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Conference Championships
PIT at DEN - 3:00 PM EST - CB
CAR at SEA - 6:30 PM EST - AD

AFC - Pittsburgh at Denver (-3) 3:00 p.m. CBS
Oh my gosh what a riveting matchup!!!!! Much, much better than the Brady vs Manning would have been. No sarcasm I swear. I for one will be playing golf on Sunday. I will be very happy not to watch either of these games because neither intrigues me. However I will be happy to give you my thoughts on who should take home the gold and make the greatest Bowl of all.

The Steelers were almost robbed. Even though I would have liked to see Manning and Dungy make it to the big one, however I didn’t like the call. It was clearly an interception and a fumble and the ref blew it, almost costing the Steelers the game. If Vanderchoke had made that field goal I think the Steelers end up losing that game, leaving us with much more to talk about this week. But the best team on Sunday won. Nine times out of ten the Colts would win it. Maybe Dungy will think next time about resting his starters. They didn’t get going until close to the end of third quarter; rusty to say the least.

I still have a problem with the Steelers and the way they run the ball. Case in point: Big Ben caught the Colts off guard by throwing for 76 yards of the first 84-yard drive. After that he only threw for 110 yards for the rest of the game and only completed about 7 more passes. The point is, Ben can catch some people off guard by switching it to his arm but the Steelers were built on defense. The key is to run the ball and keep the other offense off the field then leave it to the defense to salt it away. They have not been running the ball effectively lately and I have a solution. The Bus only has one or two games left. He is a motivated sort. Give him the bulk of the carries and roll the dice. It is not time to get cute. Without a running game they will have no chance unless Denver gives them the game, which brings me to my next team.

Better be lucky than good sometimes. No, I am just kidding. Any team that gets this far certainly deserves it. However, I do offer this little nugget. The Broncos did not force Tom Brady to miss two wide-open receivers for TDs. The Broncos did not force Troy Brown to muff a punt. The Broncos did not block the field goal; Vinatieri missed it. The point being, the Pats did as much to beat themselves as the Broncos did to beat them. This was not Brady’s finest hour. Give Denver credit, they won the game and that is the most important thing.

I still say the key to this game will be who runs the ball the best. Both team have great defenses that will dominate however someone must be able to run effectively to win it. Passing is not going to get it done, however if it comes down to the air, the Broncos have the edge in QB and WR. But they lose the edge, as their defense is more suspect to the pass than the Steelers are. Giving up 341 yards to Brady can’t sit well coming into this one.

Bottom line is that I think the Broncos will win because they are at home and Mike S. will game plan better than Cowher. Cowher works strictly from emotion and that only goes so far. They will find a way to run the ball with a little flare. Look for Bell to get some more carries and Rod Smith will have a big day. If there are no mistakes or the teams are even on turnovers then you have to give it the Broncos. The only way the Steelers win is if Plummer reverts back to circa 2000 form. By the way I am not as convinced as some of the “experts” that the winner from this game will beat any team in the NFC. Whichever, Seattle (my choice) or Carolina gets there, both have better offenses than either team in the AFC. Both teams in the NFC have good defenses as well. So don’t think for a minute that an AFC victory is a given.

Final Score: Broncos 24, Steelers 17

NFC - Carolina (+4) at Seattle 6:30 p.m. FOX
I have been taking some heat from readers for being 0-2 last week, for going with the defending Super Bowl champs over the Broncos, and for ignoring Carolina’s date with destiny.

This Sunday, when the 13-5 Panthers take on the 14-3 Seahawks, I’ll probably already have several e-mails from enlightened readers questioning my every statement. But alas, as it is unwise to cast stones from glass houses, it is also unwise to make NFL weekly prognostication and submit them to a wide audience.

Something’s not right with me, and isn’t right with the bunch of us, since most online NFL soothsayers have piled up horrendous records this season. On the season, Cliff and I were 63% straight up and 56% against the spread. Next year, we’ll be shooting for better, and it is widely considered that anything above 60% against the spread is professional handicapper quality. So watch out, Hank Goldberg, and with that said, let’s move on to the game.

Carolina head coach John Fox must have learned a lot under Jim Fassel about getting the most out of his players. As with a couple of those Giants teams, the Panthers are playing great football with limited resources and tightening up the defense in the playoffs. Fox is 5-1 in his playoff career and has prepared his teams for each game as if it was the Super Bowl.

So far this postseason, Steve Smith has set himself apart as the star of the Panther show, a title his teammates are just fine with him assuming. Last week, Smith lit up the Bears with 12 receptions (one shy of tying an NFL playoff record) for 218 yards (fourth all-time) and two touchdowns. The Panthers registered a 29-21 victory, setting the tone early with Smith hauling in a 58-yard TD catch on the second play from scrimmage. With Bears DB Charles Tillman properly dispatched, Smith now turns his attention to burning Seattle CB Marcus Trufant, a talented third year man out of Washington State that fought some back problems before the win over the Redskins.

With RB DeShaun Foster out with a broken ankle, the Carolina offense should be decidedly one-dimensional, but with any luck, even that won’t stop Smith. He’ll probably rack up at least seven or eight catches for 150 yards and at least one score.

The Seahawks offensive answer to Smith is Darrell Jackson, who emerged versus Washington as the Seahawks’ savior. While QB Matt Hasselbeck passed for a touchdown and ran for another score, Jackson set a club postseason record with 143 receiving yards in the 20-10 victory over the Redskins, notching their first playoff win since December 1984. Jackson had nine catches, including a 29-yard touchdown, and the Seahawks were able to win despite playing most of the way without Shaun Alexander, the NFL’s MVP, who went down in the first quarter with a concussion. How Alexander will react this week is anybody’s guess, but reports are that the sturdy back has been feeling much better this week. He passed all the requisite tests and is on pace to be ready by Sunday. I know Mike Holmgren will keep a close eye on Alexander, but the man really needs his star in the lineup, on the field and carrying the bulk of the load against the Panthers this weekend. The Seahawks rely heavily on Alexander to set up their passing game, and Hasselbeck would likely look lost without him. Since he looks like he’ll be okay, I can see deep threat Joe Jurevicius getting open downfield and the Seahawks keeping up with whatever points the Panthers can muster with Smith under scrutiny and Foster out of the lineup.

Final Score: Seahawks 27, Panthers 20