The NFC matchup has the preseason selection of a number of pundits, Carolina, against the team a lot of them expected to see here last year, Seattle.
Despite preseason predictions, Carolina (13-5) was not the dominant team expected and squeezed into the playoffs. Another Cinderella, Carolina, like Pittsburgh, has won two road games to get here. Either could be the first since the 1985 New England Patriots to win three road games on their way to the Super Bowl. Seattle (14-3) is living up to last year's expectations and has had home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The NFC has been around a lot longer, previously known simply as the NFL, than the AFC. But, going back the same amount of time as we did in the AFC preview (45 years), the home team in the NFC Championship game is 30-15 (.667), two games better than the AFC. By decade, that's 7-3 in the `60s, 5-5 in the `70s, 9-1 in the `80s, 6-4 in the `90s, and 3-2 since 2000. Of course, Philadelphia is responsible for both of those 2 recent losses. It's difficult to analyze the NFC because they had few dominant teams that were the best in the game for long stretches. Games like today's are an anomaly. Carolina reached this point two years ago. Seattle hasn't been here in a really old dog's age.
Still, two-thirds is a might impressive statistic, but that's far from a guarantee, too.
Of course, the big news here is that Carolina is without DeShaun Foster and Stephen Davis (Davis has been on injured reserve for most of the season), leaving Nick Goings as the backfield option. He has performed very well in the past, but none of those games were as big as this or against opponents as tough as these (Last year he faced St. Louis, New Orleans twice, Tampa Bay twice and Arizona.).
The other story is the emergence of Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, who can solidify his place among the NFL elite with a big game today. That task should be made more difficult by a potential lack of a running game.
For the last two weeks, Smith has been smiled upon by the football gods, making fools last week of a pretender Chicago team (Just like they were when Dick Jauron won coach of the year a few years ago. Remember that? Same thing.). Smith had 218 of Jake Delhomme's 319 passing yards and 2 of Delhomme's 3 touchdowns. Where was Chicago's incredible defense? Probably thinking they were playing Detroit or Green Bay. Meanwhile, Carolina's legitimate defense shut down a Chicago offense that did nothing all year.
On the other side, Seattle beat up on Washington, which only made it to the divisional game because they played Tampa Bay in the Wild Card, and Seattle did it without the services of league Most Valuable Player Shaun Alexander, who left the game very early with a concussion. He is expected to be 100 percent today. Seattle also overcame three fumbles, like Alexander simply dropping the ball at the Washington 10 yard line. I wouldn't count on a recurrence.
Seattle's defense isn't great, particularly against the pass. So the question is: Can Delhomme simply huck the ball down the field and can Smith catch enough deep balls to constantly give Carolina a short field. Here's a corollary question: Will the refs keep the rags in their pockets, or are they going to throw at every minute amount of contact?
If Seattle can frustrate Smith, even for a while early on, he might falter, especially since he's had run of the field for two weeks. I don't think stopping Goings will be a monumental task. Seattle is ranked No. 5 against the run.
Meanwhile, Carolina must stop Alexander cold. If not, Hasselbeck will pick his spots and make them pay. Carolina has the No. 4 ranked run defense. It falls on their shoulders. Carolina is also 9th against the pass and 5th overall. It won't matter if Alexander has 80 yards or more, especially if Mack Strong contributes.
Hasselbeck gets the experience nod over Delhomme, despite Delhomme's record in the playoffs. I don't see experience specifically in the playoffs as relevant here. Hasselbeck has played with poise and has been Tom Brady-like in his efficiency. He doesn't depend on the blind huck downfield. He's had his best season with 65.5 percent completions, only 9 interceptions, and a 98.2 passer rating -- all career bests for full seasons. Delhomme absolutely counts on hitting a few deep balls.
Seattle is ranked a deceiving 25th against the pass, leaving them 16th overall. Unlike Chicago, Seattle had to defend against high-yardage passing teams like St. Louis, Arizona, the New York Giants, Tennessee and Indianapolis. Do you know how many of those games they lost? None. Of Seattle's three losses, two were in the first four weeks: Week 1 against Jacksonville and Week 4 against Washington (20-17), and we know how much that Washington game means now. Seattle's only other loss this season was a fluke 23-17 loss at the Frozen Tundra. Then again, Seattle didn't have the toughest schedule ever.
The last time either coach coached the Super Bowl was against New England. Carolina coach Jon Fox, like Delhomme, is 5-1 in the playoffs, their only loss coming to New England two years ago in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Seattle's Mike Holmgren is 10-8 in the playoffs, 1-3 with Seattle. That sounds bad, except that everyone gave Washington's Joe Gibbs the edge last week. Gibbs had been 17-5 with the third most playoffs wins and the third best winning percentage. Holmgren has also won a Super Bowl with Green Bay, beating New England in Super Bowl XXXI. I say it's a toss-up on coaching.
Of course, you have special teams play and turnovers and penalties and all that. Despite that you should pull out all stops to win this game, I don't expect any trick plays, unless it's very late in the game in desperation. This one is really in the hands of the players.
Game time is Sunday, 6:45 p.m. on FOX (Channel 13).
Prediction: Seahawks, 27-24.