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Where’s excitement?


Steelers running back Jerome Bettis plows for a 7-yard gain against the Colts. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Steelers running back Jerome Bettis plows for a 7-yard gain against the Colts. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Don Pierson Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – No Tom Brady, no Bill Belichick, no three-peat, no Peyton Manning, no New York, no Chicago, no California, no Texas, no Florida.

The NFL playoffs enter the final four this week searching for stars and story lines. By the time Carolina or Seattle prevails in the NFC and Denver or Pittsburgh emerges from the AFC, the NFL might be searching for fans to watch on TV or travel to Detroit for a finale that could leave people as cold as the weather.

The conference championship games are of interest in four cities all smaller than Milwaukee, so Super Bowl XL looks extra small at the moment.

The first thing Carolina coach John Fox could think of was: “I don’t know too much about Seattle. I know it’s a long flight.”

Maybe Shaun Alexander, the league’s leading rusher, vs. Steve Smith, the league’s leading receiver, can generate some hype in the NFC. Somehow it doesn’t yet resonate like an AFC rematch between Brady’s New England Patriots and Manning’s Indianapolis Colts, the “game of the postseason” that never happened.

Denver’s Jake Plummer vs. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger? Maybe a Super Bowl between Plummer and Carolina’s Jake Delhomme for Jake of the Year will jack up excitement.

Can 33-year-old backup running back Jerome Bettis going home to Detroit in his final season capture the imagination of a nation? First, Bettis and his Steelers have to get past the best rushing defense left in the playoffs, the Denver defense led by former Cleveland Browns. There’s an angle.

No fifth or sixth seed ever has advanced to a Super Bowl. Is that enough to get fans to climb on the underdog bandwagons of fifth-seeded Carolina or sixth-seeded Pittsburgh?

Clearly, the Steelers have the most history and will attract the widest national following. Their fans and their terrible towels show up everywhere. Pittsburghers are the only people who might consider a trip to Detroit in February a nice winter vacation.

Maybe there is intrigue in the mystery. Unlike last week’s semifinal games, there are no 2005 season rematches for the conference championships. There also are no returning Super Bowl champions. The Panthers got there two years ago. The Broncos were the last to win one, in 1998. Any Super Bowl matchup will be new.

Pittsburgh at Denver

This is a rematch of the 1997 AFC title game won by Denver in Pittsburgh, so the Steelers and coach Bill Cowher have a chance to repay the favor against coach Mike Shanahan in Denver.

The teams last met in Denver in 2003 in a nondescript matchup between Broncos backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein and Pittsburgh’s Tommy Maddox. Denver won 17-14.

Plummer was injured, so he has faced Pittsburgh’s defense only once, as a rookie with Arizona in 1997. It will be Roethlisberger’s first look at Denver, although he is familiar with the four defensive linemen the Broncos acquired from Cleveland last off-season: Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers.

In winning their first playoff game since 1998 and their first without quarterback John Elway, the Broncos knocked off the two-time defending champion Patriots and will be favored to end the Steelers’ two-game road streak.

The Broncos were the top rushing team in the AFC, led by Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, a more prolific tandem than the Steelers’ Bettis and Willie Parker.

Both teams employ two of the best and most underappreciated receivers in football, Denver’s Rod Smith and Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward.

Carolina at Seattle

This will be the third game between the franchises. The Seahawks won 23-17 in Seattle in 2004 and the Panthers won 26-3 in Carolina in 2000.

In their last game, the Seahawks broke a three-game losing streak as the Panthers lost their fifth in a row. Alexander scored two touchdowns and carried 32 times for 195 yards.

Delhomme threw two TD passes to Muhsin Muhammad. Steve Smith was out for the season with injury.

Delhomme was 19 of 36 for 248 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was 21 of 30 for 201 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Josh Brown kicked three field goals for the difference.

The Seahawks were an AFC team until the current four-team divisions took effect in 2002.

They used to play in the same division with the Broncos, so that would be the most familiar Super Bowl matchup.

Brady record

Tom Brady’s interception in the end zone that Denver cornerback Champ Bailey returned 100 yards Saturday night was a spectacular way for Brady to lose his first postseason game and for the Patriots to end their two-year Super Bowl run.

One reason Brady was 10-0 in the playoffs since 2001 was he had thrown only three interceptions in 331 postseason passes, a percentage of 0.91 that led all quarterbacks in NFL history.

Green Bay’s Bart Starr had three interceptions in 213 attempts in 10 playoff games, a percentage of 1.41. Giants QB Phil Simms had six of his 279 passes picked off in 10 postseason games, a percentage of 2.15.

Brady said before the game that a playoff quarterback has to remember that “the margin of error is even slimmer because you’re playing the best teams. And those errors that you make just get magnified.”

Herm time

New Kansas City Chiefs coach Herman Edwards: “The one thing I do know, and I will promise you this – the players who play for this football team, they will play for the name on the side of the helmet, not the name on the back of the jersey.”

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