The Steelers are the only AFC squad to ever go 15 - 1. Think about that achievement for just a second and consider the other squads that failed to win a Super Bowl with possible greatness in the palms of their hands - Jacksonville 1999, Minnesota 1998.
Not only is the playoff scheduling on the side of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but history also. No team in NFL history failed to win the Super Bowl during a season in which that team won 12 straight games or more. Only one 15 - 1 squad failed to win a Super Bowl and that was the 1998 Minnesota Vikings.
And yet, standing in the way of Bill Cowher's second Super Bowl trip are a trio of teams that could easily vanquish all hopes: the New York Jets who in many ways are a mirror image of the Steelers, the Indianapolis Colts with the most formidable offense since the 1999 St. Louis Rams, and finally the defending champion New England Patriots who also won 14 games this season and seem to play their best football in the playoffs.
This week the Steelers start with the Jets in a rematch of a December game which saw them play their worst offensive game since Week 2 and still win 17 - 6. After the game, Jets players didn't feel they were beaten by the better team, but rather vowed to win the rematch if it occurred. Well, the Jets get their wish, but in most cases the better team in fact DID win as will occur this week.
In 2001, the Steelers felt the better team lost the AFC Championship game. Hines Ward said that the Steelers were true AFC Champions even if they didn't get to go to the Super Bowl. The following season the Steelers had the opportunity to prove to the nation that the Patriots' victory was a fluke, but ended up being blown out in Foxborough.
In 2002, Tampa Bay walked into Philadelphia and upset the Eagles in the NFC Championship game. The Eagles all off-season felt that the better team did not win the game and in the opening game of the next season failed to prove that theory by once again losing at home to the Buccaneers.
What does all this mean? The better team won that game back on a cold, grey Pittsburgh evening in December. The better team will win this week too and that's not good news for the NY Jets.
AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF GAME #1
#5 New York Jets at #1 Pittsburgh Steelers
4:30 PM, Saturday on CBS
Stadium: Heinz Field
Weather Watch: A few snow showers. High in the mid-20's, Low in the 20s.
Announcing Team: Dick Enberg, Dan Dierdorf, Armen Keteyain (sideline reporter)
Jets win the game if – They force the Steelers to turn the ball over. The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger have done a great job in not letting turnovers kill them. Big Ben tends to throw turnovers when he has the lead in games, so the Jets must get to him early.
Steelers win the game if – They can hold the Jets to under a combined 120 yards rushing. The Jets will get yards, but the Steelers must keep the duo of Curtis Martin and LaMont Jordan from controlling the game.
Outlook: The Jets came into Pittsburgh in December and for three quarters looked like they would steal a game from the weary, injury-ravaged Steelers. This time the Steelers are healthy and rested. I like the Steelers by 7.
NFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF GAME #1
#5 St. Louis Rams at #2 Atlanta Falcons
8:00 PM, Saturday on FOX
Stadium: Georgia Dome
Weather Watch: Indoors, Climate Controlled.
Announcing Team: Dick Stockton, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa (sideline reporter)
Rams win the game if – They force Michael Vick to beat them with his arm rather than his legs. Vick will try to get out and run, but the Rams must not let his ability to scramble beat them.
Falcons win the game if – Their defense can force Marc Bulger to win the game with his arm. He'll get yardage as he always seems to crack the 300-yard plateau, but the Rams will need some semblance of a rushing attack to win the game.
Outlook: The Falcons and Michael Vick could look at this game as a walk in the park, but the Rams will keep this thing close early with their offensive ability. The Falcons defense will be too much for the Rams in the end. Falcons by 10.
NFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF GAME #2
#6 Minnesota Vikings at #1 Philadelphia Eagles
1:00 PM, Sunday on FOX
Stadium: Lincoln Financial Stadium
Weather Watch: Partly Cloudy. Highs in the upper 30s. Lows in the low 20s.
Announcing Team: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Collinsworth, Pam Oliver (sideline reporter), Chris Meyers (sideline reporter)
Vikings win the game if – They jump out to an early lead on the Eagles and force Donovan McNabb to throw the ball through the air. McNabb has never been terribly accurate and without Terrel Owens, he's bound to have a rough post-season.
Eagles win the game if – Brian Westbrook can control the game on the ground and as a receiver out of the backfield. Westbrook is the Eagles' most dangerous weapon on offense now and his ability to keep the chains moving is necessary for the Eagles to win.
Outlook – The Eagles and Vikings met early in the year and Philly smacked the Norsemen. This is the upset of the year. Vikings by 4.
AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF GAME #2
#3 Indianapolis Colts at #2 New England Patriots
4:30 PM, Sunday on CBS
Stadium: Gillette Stadium
Weather Watch: Plenty of Sun. Highs in low 30s. Lows in the upper teens.
Announcing Team: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein (sideline reporter)
Colts win the game if – Peyton Manning can find the holes in the Patriots' scheme. Manning seems to have trouble with defenses that disguise their coverages until the snap of the ball. He won't have to worry about Tyrone Poole or Ty Law, but the linebackers will be the fastest and smartest group he will have faced all year.
Patriots win the game if – They can limit the Colts to an even number of touchdowns to field goals ratio. The Colts will score points; the problem most teams have is limiting them to field goals. The Patriots must have a bend-but-don't-break type of game. Their offense will score enough to win, but the question is whether the defense can help the cause.
Outlook: Just as I don't see any team going into Pittsburgh and beating the Steelers, I don't see how any team can go into Foxborough, Massachusettes and win. I really, really tried to pick the Colts, but the Patriots will live for another week. Patriots by 3.