They are, in a lot of ways, the same team.
What do the Broncos, Steelers, Seahawks and Panthers have in common?
• They're all in the top five of the NFL's run-defense rankings.
• Three of them are in the top five of the run-offense rankings and the only one that isn't, the Panthers, is the league's postseason rushing leader.
• The group's four quarterbacks are largely considered to be over-achievers, reclamation projects or caretakers, as this weekend's two conference championship games will be conducted without the presence of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick.
Are these four teams legit? Do they really belong in their respective conference's most important games?
You bet they do. These four teams belong. They are absolutely worthy of where they are. That's the most important thing they have in common.
The Broncos posted a 13-3 record this season playing a rigorous schedule. After a gloom-and-doom opening-day loss in Miami, the Broncos played the most consistent football in the league the rest of the way. They lost on the road to the Giants in a game the Broncos should have won. They lost in Kansas City to an explosive Chiefs team. Along the way, the Broncos won in Jacksonville, beat San Diego twice, beat the Chiefs once, beat the Redskins and, of course, thumped the Patriots in the regular season then ended the Pats' dynasty just last Saturday.
Here's something else the Broncos did: On the last weekend of the season, with nothing on the line, the Broncos played hard. While everyone else was tanking it, the Broncos came to play.
Their opponent this Sunday is Pittsburgh. What have the Steelers done? Well, after a Dec. 4 loss that appeared as though it would keep the Steelers out of the playoffs, Bill Cowher's team won four straight to squeeze in as the AFC's number six seed. Then, for all intents and purposes, they won back the AFC North title by winning in Cincinnati for the second time this season, and this past Sunday, of course, the Steelers scored one of the biggest upsets in playoff history by winning in Indianapolis.
The Steelers got to 11-5 and the AFC title game with an impressive road record and having been forced to play four games without Ben Roethlisberger. Oh, and when Roethlisberger returned to action following midseason knee surgery, he promptly broke the thumb on his throwing hand, forcing him to play in the cold and the snow while wearing a glove with a splint tucked inside.
Do the Steelers belong in the AFC title game? You bet they do. No team is more worthy.
Carolina belongs. You bet they do. The Panthers demolished the Giants in the wild-card round; stuck the ball down the Giants' throats and roughed up Tiki Barber and Eli Manning.
The Panthers are a power football team playing without their top two running backs, Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. For the second consecutive season, the Panthers are resting their running game on reserve Nick Goings, who wasn't even good enough to start at Pitt.
How do these Panthers do it? How have they risen so sharply to the top of the league with a quarterback the New Orleans Saints didn't want?
The Panthers do it, of course, with great defense. They have a megastar in Julius Peppers and an aggressive mindset that is the personality of their coach, John Fox. The Panthers are a high-character bunch who, for the third consecutive season, have played their best football late in the year.
What about the Seahawks? Do they belong? There is criticism of their strength of schedule, .430, which was, by far, the weakest in the league this season.
You could make the point that their schedule never really tested them and that the Seahawks' 13-3 record is proof of nothing more than their ability to beat bad teams. There is, however, another consideration: Shaun Alexander is the best running back in the game and no one has gained yards and scored touchdowns with the consistency he has in the last five seasons.
The Seahawks belong in Sunday's game because Alexander belongs. It's that simple.
All right, so who wins?
Well, I'm picking Denver and Seattle for two reasons: 1.) I really do believe in the value of homefield advantage. I will almost always pick the home team to win in the playoffs, even in a year in which the Steelers and Panthers are threatening to make this the first Super Bowl in history to pit two teams that each got there by winning three times on the road. 2.) Toward the end of the regular season – on one of the Jaguars' pregame radio shows – Brian, Jeff and I were asked to pick our Super Bowl teams and I selected Denver and Seattle. I don't like changing in midstream.
I like these teams. I like these games.