Fearless conference title game picks

Staff Writer Aaron Wilson makes some educated guesses on what will transpire in today's NFL Final Four.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos. In the AFC title game, I anticipate the Steelers keeping the Broncos constantly off-guard with their unique balance between a mauling ground attack built around Jerome Bettis and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's improvisational abilities. Quite frankly, I'm not entirely sold on the Broncos' defense outside of cornerback Champ Bailey. Even Bailey is slightly overrated. Watch how crisply Roethlisberger sells the play-action fake and delivers the football to rookie tight end Heath Miller who plays like everything but a young man who was strolling the University of Virginia campus a year ago.

Denver defensive coordinator Larry Coyer's lack of an elite pass rusher since Reggie Hayward's departure will haunt the Broncos today, and I don't think their running back tandem of Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell will find much real estate available against the Steelers' athletic, aggressive linebacker corps. In particular, James Farrior and Larry Foote are intelligent, hard-nosed and instinctive.

As much as it pains me to admit it, big-mouthed outside linebacker Joey Porter is absolutely correct: No one wants to play smash-mouth football with the Terrible Towel wrecking crew. Bettis and Fast Willie Parker (Doesn't his name sound like a jazz musician from the Duke Ellington era?) will grind out yards and valuable clock time once the Steelers manufacture a sufficient lead behind Roethlisberger's throws to Hines Ward , Miller and Antwaan Randle El.

Keep a close eye on Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer. I'm banking on him reverting to his old error-prone ways once his frustration hits a boiling point. The exotic blitz packages of wily old Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a man who's forgotten more about football than most NFL coaches carry in their memory banks, will eventually send Mike Shanahan and the Broncos packing for the holidays. The Steelers' macho approach will defeat the Broncos' finesse.

Score: Steelers 27, Broncos 13

Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks It's the NFC title game that would be more appropriately billed as "The Steve Smith Show." Everything else is just window dressing, or a distraction from the most dynamic athlete in the league this season. Smith just glides across the football field. Despite a notable lack of stature, he's the most dominant player on the field. Yes, that includes blue-chip Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers.

The Seahawks' cornerbacks are headlined by Marcus Trufant, but Smith's skills will override even the soundest secondary. Forget about Seattle runner Shaun Alexander impacting this game much after a mild concussion, or whether Nick Goings will be an adequate replacement for sidelined DeShaun Foster, or all of the smart decisions that Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck routinely executes. It's all about the game within the game between Smith and the Seawhawks' defense.

Everyone at Quest Stadium today knows that Smith is getting the football, and they still can't stop him. Plus, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme is vastly underrated. People forget too easily that he has a career 108.4 passer rating in six playoff games. He's the closest thing to Tom Brady remaining in this postseason tournament. Over his last six games, he has a 98.4 passer rating qualifying him as the hottest quarterback of the four playing today.

Watch how often Carolina relies on what it terms an "alert route." It's basically nothing more complicated than a quick hitch, and it has rapidly become the Panthers' offensive signature. The Panthers ran more than a dozen alert routes against the Chicago Bears last week with Smith picking up 150 of his 218 receiving yards on this timing route that Delhomme often resorts to with audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Score: Panthers 33, Seahawks 17


In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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