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AFC Championship Preview: Denver vs. Pittsburgh

Before last week, most people would have agreed that the team winning this game would be the prohibitive Super Bowl favorite. I think it's probably still a majority, but not by as large a margin.

Regardless of that opinion, either the Cinderella wild-card Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) or the AFC West champ Denver Broncos (14-3) are going to Detroit. In the 45 year existence of the AFC, the home team is 28-17 (.622) in the conference championship. Broken down by decade, 5-5 in the 1960s, 8-2 in the `70s, 7-3 in the `80s, 6-4 in the `90s, and 2-3 over the last five years. The New England Patriots won two of those three most recent road games.

So the recent trend over the last 15 years says it's a toss-up, which is fairly odd, considering those years contained the Patriots dynasty, the Broncos back-to-back Super Bowl titles (they were home in both conference games) and the Buffalo Bills four-year Super Bowl streak (they were home for championship games). That's 9 of the 15 games right there. Of course, Pittsburgh is 1-4 at home in that stretch (two losses to New England).

What impact does that have on today's game? Zero. Unless you want to count Denver's 6-0 home playoff record and 9-0 at home this year. Or Pittsburgh's 8-2 road record this season. Or Pittsburgh's horrible playoff record in general. Quote all the historic stats you want. They don't really matter. In the conference championships, they rarely do.

Before we look at the matchups, let's briefly look at how each team got through last week: Neither of them too impressively.

Denver was completely outplayed from whistle to whistle by New England. But, they took advantage of five Patriot turnovers and a couple gracious home-field calls to squeeze past the two-time defending Super Bowl champs, 27-13. Denver's problem last Saturday was no running game. Otherwise, Jake Plummer was efficient, not great, and the defense played very well.

Pittsburgh came out on top of The Game No One Wanted to Win. After jumping out to a 14-0 lead, Pittsburgh let Indianapolis, who abandoned a potent running attack almost immediately, hang around the whole game, not really doing much themselves, and then held off a late Indy onslaught, surviving only because Indianapolis was even more inept than Pittsburgh was themselves.

All-in-all, none of the four AFC contenders looked like champions last Saturday. Neither did either of the officiating crews. Fortunately, you won't see either of them for the rest of the playoffs, and hopefully you'll never again see Jeff Tripplette's crew work games except like San Francisco at Houston. And you probably won't see those.

The only way to analyze a game -- a conference championship for crying out loud -- is to assume both teams actually show up, and the team that plays better wins. It's hard to say if that will even be the case this year.

The oddsmakers say home field is worth 3 points. Denver is worth at least that. I'd say 4 or 5, more depending on the striped shirts. That's going to be tough enough for Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh to overcome. Roethlisberger has not performed well at home in the conference championship, never mind on the road. Plummer has the definite edge in experience.

Pittsburgh desperately needs to take a big early lead like last week, or Cinderella can forget about the ball. Even in the event that they do, this game will come down to which team abandons its game plan first. Whoever gives up running is in trouble. I don't expect either team to be able to run much, but one team will stick with it, and the other will force their own quarterback into bad decisions by making him make extra decisions, and probably under pressure.

Statistically, Pittsburgh has the edge on defense, ranked 3rd against the run and 16th against the pass, making them 4th overall. Denver is 2nd against the run and 29th against the pass, leaving them 15th overall. Denver is also 2nd running the ball and 18th throwing, putting them at No. 5 overall, while Pittsburgh is 5th running, 24th throwing and 15th(T) overall. Pretty even.

I think Plummer has finally learned, and he showed it last week, that he doesn't have to win the game with his arm, even though he has the ability. I think Roethlisberger has neither the ability, nor the understanding that he cannot, which is why Pittsburgh needs a lead. However, Pittsburgh is going to find Denver's defense a lot tougher than Indianapolis's.

Denver merely needs to remain patient and let the game come to them. Do exactly what they did last week. Work the clock and the crowd and wait for Pittsburgh to make mistakes. Denver will find Pittsburgh's defense not as tough as New England's because the stats lie. Remember that New England hardly even had a defense for the first half of the season. New England was No. 1 against the run over the last 6 or 7 games of the season, which also made their pass defense much better.

The two coaches are classics, except that one has won it all twice, and the other has choked more often than not. And it's not been a matter of simple choking. Bill Cowher has been out-coached, mostly by Bill Belichick, and Mike Shanahan will have the edge here, too.

Barring trick plays, which I think both teams will have in their arsenal, whether they decide to pull the trigger, bad calls, turnovers, and significant kick and punt returns, all of which are more luck than anything, it will come down to play in the trenches and the running games. Give the edge to Tatum Bell and Mike Anderson over Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis.

Game time is Sunday, 3 p.m. on CBS (Channel 4).

Prediction: Broncos, 24-13.