by Patrick Stanton
JetNation Senior Columnist
Carolina Panthers @ Seattle Seahawks
Before I get serious about this NFC Title match up, I have to ask: Is Jake Delhommeâ€™s high school act getting old for anyone else besides me? Yes, I know Delhomme is a good QB, I know heâ€™s done well leading his team, and Iâ€™m not knocking that. What I am knocking is his constant â€˜we just won the state championshipâ€™ reaction after every play. Jake, youâ€™re a NFL QB. Congratulations Jake, now shut the hell up and go back to the huddle.
Well, thatâ€™s better. Now that I have that off my chest itâ€™s time to get back to football. Iâ€™m not going to lie, this game has me all mixed up inside while trying to decide who is going to win it. Carolina is riding a hot defense right now and the Delhomme to Steve Smith connection has never been better. Meanwhile the Seahawks, who are no stranger to a strong defense either, have a QB with playoff experience of his own and, oh by the way, the NFL MVP in their backfield
The case for Carolina:
If Carolina is going to win this game, itâ€™s because their defense continued to build upon the success theyâ€™ve enjoyed against the Giants and Bears. Carolina needs itâ€™s A+ game from their defense if theyâ€™re going to have a chance at stopping the 2 headed offensive monster of Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander. They did a great job at shutting down Tiki Barber, managed Thomas Jones effectively and canâ€™t accept anything less against Alexander. With Julius Peppers banged up and the Panthers offense without Davis or Foster, the defense, and the defense only, will be the deciding factor between a trip to Detroit (lucky them) or a trip to the first tee for their Monday morning tee time. Look for John Fox and company to â€˜bring the noiseâ€™ against Seattle, with frequent blitzes in an attempt to disrupt Hasselbeckâ€™s rhythm. On offense, while Nick Goings is a capable backup, losing Foster hurt whether theyâ€™ll admit it or not. With the loss of Foster came a loss of speed and in essence, big play ability from the running game. While Goings isnâ€™t going to lie down and die, this offense is in the hands of Delhomme and Smith come Sunday. If the Seahawks canâ€™t shut Smith down, Delhomme will make them pay and take some of the pressure off of Goings and the running game.
The case for Seattle:
Hasselbeck and Alexander. Case Closed! Well it isnâ€™t that easy but considering what the Seahawks did to Washington last week with Alexander on the bench no less, the thought of these two together is enough to give any defensive coordinator headaches. Hasselbeck has been the guy behind the scenes really, with Alexander getting all the credit and coverage, not a lot of people have given Hasselbeck credit for leading this offense to an outstanding regular season. While Tom Brady was demanding respect, Matt Hasselbeck was winning games. With Alexander out last week, Hasselbeck stepped in, put the game on his shoulders and took control. Entering Sundayâ€™s game, Hasselbeck needs to be prepared to be the man again as Alexander has a habit of disappearing in playoff games. On Defense, Seattleâ€™s job got a little easier with DeShaun Foster going out but not by much. Goings isnâ€™t that bad and Delhomme can easily take this game over if the Seahawks donâ€™t get pressure on him and take him off his game. I think if the Seahawks stop Steve Smith, they stop the Panthers.
I like both teams here and commend them for their respective successful seasons. Two solid teams with likable players and coaches makes for what should be an excellent NFC Title game. Unfortunately I canâ€™t pick a tie so I guess I had better stop beating around the bush. I like Seattleâ€™s chances here and pick them to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. In the end, I think Seattle will just be too much for the Panthers.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos
Brother, can you spare an extra tank of oxygen? Thereâ€™s home field advantage and then thereâ€™s Mile High Stadium, where if the lack of oxygen alone doesnâ€™t get you, the weather and noise will. Teams have to hate coming into this place (ask the 98 Jets) and I expect itâ€™s no different for the Steelers. A mere month ago, if you had told anyone, myself included, that the Steelers would be in Denver for the AFC Title game you wouldnâ€™t have been taken seriously but after seeing them dominate Indy last week, only a fool would take them lightly.
The case for the Steelers
Last weekâ€™s performance against the Colts has to have the Broncos a little concerned. While Plummer has had an excellent season, in the end heâ€™s still Jake Plummer, a man who if placed too close to an ignition source could explode at a momentâ€™s notice. Last week, the Steelers blitzed and caused havoc in the offensive backfield like nothing Iâ€™ve seen in a long time and with Plummer back there Sunday, I fully expect more of the same. Plummer may very well have to pull his â€˜snakenessâ€™ out of retirement if he wants time to find an open receiver before getting blindsided. The Steelers do an excellent job of masking their blitzes and as good as the Broncos OL is, Iâ€™m not sure theyâ€™ll handle the repeated attacks. On offense, the Steelers hope to establish their running game behind the speed of Willie Parker and the power of Jerome Bettis and keep the Broncos offense off the field as long as possible. Big Ben has been doing well with Ward through the air and last weekâ€™s emergence of Miller from the TE position can only help spread the wealth and take some of the pressure off the Roethlisberger to Ward tandem.
The case for the Broncos
Zone blocking, beasts up front and one Mike Anderson. The Steelers are going to be returning a lot of salutes this week if they donâ€™t find a way to stop the Broncos running game and solving Denverâ€™s zone blocking schemes should prove to be tough. What can you say about Jake Plummer this year other then heâ€™s been surprisingly solid and has really overcame his knack for single-handedly derailing games. With sound decision making and relatively mistake free football, Plummer has the Broncos one game away from an all expense paid trip to beautiful Detroit, Michigan, where carjacking is a national pastime. After watching Pittsburgh shut down the running game in Indy, itâ€™s safe to say that Shanahan and staff are making sure that the same fate doesnâ€™t await them. The Broncos need to have a strong offense to keep the â€˜blitzburgâ€™ defense off balance if theyâ€™re going to have a chance. While Indyâ€™s line is good, Denverâ€™s offensive line is better and I donâ€™t see them giving the Steelers the luxury of harassing Plummer on every play. If they can defeat the blitz, they will find open receivers and should easily begin to burn the Steelers repeatedly.
There are so many reasons why Denver should win this game: Home field advantage, a great running game, a steady passing game, and an extremely solid run defense. Then again I thought the same thing about the Colts last week and the Steelers absolutely shut them down. The thought of a #6 seed defeating a #1 and #2 seed on the road in consecutive weeks is crazy, but no one ever said I was normal. I think the Steelers, through ridiculous defense and just enough offense, knock off the Broncos and head to Detroit as the AFC Champions.