Division Playoffs Rehash

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Wow, compared to the rest, Seattle-Washington was a snoozer.

Each of the four teams left is a great story and a reasonable bet to win the Super Bowl, yet the Colts are the talk of the day with their loss. The story lines abound: Dungy still has that monkey on his back, Peyton still has that monkey on his back, will they re-sign Edgerrin James?, Manning calls out his Offensive Line, etc., etc.

Apparently back in week 13 when Indy locked up home field, first-round bye, and pole position at the Indianapolis 500, the Colts joined everyone else in believing that the Super Bowl was a lock. Prior to yesterday's game someone pointed out that Indy hadn't played a meaningful game in a month. I still say the problem was that the Colts hadn't played WELL in a month. It showed. Their high octane depends on precision and timing ... the first things to go when you aren't keeping your game sharp.

All of this overlooks Pittsburgh's effort. From top to bottom they were ready. The game plan was perfect and the Steelers executed with a vengeance. Troy Polomalu was a terror. Watch the highlights today and all you see is Peyton Manning drowning in a sea of white shirts and black helmets with a wild mop of frizzy hair leading the charge. Theirs was a simple but effective formula: Physical intimidation across the board, and relentless pressure on Manning.

Which brings us to the Colts O-line. Pittsburgh overwhelmed the Colts' feeble effort to protect their quarterback and open things up for James. But Manning did little to help his own cause. He didn't settle in and didn't evade. And in the Colts offense, with all of the no-huddling and constant audibling, Manning is the Coordinator.

Beyond all that, there is a time and a place for everything. Postgame in front of the national media is neither the time nor the place to acknowledge and verbalize that your O-Line could have done better. Unless Manning is planning a surprise retirement, who is he expecting to have his back next season?

So, Dungy still can't win the big one. Manning still can't win the big one. While they're getting better, the Colts are still soft. They are probably one of the NFL's most impressive team's ever when they can control things and Manning has the luxury of sitting back in the pocket and picking teams apart. But to reach and win a Super Bowl you have to get dirty.

One final note: I'm really glad Indy didn't pull it out after recovering Bettis' fumble in the game's closing moments. He would have been the new Buckner which would have been a shame. Bettis played a great game and was a key cog in the Steeler machinery as they chewed up the second half of the game. Bettis and Pittsburgh deserved to leave Indianapolis as winners.

Now it's wide open. Any team can win. Beating Denver or Seattle in their own homes will be a formidable task, but Pittsburgh and Carolina have been killer on the road. Pittsburgh dismantled the Colts in Indianapolis and the only memories we have left of the fierce Bears Defense feature Carolina receiver Steve Smith running wild in the secondary and lighting Chicago up for 212 yards.

Pittsburgh will have to muster another flawless effort to topple the Broncos in Denver, but in Seattle all bets are off. Seattle was easily the most suspect of the bye teams, being the beneficiary of playing in the weakest division of the weakest conference in football.

My picks: In an all out battle, Pittsburgh narrowly escapes Denver to return to the Super Bowl and get Bill Cowher his first ring. Shaun Alexander is the wild card in Seattle. If he is 100% Carolina wins a close one. Without Alexander the Panthers will continue their roll. I know, Alexander was essentially absent from this past weekend's Seahawk victory. You can do that against the Redskins. This week Holmgren's crew will be facing a real team.


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