DATE CREATED: 1/4/09
AFC's top teams face opponents that can exploit their weaknesses
Tom Curran, NBCSports.com
Pittsburgh, Nashville? I got a bad feeling. I don't think your teams are going to be playing for a title.
No, this isn't some "flavor of the week" thing. The Ravens and Chargers played and won this weekend, but we haven't forgotten how good your teams are.
Pittsburgh and Tennessee are the AFC's best two teams by seed and regular-season performance. But the top-seeded Titans and second-seeded Steelers are staring at unkind matchups in the AFC Divisional playoffs.
Their postseason runs may end up being shorter than Sterling Sharpe's eyebrows.
Start with the Chargers and Steelers. Might as well get this out of the way because - as Steelers fans have happily shown in the past - they have e-mail accounts and aren't afraid to use 'em. They will spend the early part of this week abusing my Blackberry.
Recall that these teams met before this season. The Steelers couldn't score a single touchdown against the Chargers during an 11-10 home win over San Diego back in November. The Steelers outgained San Diego by nearly 200 yards (410 to 218) and, while Ben Roethlisberger threw for 308 yards and no picks, Philip Rivers managed only 164 passing yards and threw two interceptions.
How, despite the statistical lopsidedness did this happen? Niggling little details. A pass interference put the Chargers at the Pittsburgh 3 and set up a touchdown. The Steelers got stopped four times inside the Chargers' 10 on their next drive.
That field position led to a strip-sack safety to make it 7-2 and the Steelers added a long field goal before the half to make it 7-5. Another Steelers field goal made it 8-7. The Chargers added a short field goal of their own, re-taking the lead. And then the Steelers put together a 13-play, gut-check drive at the end of the game to set Reed up for the game-winner with 15 seconds left.
What really hurt Pittsburgh that day was penalties. Thirteen for 115 yards. A hold wiped out a Willie Parker touchdown. Another at the game's beginning set up the Chargers' touchdown.
But those details are less important than this one: The Chargers are a much better team right now than they were in November.
They are more potent offensively. Rivers is playing far better (one pick in his final six regular season games, a cool, late-game dissection of Indy on Saturday night).
They can and will score on Pittsburgh's potent, disruptive defense. I don't think the Steelers can score enough against San Diego. The Colts managed just one "normal" touchdown Saturday night against San Diego. The other came thanks to Peyton Manning being smart enough to notice the Chargers weren't paying attention and he threw a 62-yard touchdown.
The Chargers are playing good defense. And the Steelers' offense is struggling, at least against good teams. They managed three offensive touchdowns in 180 minutes against the Cowboys, Ravens and Titans before drubbing the already-on-vacation Browns, 31-0 in the season finale.
San Diego's going to get to 21 points. Will the Steelers? I don't think so.
Same problem for the Titans, but even more pronounced.
Baltimore's defense has been, well, ravenous since Thanksgiving. The Ravens have allowed 64 points in their last six games, 24 in a win over the Cowboys. Of course, the Titans can play a little defense too. But this game isn't going to come down to defense - both will show up. Rather, it comes down to which team has a greater capability to score.
When the Ravens lost to Tennessee 13-10 on October 5, the Titans managed just 14 first downs and 47 rushing yards. The Titans didn't claim a lead until two minutes remained and that game-winning drive was extended by a roughing the passer call on a third-and-10 incompletion. Tennessee got fat rushing numbers running against the shoddy run defenses in the AFC South during the regular season.
That won't be the case against Baltimore. It leaves Kerry Collins and his complement of so-so receivers to try and make a go of it against the Ed Reed-led Ravens secondary.
That's bad for business.
I'm well aware of the old saw that defense wins championships. But that only holds true if the offenses can score a little.
And I don't think either the Steelers or Titans are going to score enough next weekend to get themselves to the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
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