Week 1] and I think it will pay off and vault Denver into the Super Bowl. Broncos 24-20
PANTHERS AT SEAHAWKS
CREDENTIALS: The Seahawks upended the Redskins 20-10....while the Panthers overwhelmed that vaunted Chicago Defense 29-21
ODDS: Seahawks by 3
WTF??? This is a matchup of the two youngest NFC members. The Seahawks have been in the NFC just a couple of years, while the Panthers have been around since 1995.
OUTLOOK: This has the makings of a great QB showdown. Matt Hasselbeck has been the premiere QB in the NFC...and looked very sharp against a tough Skins defense last week. Jake Delhomme is 5-1 in his playoff career, including wins in St. Louis, Philly, New York and Chicago. Both QBs usually enjoy great protection, solid running games and an overachieving receiving corps. Well, Carolina is small of the running game now...and Seattle has issues with WRs being dinged up [Jackson, Engram].
There are a ton of key matchups....but the main one will be how the Seahawks deal with Steve Smith. With DeShaun Foster out, the Panthers will rely a bit more on Smith. Now, it is easy to sit here and say that all Seattle has to do is this or that, but the fact of the matter is that Chicago was completely torched by him last weekend...so why would the medoocre Hawks defense do much better?? Hard to say. But if they can put a lasso on him, it greatly improves their chances of winning this game.
The biggest mismatch will be in the backfield...as the Panthers are breaking in Nick Goins while the Seahawks feature MVP and NFL rushing champion Shaun Alexander. Of course, Alexander was knocked out of last week's game....so he may not be at his best here. The Panthers will try [read: need] to contain Alexander on 1st downs and inside the redzone. They cannot allow for him to have a big game. Doing so will place Seattle in obvious passing situations where Carolina can bring the pressure and let that great secondary make some plays for them.
SPORTZ PICK: It sure looks as if evertything points Seattle's way. Carolina has the advantage in 2 of the 3 phases of the game...defense and special teams....with the other one, offense, not being that far off Seattle's pace. Yes, the travel to Seattle and dealing with that loud crowd will be an ordeal, but two years ago the Panthers went into a hostile Philly crowd and came away NFC Champions. I think the same will happen here. The Panthers will get a smidge of running ability from Goins that will keep the Seahawks honest enough that the passing attack will open up.. Remember this name: Ricky Proehl. Panthers 27-21