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Conference championship games set for Sunday

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The Denver Broncos celebrated Sunday for the second time in as many days.

Less than 24 hours after Denver ended New England's quest for its third straight Super Bowl victory, Pittsburgh held on to beat Indianapolis 21-18. That ensured that not only will the Broncos be home for the AFC title game next Sunday, but that they won't have to visit the RCA Dome, where they allowed 90 points in playoff losses to the Colts the past two seasons.

Carolina, which was in the Super Bowl two years ago, will go to Seattle to play for the NFC title after winning 29-21 in Chicago. Both the Steelers and Panthers will be trying to get to the Super Bowl by winning three road games, something accomplished only by New England after the 1985 season.

AFC Championship

Pittsburgh (13-5) at Denver (14-3)

This will be Pittsburgh's sixth AFC title game in 12 seasons.

But this also will be its first of those on the road, not necessarily a bad thing, considering that the Steelers are 1-4 at home in those previous championships. They are the first sixth-seeded team to reach a championship game since the NFL went to the current lineup of six playoff teams from each conference in 1990.

But they are no ordinary sixth seed.

Remember that they were 15-1 last season and lost to New England in the championship game at Heinz Field — no disgrace given what the Patriots have been doing this century. And remember that they started 7-2, and seemed headed for a division title and no worse than a second or third seed when Ben Roethlisberger hurt a knee and then a thumb and they lost three straight.

"Everybody was ready to put Denver and Indianapolis in the championship game," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We're the same team that went 15-1 last year and made it to the championship game. We're coming from a different perspective now, being on the road playing two tough road games. We all believed in one another, even if no one else did."

Roethlisberger was a hero Sunday on both offense AND defense, making what was probably a game-saving tackle when Nick Harper seemed headed for a touchdown after picking up Jerome Bettis' fumble in the wacky final minutes of the win in Indy.

Hopefully, he'll be limited to offense next Sunday against the Broncos in what could be a quick game — Denver was second in the NFL in rushing this season and Pittsburgh was fifth.

The Broncos may also be a tougher test for Pittsburgh.

The Steelers beat an Indianapolis team that hadn't played a meaningful game in a month. The rust showed early as Pittsburgh jumped to a 21-3 lead and kept Peyton Manning out of his rhythm until two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.

Denver is fresh and Jake Plummer is coming off his first playoff win as a Bronco. Playoff experience can mean a lot to a quarterback, as Roethlisberger has shown this year after five interceptions in two postseason games as a rookie last season.

Yes, Denver is a tough place to play. But so was Indy and the Steelers already have shown they aren't especially good in title games at home.

So they might as well be on the road.

NFC Championship

Carolina (13-5) at Seattle (14-3)

In the very even NFC, these could very well be the two best teams. Seattle had the conference's best record, but Carolina was probably the preseason favorite.

One problem: Both lost key players to injury in their wins this weekend.

Shaun Alexander, the league's leading rusher and MVP this season, left the Seahawks' 20-10 victory over Washington Saturday with a concussion. Indications are he will play.

Carolina lost starting running back DeShaun Foster for the season with a broken ankle. Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers injured his shoulder but said he expects to play next week.

On paper, this is a matchup between Seattle's offense and Carolina's defense — the Seahawks led the NFL this season with 452 points. But that can be simplistic — the Panthers and Bears both moved the ball well in a game that was supposed to end up something like 6-3 or 10-6 instead of a contest with 50 points and 716 yards between the two teams.

It's also a matchup between two of the NFL's more underrated quarterbacks — Carolina's Jake Delhomme (5-1 in the playoffs in his career) and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, both Pro Bowlers. Delhomme threw for 319 yards and three TDs in Chicago; Hasselbeck carried the Seahawks after Alexander went out in the first quarter.

But the offensive players to watch will be two All-Pros — Alexander, assuming he plays, and Carolina's Steve Smith, the league's leading receiver. Smith had 12 catches for 218 yards and two TDs in Chicago and sometimes seems impossible to stop no matter what the coverage — he's skilled at turning short screens into long gains and also is threat on the reverse.

The home field should be an edge for Seattle. The Seahawks are 9-0 at Qwest Field, one of the noisiest venues in the league — indoors or out. But Carolina won the NFC title two seasons ago in Philadelphia, another tough home field.


NFL playoff schedule

AFC Championship

Pittsburgh (13-5) at Denver (14-3)

Sunday, 1 p.m., Ch. 2

NFC Championship

Carolina (13-5) at Seattle (14-3)

Sunday, 4:30 p.m., Ch. 13