Pro football’s version of the Final Four has been decided and the teams are set to do battle this Sunday to determine the competitors for a week later in New Orleans in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Both top seeds advanced last Sunday with impressive home victories as Pittsburgh physically dominated Baltimore for the third time this season in gaining their second win over the Ravens, 27-10. St. Louis used their often overlooked defense to frustrate and fluster Green Bay Packer QB Brett Favre, forcing six interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns, in a 45-17 rout. The Rams’ offense was not asked to do much and thus the statistics from the game are very misleading. The Rams forced a total of eight Packer turnovers and continually worked from a short field all game. Both St. Louis and Pittsburgh were clearly the most dominant teams in their conferences over the regular season and seem destined to meet in the Super Bowl. Both are very well balanced teams with St. Louis’s fine defense often overshadowed by their explosive offense and Pittsburgh’s underrated offense is similarly overshadowed by their dominant defense. And both the Rams and the Steelers are solid favorites this weekend.
Revised Super Bowl odds currently have St. Louis at minus 300, meaning you must put up $300 to win $100. Pittsburgh is second choice at 5-2 with Philadelphia at 6-1 and New England the longest shot as 12-1.
Here’s a preview of both conference championship games.
New England (+8) at Pittsburgh (Over/Under 35Â½): Pittsburgh seeks to become the third straight team from the AFC Central Division to advance to the Super Bowl. Unlike the previous two teams, Baltimore and Tennessee, the Steelers get to play for the AFC Championship at home as the conference’s top seed. RB Jerome Bettis is expected to play this week after missing nearly two months due to injury but in his absence the Steelers’ running game did not suffer. This indicates a very strong offensive line which should continue to enable QB Kordell Stewart to make things happen with both his arm and his feet. New England is much like the Chicago Bears who lost last week to a very physical Philadelphia team. The Patriots are not flashy and they were arguably outplayed during regulation in last week’s overtime win against Oakland. QB Tom Brady was very successful in marching New England down the field for the game winning FG and he does have a pair of very capable wide receivers, Troy Brown and David Patten and the Pats may also have the edge in special teams. But Pittsburgh’s major edge is on defense where they are capable of totally dominating an opponent. They ranked first in the league against the run and fourth against the pass with the top overall ranking. Historically the conference championship games are one sided with the average margin of victory a shade over two touchdowns. Fundamentally Pittsburgh is the better team on both sides of the ball and, having lost to Denver four years ago at home in the AFC Championship game, they should give a full effort for sixty minutes. The play is on PITTSBURGH.Philadelphia (+11Â½) at St. Louis (51): Both teams were very impressive in advancing to this game in what is a rematch of an opening week game in which St. Louis needed a FG in overtime to win in Philly 20-17. In that game the Rams led 17-3 in the fourth quarter before the Eagles scored a pair of TDs to tie the game and were a fumble recovery away from pulling the upset. Recall that while the Eagles were expected to continue the progress they showed last season when they made the Playoffs for the first time since 1996, St. Louis began the season as NFC Favorites. In that game St. Louis was favored by three points and the Over/Under was 46. The Rams had a slight statistical edge with 30 more yards gained and three more first downs. The Rams lost two turnovers while the Eagles gave it up three times. The Rams did struggle this season offensively against the better defenses they faced. Philadelphia did not allow a single foe to score more than 21 points in 17 games and ranked second in total points allowed. Eagle QB McNabb has the greater mobility of the two quarterbacks but the Rams have the edge in the running game with Marshall Faulk and also rate the edge with a very talented group of receivers. The Eagles won 33-9 last week but the total yardage was just 336-184 in favor of Philly. In a similar fashion despite winning 45-17 over the Packers, St. Louis gained only 292 yards while allowing 383. Given the relative unheralded nature of both teams’ defenses and the results of the first game played between the teams and the adjustment made by the linesmaker the best play in this game might be on the total. The play is on the UNDER.