Sunday is NFL Conference Championship Game day, hands down the best football day of the year, better than Super Bowl Sunday by a mile.
There are two games instead of one, they are played in weather in front of rabid home fans instead of in a climate-controlled or always-warm neutral site in front of corporate weasels, and not only have the games been historically better than the Super Bowl games, but the football-to-crapola ratio is off the charts.
Unless you've been in a coma the past few months you know the Rolling Stones are the Super Bowl entertainment -- after having been in a coma for years themselves, as it happens. Who's the halftime entertainer for the AFC Championship Game? The NFC? What about the pregame show? The pre-pregame show? The pregame show before that?
Precisely. I don't know either.
But I do know the Pittsburgh Steelers will visit the Denver Broncos in the AFC title game and the Carolina Panthers will challenge the Seahawks in Seattle for the NFC crown. Both home teams are favored by about a field goal, which is roughly what you get for playing at home. These are evenly matched games that have a lot of promise.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
3 p.m. EST, CBS
The Steelers stunned the Colts last week by coming out throwing, putting Indy on its heels and jumping out to a 14-0 lead. If you're still thinking Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a mere game manager, his picking apart the Colts' zone defense in the first quarter Sunday should have convinced you otherwise.
The Broncos give up only 85 yards a game on the ground, second in the league, so you might think the strategy ought to be the same this week.
But that just goes to show how raw yardage stats can be deceiving. Broncos opponents averaged 4 yards per run this year, which puts Denver solidly in the middle of the league as run defenders, tied for 15th with, among others, the Arizona Cardinals and the Oakland Raiders.
The Broncos played most of the season with a lead, forcing opponents to throw, which played right into a strength. Denver allowed only 6.25 yards per pass, fourth best in the league in that key stat. Only defensive specialists Chicago, Baltimore and Washington were better.
So the Steelers might just come out throwing again for the element of surprise, though it wouldn't be too surprising after last Sunday. But it's a safe bet they'll stick to their offensive bread and butter, handing off to Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, because they have a good chance of finding some success there.
I think the Steelers could be among the elite offenses in the league if they threw more, but do they ask me? They don't ask me. What they do is mix in passes downfield to Hines Ward, intermediate routes to tight end Heath Miller, who destroyed the center of the Colts' zone, and more gadget plays than your average smashmouth, blue-collar team.
Don't get me wrong. It's a good thing they don't ask me. Because last week I wrote that the Broncos wouldn't be able to put much pressure on Tom Brady, who proceeded to spend the entire game dodging rhinos.
Denver also likes to run, with its tandem of Tatum Bell and Mike Anderson, although it really doesn't matter who the backs are. As "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" columnist Gregg Easterbrook has put it, Broncos helmets come with a label that reads, "Insert running back, gain 1,000 yards."
That's because the Broncos have the best offensive line in the league. The Steelers like to throw all sorts of blitz and rush packages at an opponent, the result often being the look of abject panic and frustration sported by Peyton Manning last week.
Denver quarterback Jake Plummer didn't get the nickname "The Snake" by sporting a look of panic when faced with a safety blitz. He got it because his first name is Jake. "Jake the Snake," get it? It rhymes. If his name were Mocket Hasser Plummer, his nickname would be "Pocket Passer," which would be silly because he's a much better quarterback when he's on the run.
Also, what kind of name is Mocket Hasser Plummer? But the point is, nicknames aren't necessarily apt, though "Jake the Snake" happens to be.
Wait, that's the point: Plummer's better on the run than he is in the pocket. So the Steelers will find that it's not enough to pressure Plummer. They have to get to him.
Plummer is a playmaker, but the reason he's finally had the kind of year this year that we've all been waiting for since he came out of Arizona State a decade ago is that the Broncos have succeeded in turning him into a game manager. He doesn't have to do too much, so he has been less prone to the kind of crazy mistakes that have been a hallmark of his career, and that he's lucky never resulted in the nickname "Jake the Mistake."
With both teams pounding the ball on the ground on offense and trying to pound the quarterback on defense, this figures to be a smashmouth game, which means the final score will be 56-53.
Don't be fooled by the records. The Steelers are no ordinary No. 6 seed. Remember that Roethlisberger missed four games with injuries this year, and Pittsburgh only went 2-2, including a hideous loss to Baltimore. With Roethlisberger at the wheel, the Steelers are 11-3, playoffs included.
The Broncos are the favorites in part because they're almost unbeatable at home. They went 8-0 in Denver this season, and counting last week's playoff game they've won 11 straight on their own field. They've also won four straight home playoff games since a loss to Jacksonville in 1996.
But I'm taking Pittsburgh on a hunch. I think the Steelers' big-play defense will force Jake into a mistake or two -- and I doubt the officials will take a turnover away from Pittsburgh for a second straight week -- and Roethlisberger will make the big throws to send the Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Carolina Panthers (11-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
6:30 p.m. EST, Fox
The good news for the Panthers is they have the best wide receiver in football this year, Steve Smith.
The bad news is that's where the good news ends.
Well, that's not true. The Panthers are a good team, a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but they're banged up. Oh, are they banged up. Running back DeShaun Foster, who has been making big plays, broke his leg last week, an injury that may have been the coup de grâce for Carolina.
It leaves them with third stringer Nick Goings as the starter, since Foster was himself a backup for Stephen Davis. Goings is a solid journeyman, one of those backs who can do everything he's supposed to do acceptably without doing any of it really well. He has consistently been held well under 4 yards per carry in his five-year career.
So Nick Goings is not going to strike fear in the Seahawks' hearts. It's not quite true that Seattle can send three rushers in on quarterback Jake "Not a Snake" Delhomme and put the other eight guys on Smith. But it's almost true.
On defense the bad news is that Julius Peppers, who's only the best athlete in the league, is also hurt. He'll play, but will likely be limited by a sore shoulder. Without him at full speed, Carolina might have trouble putting pressure on Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, which would be trouble.
Seattle is located in a remote region of the country called the Pacific Northwest, and you don't know about Hasselbeck, without you have read about the adventures of Shaun Alexander, who played his minor-league ball at Alabama, but that ain't no matter. Running or throwing, the Seahawks have the best offense in the league outside of Indianapolis.
Playoff experience goes a long way at playoff time, and the Panthers have plenty of it. They missed the playoffs last year, but they're 5-1 in the postseason between this year and 2003, their only loss a nail-biter to New England in that year's Super Bowl.
Seattle, you'll recall, got its first playoff win in 21 years last week, having lost its postseason opener each of the last two years and missed the playoffs the three years before that.
But experience isn't everything. The Panthers, remember, had effectively none two years ago when they ripped off wins over Dallas, St. Louis and Philadelphia to win the NFC title.
The Seahawks have finally turned into the elite team they've looked like they were going to be for the last few years. If they have a weakness, and they do, it's in pass defense. But with only one real weapon it's hard to imagine the Panthers can exploit that weakness, even if that one weapon is Steve Smith.
Of course, that's been true all season, and the Panthers are 13-5 including the playoffs. Then again, they haven't had to win without either Davis or Foster in the backfield.
Still, even if the Seahawks are smarter than the Chicago Bears, who last week refused to put their best cornerback, Nathan Vasher, on Smith and let him run wild all afternoon, Carolina has a puncher's chance because of Smith and its talented, playmaking secondary.
A couple of big plays, maybe a punt return, and the Panthers, who make a living surprising people in the playoffs, could surprise the Seahawks. But it would be a big surprise.
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