Good-looking games

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They are interesting matchups, each with its own storyline and sidebar.

In Indianapolis, the big story is clearly Peyton Manning's quest to become a Super Bowl winner. This is his best chance to prove he can win the big one. All he has to do is win two in a row at home and one more in another dome and he will silent all of his can't-win-the-big-one critics.

Manning will begin his quest against the Steelers and, therein, rests a separate story of significant intrigue. Remember the Monday night game between the two teams on Nov. 28? Remember the controversy it produced about piped-in crowd noise? Well, the Colts are doing everything they can this week to make sure the RCA Dome is at its absolute loudest for the Steelers. The Colts have sent letters to all of their season-ticket holders, begging them not to sell their tickets to Steelers fans.

Steelers fans were similarly blocked from making the trip to Cincinnati last week. Ticket brokering, however, is legal in Indiana and Steelers fans are driving the value of a ticket to this Sunday's playoff game through the roof.

The other AFC playoff game, New England at Denver, is an even more interesting study because it involves a Patriots team that is attempting to achieve immortality. No team in NFL history has ever won three Super Bowls in a row. The Patriots are now three wins away from accomplishing that feat.

Just as Pittsburgh lost in Indianapolis earlier in the season, New England lost at Denver. Yeah, these are re-matches and they are spicy.

There's no loss of intrigue in the NFC, either. Washington beat Seattle in overtime in Washington earlier in the season. This time, the two will face-off in Seattle.

Is Seattle as good as its 13-3 record? That's the storyline question in this game. The Seahawks' .430 strength of schedule was the weakest in the league this season and the Seahawks' .404 strength of victory isn't anything to write home about, either, especially considering their SOV was bolstered significantly by a win over the Colts in a week 16 tank job by the Colts.

Consider the Redskins' .539 strength of schedule and .500 strength of victory. The Redskins may have sneaked into the playoffs on the final Sunday of the season but they are a hot team and they are being given a legitimate chance of beating the top-seeded Seahawks.

Then there's Carolina at Chicago. They played earlier in the season and Chicago darn near shut out the Panthers. How good is either one of these teams? They have been up and down and neither one played much of a schedule.

What's intriguing about this matchup is that it will put the league's second (Chicago) and third-ranked (Carolina) defenses on the same field. This will be an old-fashioned rock 'em, sock 'em slugfest on the shores of Lake Michigan. Run the ball, stop the run, rush the passer; if you like that kind of football, this is your game.

All right, time to pick. I'm going with the Colts and Broncos in the AFC. The Steelers defense is overrated and should be no match for Manning and company. Jake Plummer should be no match for Tom Brady but the Broncos have the kind of running game that wins in the playoffs. The Broncos may have been the most consistent team in the league this year. They played hard right to the end; they didn't tank it in San Diego in week 17 and the Broncos are on a roll.

In the NFC, the combination of Shaun Alexander and a rabid home environment will be too much for the Redskins' stodgy offense to overcome. The Panthers are my pick in Chicago, largely because the Panthers have a hot running game and a playoff-tested quarterback to go with their defense.

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