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Bob's Breakdown - Conference Championships
Bob Cunningham
January 19, 2006
Over the last couple of years, I have developed a system I use when analyzing NFL games. There’s no point in detailing my methods here but suffice to say, I utilize important statistical comparisons like rushing offense, rushing defense and turnover ratio in breaking down games and determining my predictions.

With that in mind, let’s look back at last week’s Pittsburgh-Indianapolis shocker. Believe it or not, my “system” said it would happen. Picked the Steelers to win outright – by exactly three points, in fact.

So why didn’t I predict the upset? Well, because my system also tabbed the Steelers for that Monday night meeting during the regular season. You know, the one when I DID forecast the shocker only to watch the Colts romp, 26-7, in a game that wasn’t even that close. The “encouraging” e-mails and message board posts I received following that weekend were nearly enough to drive a man right out of the prognosticating business.

Take note, however, that I have picked Carolina to reach the NFC Title Game (after dogging them off and on during the season). Point is, these things tend to balance out over the long haul.

What does it all prove? That pro football is still as unpredictable as ever, which is a major reason we like it so much.

By the way, my system also said Denver would beat New England last week, but I ignored it and went with my gut… just as I did by ignoring my “system” and opting for the Colts.

Guess which I’m trusting this week?

OVERALL PREDICTIONS, 2005

Straight-Up: 176-88 (67%) ATS: 143-111-10 (56%) Over/Under: 119-139-6 (46%)

LAST WEEK

Straight-Up: 2-2 ATS: 3-1 Over/Under: 2-2


Pittsburgh (13-5) at Denver (14-3)

Line: Broncos favored by 3½ (total points line is 41)

Series: Denver edged Pittsburgh in the most recent meeting, 17-14, in 2003. The Broncos have won three of the last four matchups, including a 24-21 victory in the 1997 AFC Championship Game.

Steelers Status Report: Pittsburgh has won six straight after last week’s 21-18 upset victory over top-seeded Indianapolis and is attempting to become the first sixth-seed ever to advance to the Super Bowl.

Broncos Status Report: The Broncos whipped two-time defending champion New England last week at home, 27-13.

Postseason History: Both teams have storied traditions that include numerous conference championship game appearances. Although the Steelers franchise is usually associated with winning multiple championships, they’re a mediocre 5-7 all-time in conference title games including last year’s 41-27 home loss to New England. The Steelers haven’t reached the Super Bowl since the 1995 season… The Broncos took a long time before enjoying postseason success, not making it as far as the conference title game until 1977, but Denver has won six of its seven appearances in the conference final – its only loss to Buffalo in 1991. Its last appearance was a John Elway-led 23-10 victory over the New York Jets in the 1998 game.

Game Summary: Although Pittsburgh is certainly a solid road team, as evidenced by their postseason victories this season at Cincinnati and Indianapolis, the Broncos certainly enjoy a homefield edge. Statistically, the areas where the Steelers excel are trumped by Denver. For instance, Pittsburgh has a strong run defense… but Denver’s rushing attack is second in the league, which leads me to conclude that the running game will be a factor even if it doesn’t actually decide the contest. In fact, that will work both ways because the Steelers’ ground game and Denver’s rush defense are both also very good. The Broncos have a big edge in turnover ratio and special teams as well, and coach Mike Shanahan is unbeaten when he guides his club this far. Contrast that to Bill Cowher’s inexplicably poor 1-4 record in conference title games. Denver’s all-around game should get it done as long as QB Jake Plummer continues to play at the level he has throughout 2005.

Prediction: BRONCOS, 23-14


Carolina (13-5) at Seattle (14-3)

Line: Seahawks favored by 4½ (total points line is 43)

Series: These clubs have only met twice, splitting home victories. The last encounter was a 23-17 Seattle victory in 2004.

Panthers Status Report: Carolina moved through the vaunted Chicago defense with surprising ease last week en route to a 29-21 triumph in a divisional playoff. The Panthers have won three straight going back to the regular season, all on the road.

Seahawks Status Report: Seattle defeated visiting Washington last weekend, 20-10, despite losing RB Shaun Alexander to a first-quarter concussion.

Postseason History: Considering the franchise has only been in existence for 11 years, a third conference championship game appearance is fairly impressive. Carolina lost the 1996 game at Green Bay before upsetting Philadelphia in 2003. The Panthers are 6-2 in their brief history in the postseason… Seattle has been around 28 years, but this will be only its second conference championship contest. The first came 22 years ago, a 30-14 loss to the then-Los Angeles Raiders. Head coach Mike Holmgren is 2-0 in these contests, however, leading Green Bay to NFC titles in 1996 and 1997.

Game Summary: There are a lot of things to be impressed by from both these teams – that’s not a revelation considering the two clubs have gotten this far. But for me, Carolina’s balance is more impressive. I believe the Panthers’ defense is superior overall – Carolina nearly matches Seattle’s primary attribute – rushing the quarterback – and is more proficient at forcing turnovers. These are the NFL’s top two squads in sacks. Offensively, both teams have issues at running back, but while Seattle heavily relies on Shaun Alexander, Carolina is arguably just as well off with under-rated Nick Goings toting the rock as it is with DeShaun Foster. Foster is more explosive, sure, but Goings had five 100-yard rushing games last season in seven starts. The guy runs hard every time he touches it and obviously has proven he can get the job done. Alexander’s concussion is a major concern. It looks like he’ll start, but the question is whether he will be able to carry a full load. And as solid as QB Matt Hasselbeck has been for Seattle, Carolina’s Jake Delhomme is now the NFL’s all-time pass-rating leader in the postseason. Not Joe Montana, or Troy Aikman, or Terry Bradshaw. Jake Delhomme. He is 6-2 in the playoffs in his career, all but one of those victories coming away from home. Ultimately, however, the tiebreaker is Carolina WR Steve Smith. With all due respect to the Seahawks, they simply don’t feature such a game-breaker. The Panthers will reach their second Super Bowl in three years.

Prediction: PANTHERS, 24-20