AFC: Pittsburgh (13-5) at Denver (14-3)
It was oddly pleasing -- in a mean-spirited sense -- to see Supermans cape not just tugged, but stomped on a bit by the Denver Broncos last Saturday. In the canonization of New England quarterback Tom Brady, the national media has chosen to ignore that his 10-game playoff winning streak was interrupted by his Patriots not even qualifying for the 2002 postseason. A brilliant quarterback, Brady is without question. And New Englands three championships in four seasons are deserving of mini-dynasty status. Nonetheless, they proved as beatable in the rarefied air of Denver as the rest of the NFL mortals who have been chasing the New England rabbit the last half-decade.
The victorious Broncos, alas, are still defined more by what they lack than by what youll see on the field this Sunday. Saturdays win was the franchises first since its own signal-calling saint -- John Elway -- retired after leading the team to a win in Super Bowl XXXIII (January 1999). One of Elways favorite targets, Rod Smith, remains a threat, and Denvers famously non-famous offensive line continues to protect Elways latest successor, Jake Plummer. An opportunistic defense -- witness Champ Baileys 99-yard interception return as New England threatened to take the lead last weekend -- makes the Broncos the most formidable, if generally ignored, team left in the field.
As for Denvers opponent Sunday, the Steelers are making their sixth trip to the AFC championship in 14 years under head coach Bill Cowher. Since they beat, yes, Indianapolis after the 1995 season, Pittsburgh has lost this game thrice (after the 97, 01, and 04 seasons). Whats different this year? Willie Parker makes the running attack -- for so long the Jerome Bettis Show -- more versatile. The Steelers secondary, led by All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu (and yes, that was an interception against the Colts), may be the NFLs best. And sophomore quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seems to be gaining some Brady-esque intangibles that come with winning, and often. When the most accurate kicker in NFL history (statistically), misses a chance to tie your playoff game in the closing minute -- in a domed stadium, no less -- a fan gets the impression the karma gods may be wearing black this month. THE PICK: Pittsburgh 24, Denver 17
NFC: Carolina (13-5) at Seattle (14-3)
Where have you gone, 49ers, Cowboys, and Packers? The NFC matchup features a pair of teams who, as recently as 1994, werent even in the NFC. Carolina returns for the third time since their 1995 expansion season, quarterback Jake Delhomme and wideout Steve Smith representing the scariest passing tandem still alive. Having already won twice on the road, the Panthers are attempting -- like the Steelers -- the all-too-rare feat of winning three games away from home to reach the Super Bowl. (The 1985 Patriots are the only team to accomplish this, and check what happened to them in Super Bowl XX.)
Waiting for the Panthers at sure-to-be-wet Qwest Field Sunday will be the Seattle Seahawks. Members of the AFC from their expansion season of 1976 through 2001, the Seahawks have gotten this close to the ultimate game only once before, losing to the Raiders after the 1983 season. If tailback Shaun Alexander -- the leagues MVP -- is fully recovered from the concussion he suffered Saturday against Washington, this game will tilt the home teams way.
I was in Seattle for an October game against Dallas, before the teams strengths became evident league-wide, and the most obvious quality to the Seahawks success is a defensive pursuit -- of both ball and quarterback -- that never slows. This quality allowed them to beat the leagues hottest team (the Redskins had won five straight) with their best player sniffing smelling salts. And its the quality that will lead to an influx of Starbucks-drinking, title-starved football fans come February 5th in Detroit. THE PICK: Seattle 27, Carolina 13.