King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NFL beatdown day: Steelers, Seahawks earn Super Bowl berths with routs in conference title games.

Published January 23, 2006 5:00PM (EST)

The best thing about the blowouts in the conference championship games Sunday is that we won't have to listen to fans of the losing teams whine about how the refs robbed 'em, or endless talk about how everything would've been different if the ball had just bounced a little differently on a certain play.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks earned their trips to the Super Bowl in Detroit by winning with such convincing ferocity it's hard to imagine that as late as Sunday morning there were boobs out there who thought the title games would be close.

The Steelers beat the Broncos 34-17 in Denver for the AFC championship. The Seahawks pounded the Carolina Panthers at home 34-14 for the NFC crown. To use an old laugh line seriously, neither game was as close as the score would indicate, especially the Seattle win.

The Panthers' first touchdown came on a punt return by Steve Smith that should have been, and almost was, called back for a penalty, the second on a bomb completed so long after the game had been decided that most of the Seahawks didn't see it, having become preoccupied with their cellphones as they made reservations at the Windsor Ballet.

The principal meme in the sports media leading up to these games had been that glamour quarterbacks were nowhere to be found among the final four teams. Instead we had the scruffy-beard gang in the AFC, Jake Plummer of the Broncos and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers, and the quiet-excellence brigade in the NFC, Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks and Jake Delhomme of the Panthers.

The problem with this line of thinking is it's going to look pretty silly not very far in the future to have lumped Roethlisberger in with Plummer.

Plummer had his best season in the NFL this year, a fine season, one in which he shed his reputation as Jake the Mistake. At least until Sunday, when he got it back. But Jake Plummer at his best -- which is quite good -- wasn't going to beat the Steelers Sunday.

And that's partly because the Steelers were being led by Roethlisberger, who may be two weeks away from becoming the youngest quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl, and also may be two years into a career that could end up with him wearing an ugly yellow jacket in Canton, Ohio.

That's how well Roethlisberger has been playing. A week after picking apart a good Indianapolis Colts defense, he did the same to a good Denver Broncos defense.

It was Roethlisberger who looked like the 10-year veteran Sunday, while 10-year veteran Plummer looked like the sophomore. Is it possible that it was only a year ago that Big Ben looked confused, discombobulated and thoroughly beaten by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game?

He hit 21 of 29 passes Sunday for 275 and two touchdowns, including the dagger, a brilliant throw, on the run, just over the outstretched fingertips of defenders Al Wilson and Nick Ferguson and into the arms of Hines Ward in the back of the end zone. That gave Pittsburgh a 24-3 lead just before halftime.

Roethlisberger added a rushing touchdown for good measure, tumbling in from 4 yards out late in the game to hold off a Denver mini-rally during which the Broncos had closed to 27-17 without ever looking like they had much of a chance to win.

Plummer, meanwhile, was terrible, throwing two interceptions and losing two fumbles. His day was summed up by the hideous interception that set up that backbreaking Roethlisberger-to-Ward touchdown.

The Steelers had taken a 17-3 lead when Jerome Bettis scored from the 3 to cap a 14-play, 80-yard drive that took 7:28. The Broncos took over on their 20 with 1:55 to go in the half and one timeout.

They wanted to get some points, but considering their defense had been on the field for the better part of the quarter, CBS analyst Phil Simms had some good advice for Plummer and the Broncos: "The first thing you do," he said, "you be a little careful."

So on the first play Plummer threw a dangerous pass in the general direction of tight end Stephen Alexander, who was running an out pattern and had barely made his cut when the ball arrived. No matter. Ike Taylor of the Steelers was the only guy with a chance to catch it, which is what he did. "That was not being careful," Simms noted adroitly.

The Steelers punched it in and that was pretty much that.

Hasselbeck looked almost as good as Roethlisberger, hitting 20 of 28 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns. He also handed off 34 times to Shaun Alexander, who ran for 132 yards and a touchdown.

All of this was against a Panthers team that didn't have the sand left to put up a fight. They'd made a valiant run, beating the New York Giants and Chicago Bears, beatable but good teams, on the road in the last two weeks. But the wins had been costly. The Panthers limped into Seattle, and they just couldn't keep up.

Unlike the Bears a week before, the Seahawks threw their entire defense at Smith, the best receiver in the league this year, and dared the Panthers to win with someone else.

Pretty much everyone else was injured except Delhomme, who played like another Jake the Mistake. One of his interceptions appeared to be a bizarre attempt at a basketball-style no-look pass. Was this the same guy who'd led the Panthers to the Super Bowl two years ago?

When third-string running back Nick Goings, promoted to the starting lineup after injuries ended the seasons of Stephen Davis and, last week, DeShaun Foster, went out early with a concussion, the Panthers had to know it just wasn't their day.

Goings wasn't going to help much. It was just kind of symbolic. As in: What, him too?

The Steelers, the first No. 6 seed to make it to the Super Bowl since the NFL playoffs expanded to six teams in each conference in 1990, are the early betting favorites. That's because the AFC is the stronger conference and the Steelers, who played a quarter of their season without Roethlisberger, were no ordinary 6-seed even before they raised their game in the postseason.

It's hard to picture anybody beating the Steelers now, the way they're playing. Those of us who aren't Seahawks fans will have two weeks of hype and nonsense to try to persuade one another that Seattle has what it takes. It's going to take some convincing.

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