Saturday, January 21, 2006

AFC Report/ Championship Preview
By Ben Valentine

At least I wasn’t the only one.

That’s about the best way I can sum up being completely wrong about the projected AFC Championship game between the Colts and the Patriots. It had all the makings of the football game of the century, being bigger than even this year’s Super Bowl. Except… it didn’t happen.

The Steelers made sure of that when they came out flying against the Colts defense, something I said they’d have to do if they wanted to win. (I have to salvage some credibility here, right?) Though the NFL officiating tried their best to undo that and Jerome Bettis might have set a Guinness World Record for longest breath held on the sidelines, the Steelers persevered behind Ben Roethlisberger and that defense. Oh and the fact Mike Vanderjagt and Peyton Manning crack under pressure about as easily as a porcelain vase falling from a high shelf certainly didn’t do the Colts any favors.

Meanwhile the Patriots did their best to hand the Broncos the game. Despite putting up some gaudy offensive numbers, namely 341 yards passing, the Pats also turned it over five times. Apparently, Tom Brady is human, as all of us who don’t reside in New England always suspected but could not say or prove. The Broncos offense wasn’t spectacular, having only two scoring drives longer than 40 yards. The difference were Patriot turnovers, including a huge one inside the Bronco 10 which instead of resulting in Patriots points, ended up a Broncos TD.

As one might suspect from reading these two last paragraphs, I’m a believer the Steelers won their game against the Colts whereas the Patriots handed the game to Denver. So with that in mind, let’s break down the game which will decide who will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XL.

Steelers Offense vs. Denver Defense
As those of you who read my AFC reports on a consistent basis know, I have little respect for Denver’s defense. Their front four is mediocre at best outside of Trevor Pryce, and while their linebacking core is solid, their secondary is nothing to write home about. (What Nick Ferguson doesn’t strike fear into opposing receivers?). Meanwhile though perception says otherwise, the Steelers offense is very much reliant on their QB, Ben Roethlisberger. Unlike last year, when he was purely a game manager, Big Ben has stepped up and become THE component on that offense. When he plays the Steelers are a better team; it’s as simple as that. Sure 14/24 for 197 yards and 2 TDs aren’t eye popping, but the Steelers didn’t ask Roethlisberger to throw much in second half as they were content to play ball control. (The Steelers only threw it four times in that half). This week, if they come out flying early, expect him to torch a weak Denver secondary. I have less faith in the Steelers run game which tends to be hit or miss. I’m not a believer in the Bus. While it’s nice his career didn’t end on such a down note, he’s at best the third best running back on the team and probably worse than Duce Staley, who barely sees the field these days. That’s loyalty for ya. It’s nice to see, but don’t expect me to see Bettis for anymore than what he is, a vet who’s hung on too long.

Denver offense vs. Steelers Defense
The Steelers defense has long been considered one of the better eleven in the NFL, featuring safety Troy Polamalu, who has replaced Ed Reed as the most feared player at that position in the game. This week they meet the most consistent run attack in the NFL. However, against a solid New England defense last week, the Broncos could muster just 286 yards of total offense and just 96 on the ground. Not overly impressive numbers against a Patriots D that was healthy than it had been but still beat up. That being said, the offense didn’t have to be great; the Pats gave them the ball in great field position frequently. Not only that, but the Broncos played from ahead, which the place in a game where Jake Plummer doesn’t have to win you a game. This week, I suspect the Steelers will have greater success earlier against the Broncos defense than the Pats did, and thus will force Plummer into making plays. Unfortunately for Denver, when Jake has to make plays, he often makes picks. This week I suspect the turnover battle will favor the Steelers.

Special Teams
Both have solid units, at least in the kicking game. Jeff Reed plays at one of the toughest places in the league to kick field goals and Jason Elam in one of the easiest. Since the game is in Denver, it’s hard for me to give an advantage to Reed since Elam is a damn good kicker at Investco field. Antwaan Randle El has the big name in punt returns but hasn’t lived up to the hype this season. In the end, I do not expect this game to come down to special teams. Or to rephrase, I don’t feel either of these units will cost their team the game. It wouldn’t surprise me if a late field goal was the difference, but that in itself doesn’t indicate one special teams unit being leaps and bounds better than the other.

Coaching
I go back and forth with how much coaching means. Ultimately, it is what the players do on the field that make the difference. Bill Belichick might be the best coach in the league, but he can’t overcome Troy Brown fumbling punts or Tom Brady throwing picks. Just like Bill Cowher’s worth today should be the same regardless of whether or not Jerome Bettis fumbled a chance to put the game away last week. Had the Steelers lost, I would not have thought any less of Cowher as a coach just because a fluky play happened. This is all a round about way of saying I don’t see all that much difference between these two coaches at this point; they both have things they do well and things they struggle with. But if you ask me who the two most important people on either side of the football will be next week, I’m going to tell you it’s Roethlisberger and Plummer, not Mike Shanahan and Cowher.

Prediction
So, with that outline you can probably guess I like the Steelers in this one. To sum up, I trust Roethlisberger a lot more than I do Plummer along with the fact I think Pittsburgh’s defense is better than Denver’s, thus making Big Ben’s job easier than Jake’s. Does this mean I’d be shocked if Denver won? Certainly not, even though I think Pittsburgh the better team. It’s one game folks, and in one game anything can happen. If the Houston Texans were playing in this game somehow, anyway you’d look at it, they’d have a chance at a Super Bowl.

My pick: Steelers 27, Broncos 20

And for kicks, though I didn’t write a preview: Seahawks 30, Panthers 24.

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