2006-02-03 / Sports

Steelers- Seahawks Matchup Brings Plenty of Storylines

By Michael Avallone Sports Columnist

By Michael Avallone
Sports Columnist

It doesn’t have the appeal of a Colts-Bears or Patriots-Eagles matchup, but Super Bowl XL has enough story lines to make Detroit the center of the sport’s world on Feb. 5.

From the Pittsburgh Steelers search for their fifth Super Bowl victory – and first in 26 years – to the Seattle Seahawks inaugural visit to the big game after 31 long and often tortuous seasons, this year’s Super Bowl should provide enough entertainment to those who had hoped for a more high-profile matchup.

After being underdogs against Indianapolis and Denver in their last two playoff games, the Steelers are four-point favorites to beat Seattle.

That means that Pittsburgh can no longer use the us-against-the-world routine that has carried them through seven consecutive victories, all but two away from home. They can no longer say that they’re flying under the radar and are being overlooked even as they take down one higher-seeded team after another.

No wonder linebacker Joey Porter, the emotional and very confident leader of Pittsburgh’s defense, was practically begging odds makers to make the NFC champion the favorite following the Steelers’ 34-17 AFC Championship game victory over Denver on Sunday.

“Nobody’s been pickin’ us, don’t jump on the bandwagon now…so pick them (the Seahawks) so we can keep our edge,” Porter said.

If nothing else, the Steelers’ remarkable playoff run also has quieted talk that they didn’t have enough quality receivers to give Ben Roethlisberger much help when opposing defenses stack the line of scrimmage to shut down the run – as the Colts and Broncos did the last two weeks.

A four-time Pro Bowl selection, Hines Ward’s credentials can’t be disputed, but there were considerable doubts when the playoffs started about whether No. 2 receiver Antwaan Randle El (no touchdown catches since the first game of the season) and No. 3 receiver Cedrick Wilson (no TD catches all season) could be reliable and productive.

But with Roethlisberger coming out throwing in each of the last two games, the duo combined for 12 receptions, 174 yards and two touchdowns.

It’s not only the breakout performance of Roethlisberger, but a defense that has allowed 17, 18 and 17 points respectively against the high-scoring Bengals, Colts and Broncos that has gotten the Steelers to only their second Super Bowl in 26 years.

As for the Seahawks, they eliminated two huge monkeys off their backs so far. Their Divisional Playoff win over the Washington Redskins – although not pretty – was the franchise’s first postseason victory since 1984. Seattle then followed that up with a convincing win over the Carolina Panthers to earn their first-ever trip to the Super Bowl.

Perhaps that is why – despite an NFC-best 13-3 regular season record, the Seahawks are currently 3 1/2-point underdogs against the AFC’s sixth-seeded Steelers.

The apparent slight isn’t unique. Last season, NFC top seed Philadelphia was a 7-point underdog to AFC second seed New England, but the Pats had recent history on their side. At the end of the 2000 season, the top-seeded New York Giants of the NFC were a 3-point underdog against fourth-seeded Baltimore.

After 1988, Cincinnati was the AFC top seed but was a 7-point underdog to NFC second seed San Francisco. And after 1982, top-seeded Washington was a 3-point ‘dog to second-seeded Miami.

Those ‘82 Redskins were the only top-seeded underdog to win.

Yet every postseason, players rush to claim the underdog, under-appreciated status as if it was the Lombardi Trophy. This season, the Seahawks haven’t had to seize the low ground. The nation has brought it to them.

Of course, there’s that little belief that the NFC is weaker than the tougher AFC.

That also spawns this notion: the NFC West was easily the worst division in football. Take away the Seahawks 13-3 mark and the rest of the division – St. Louis, San Francisco and Arizona – combined to go 15-33 – undisputedly giving Seattle their first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

The Seahawks have heard all this before – from their own coach, Mike Holmgren.

“Mike said from the very beginning, that we are always going to be the ‘other’ team,” NFL MVP Shaun Alexander said. “We win 11 games in a row. And they say it is our fault that the other teams weren’t as good.”

Seattle needed this season to get over the hump. Holmgren was 0-3 in the postseason with the Seahawks before his team broke through two weeks ago. Before that, the Seahawks defined mediocrity by finishing within one game of .500 in eight of the previous 10 years.

Seattle had zero winning seasons from 1991-98. Before that, the lone playoff win was back in 1984. Before that, the Seahawks were never better than 9-7 in the regular season, with five losing seasons in their first eight years in the league.

The fans of the Pacific Northwest have waited a long time for their beloved Seahawks to reach the big game, a 3 1/2-point disadvantage won’t temper that excitement, no matter what history says.

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