2006-01-20 / Sports

NFL Final Four Fight This Weekend For Super Bowl Glory

By Michael Avallone Sports Columnist

By Michael Avallone
Sports Columnist

Everyone was all set for New England-Indianapolis III. Isn’t that the game most expected (wanted) to see?

Instead both teams lost in the divisional playoffs this weekend, leaving the two best quarterbacks in the league home for championship weekend. Instead of Peyton Manning against Tom Brady we get Jake Plummer against Ben Roethlisberger. All in all, not a bad trade-off.

The duo outplayed their more-heralded counterparts in victories over the weekend. The Steelers beat the Colts 21-18 in a weird but exciting game. The Broncos beat the Patriots 27-13, ending New England’s chance at three Super Bowl titles in a row.

So the Steelers move on to play the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. In the NFC, the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks advanced to play the road-warrior Carolina Panthers in next week’s NFC title game. The Seahawks have never been to the Super Bowl, while Carolina will be trying to get there for the second time in three years.

If the Panthers are to get there, they will have to win three road games to make it a reality. That’s tough for any team, something only one team has ever done, that being the 1985 New England Patriots. The Steelers are in the same boat. If they beat the Broncos on Sunday, they will have won three road games in the playoffs. They’re already the first sixth seed to make a championship game and have the look of a team of destiny.

Both games should be tough, hard-fought, close games. If there’s a blowout among the two, it will be a surprise – almost as a big a surprise as seeing Manning and Brady watching this week. Tom and Peyton? Home in an unexpected twist. Here’s a quick look at the two championship games.

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at Denver Broncos (14-3)

The Broncos were impressive in beating the Patriots. The defense had the big play on a Champ Bailey ‘s 100-yard interception return. Pittsburgh pulled off the weekend’s biggest shocker in beating the Colts 21-18. The Steelers used an aggressive approach on defense to rattle Manning, sacking him five times. They’ll probably do the same to Jake Plummer, although he is more mobile. The Steelers are trying to become the first No. 6 seed to make it to the Super Bowl. The Broncos haven’t been there since John Elway left.

Key matchup: There is no doubt the Broncos want to run the ball. That’s what they do. The Patriots did a nice job choking off the run, but that’s still what makes the Denver offense go. They will try and pound the football at the Steelers. That’s tough going. The Steelers are outstanding against the run. They will try and force the game onto Plummer’s arm. How the Broncos run it should decide this game.

Key individual matchup: Denver center Tom Nalen is one of the best in football. He had one of his best seasons in 2005. His ability to get movement at the point of attack is vital to the Denver running game. But he will have wide-body Casey Hampton on his nose all day long. Hampton is one of the best in the league against the run. He’s a big body to move. Who wins here will be a key matchup in deciding this game.

Player on the spot: Plummer. He won a playoff game and now he’s one step away from a Super Bowl. If he doesn’t play well here, he’s still going to take a lot of heat as an inconsistent player.

Outlook: A back-and-forth game will go down to the wire, but Big Ben will lead the Steelers to their first Super Bowl in a decade.

Carolina Panthers (13-5) at

Seattle Seahawks (14-3)

The skinny: The Panthers were impressive on offense in beating the Bears. Steve Smith had a huge day and Jake Delhomme put up big numbers. They will have to do more of that this week since they will be without DeShaun Foster. The Seahawks played most of their game against Washington without Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck responded with a big day. But they don’t want to be forced to play that way against the Panthers. There will be a lot of pressure on the Seahawks since they are the top seed and are at home.

Key team matchup: The Seahawks finished the regular season as the second-ranked offense. The Panthers were the third-ranked defense. Something has to give here. Can the Panthers’ front seven limit Alexander? Can they pressure Hasselbeck? Or does the Seattle offense get it cranked up in front of the home folks? The winner of this should be the winner of the game.

Key individual matchup: Look for the Seahawks to double Smith a lot, but when they do play him in man coverage it will likely be Marcus Trufant who gets the call. Trufant is a talented cover corner. Smith is tough to handle in man coverage, but Trufant is a rising player at the corner spot.

Player on the spot: Alexander. At some point, he has to come up big in a playoff game. He left the Washington game with a concussion and had 9 yards on six carries.

He has to do more.

Outlook: Alexander won’t run wild against the Panthers, but he and Hasselbeck will do just enough, putting Seattle in the big game for the first time.

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