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Friday, January 20, 2006 

Quick Slants - Conference Championship games

This weekend fetures a pair of great coaching matchups. All four head coaches have coached in a Super Bowl, and the two home team coaches (Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren) have both won the big game.

A lot has been made of the fact that both road teams are wild card teams who have already won two games on the road during the playoffs. Since the current playoff format was instituted in 1990, conference championship games have been won by the visitors 43 percent of the time. But only five wild card teams have advanced to the Super Bowl - and all five were fourth seeds that hosted their first road playoff game:

1992 Buffalo 29-10 at Miami
1997 Denver* 24-21 at Pittsburgh
1999 Tennessee 33-14 at Jacksonville
2000 Baltimore* 16-3 at Oakland
2003 Carolina 14-3 at Philadelphia
* - Won Super Bowl

However, the Steelers and Panthers are not your ordinary wild cards, since they both tied for first place in their respective divisions.

Pittsburgh at Denver, 3pm ET CBS

I'm fascinated by the psychology in this game. Will Pittsburgh have a letdown after an emotional win against Indy? Will Denver be over-confident after New England practically handed them a win last weekend? Or will they simply be rested? The Broncos and Steelers were ranked second and third against the run this season, while Pittsburgh was a bit better against the pass. One revealing stat is that the Broncos outgained the Steelers by nearly 40 yards per game (360.4 to 321.8) yet the two teams averaged nearly the same number of points (24.7 Denver, 24.3 Pittsburgh).

The implications are obvious. Denver has a more diverse offense with the potential for big plays. Pittsburgh reminds me of the 2001 Patriots - young QB, efficient passing game and a steady, but not spectacular running game, plus a play-making secondary and defense. They are also on a late-season roll, winning 6 in a row after a 7-5 start. The Steelers were also 15-1 last season, before losing to the Patriots in the AFC title game.

But in spite of all of that, I have to pick the Broncos, since I think they are the best overall team still standing at this point.

Carolina at Seattle, 6:30pm ET FOX

If the Panthers win this game, you can start clearing space in Canton for John Fox. Well, maybe that is a bit of an overstatement, but with his two top RBs out for the year, the onus is clearly on Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith to power the offense. Smith has had double-digits in catches each of the last two weeks, and his 12 catch, 218 yard performance against the Bears was stunning because it came so easy.

The Seahawks expect Shaun Alexander to play, so their running game should be in high gear. But I'm still suspicious of Matt Hasselbeck and his receiving corps. They played well against the Redskins, but Washington was over-rated.

If DeShaun Foster was healthy, this would be an easy pick. But I must confess I'm a Jake Delhomme fan, and I think he'll be back in the Super Bowl for the second time in 3 years.

Too bad it can't be a rematch...

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