NFL conference champions?

point counterpoint

Make the t-shirts, set the headlines, and get those banners ready for the rafters. In just over two weeks’ time, you will see the Denver Broncos take on the Seattle Seahawks in Superbowl XL, and here’s why.

Let’s begin with the Seahawks, who host the Carolina Panthers at Qwest field. The Panthers have the experience, but the Seahawks are the better team, they’re playing in their own house, they’re healthier, and they’re riding the high of breaking a 20-year playoff drought last weekend against the Redskins.

This battle, like the AFC game, will be determined on the ground. Seattle running back Shaun Alexander is the NFL’s MVP and rushing champion.

On the other hand, Carolina lost starter Stephen Davis and then relied heavily on DeShaun Foster in the last few games. After Foster broke his leg against the Bears last week, the Panthers were forced to turn to third-stringer Nick Goings, who was impressive last year, but is still a third-stringer lining up against the NFL’s best player.

The Panthers would seem to have the answer to Alexander, boasting the fourth-best run defence in the league at 91.6 yards per game. But the Seahawks are 28-5 when they rush for 100 yards, and Alexander shredded Carolina for 195 yards in the two teams’ only meeting this season. Look for him to do it again.

Steve Smith is Carolina’s one big threat on offence, but he will be carefully watched after putting up 218 yards against the potent Bears’ defence last week. With Foster down, I cannot believe that Seattle’s pass defence won’t find a way to double him up all game and make quarterback Jake Delhomme prove he can throw elsewhere.

The injury bug has bitten more felines than just Foster. Star defensive end Julius Peppers and his 10.5 sacks are listed as questionable with an injured shoulder which has kept him out of practice.

Looking to the other semifinal, Denver safety John Lynch predicted that Sunday’s game against the Steelers is “going to be physical, probably the most physical game we play all year.”

While the Steelers are renowned for their toughness, it’s the Broncos who will lower their collective shoulder and plow to the big show. Denver has the best offensive line in football, two backs to counter Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, and a new, mistake-free Jake Plummer, who has the highest playoff completion percentage among active quarterbacks. Finally, the Steelers’ one-dimensional offence simply can’t put up the necessary points against a Denver defence that has allowed just 10 points per game in their last five.

They’re 11-0 at Invesco Field, and about to make it 12.

--James Bradshaw

In the NFC, the Panthers will go into Seattle and leave with a win.

Carolina is now 4-0 on the road in the postseason under coach John Fox, and last week, their offence shredded the Chicago Bears’ vaunted defence. Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith racked up 218 yards receiving, the fourth-highest total in NFL postseason history.

James points out that DeShaun Foster is out and the Panthers are starting third-stringer Nick Goings. Unfortunately for James and Seahawks fans alike, Goings had five 100-yard games in the second half of last season. That’s more than Foster and Stephen Davis combined to produce in the past two years.

As for quarterbacks, the Panthers’ Jake Delhomme is a playoff monster. With 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and a rating of 108.4 in the playoffs, he’ll air it out to the fantastic Smith. But if the Seahawks put a safety over the top of Smith and jump that route with the corner, they open up the field for the rest of the offence.

The Panthers’ defence is also one of the stingiest in the league and should be able to contain overrated league MVP Shaun Alexander, who is ludicrously good against bad teams, and unbelievably average against good ones.

As far as the AFC is concerned, the Steelers will come out on top. The Broncos didn’t win the last game so much as the Patriots lost it.

Tom Brady didn’t look anything like, well, Tom Brady, Faulk’s fumble was atrocious and if the officials didn’t miss the touchback when Pats tight end Ben Watson leveled Broncos defensive back Champ Bailey—the top play of the year that no one will remember—the Steelers play the Pats on Sunday.

Conversely, if the officials hadn’t robbed the Steelers of an acrobatic Troy Polamalu interception upon further review (which the NFL admitted was erroneous), the Colts never get the ball back and the sheer ridiculousness at the end of the Steelers-Colts game never happens.

The Steelers have a more talented running tandem than the Broncos in Bettis and Parker, the better pivot in Roethlisberger, and the best receiver in Hines Ward. And don’t forget their defence, anchored by Polamalu, who combines unrivalled big-play ability with the best hair in the league.

The Steelers will score first, forcing Broncos coach Mike Shanahan to put the game in the hands of quarterback Jake Plummer, who is as consistent as the driver’s licenses inside Smijies on a Saturday night.

Simply, the top-seeded Seahawks and Broncos both stumbled into the conference finals as the underdog Panthers and Steelers won decisively, and momentum will carry the lower-seeded pair into the Super Bowl.

--Mike Thornburn

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