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Snap Judgments: Steelers, Jets, Packers, Bears set for title games

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we get down to just three games to go in the NFL playoffs, and dig a little deeper into some of Championship Sunday's storylines...

• The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the AFC title game and so what else is new? It's almost bigger news when they're not. Since the league's 1970 merger, nobody has reached more conference championship games (15), hosted more title games (Sunday will make 11), or won more AFC crowns (seven) than the Steelers. Only Dallas, with eight NFC titles in that same span, tops Pittsburgh in that department, and the lone AFC club besides the Steelers to even reach double digits in appearances is the Raiders, with 11. Not since 1998-2000 have the Steelers gone three consecutive years without making the AFC Championship

So Pittsburgh knows this particular terrain quite well. But the Steelers have also known heartache in the AFC Championship Game. At 7-7, they're tied with the Raiders and 49ers">49ers for the most losses ever in the conference title-game round post-merger, and though they've played host to the game six times from the 1994 season on, they've lost four of those to the lower-seeded road team.

As the AFC's top seed, the Steelers were upset at home by the No. 2-seeded Chargers in the 1994 title game, and the No. 2-seeded Belichick-era Patriots got them twice at Heinz Field, in 2001 and 2004. In 1997, the No. 2-seeded Steelers lost at Three Rivers Stadium to the No. 4-seeded Broncos, a wild-card team.

So Steelers fans know they best approach Sunday's game against the No. 6-seed Jets (13-5) with due caution, even though Pittsburgh has won the past two times it faced a wild-card qualifier in the AFC title game: In 1995, against the upstart No. 5 Colts and quarterback Jim Harbaugh, and as recently as 2008, against the sixth-seeded John Harbaugh-coached Baltimore Ravens (alas, there are no more Harbaughs to conquer this week against the Jets).

The Steelers don't have to strain to recall that New York just played and won at Pittsburgh in Week 15, a gritty 22-17 Jets victory that went a long way toward saving their flagging playoff hopes. Thus, Pittsburgh knows better than to take anything for granted this week, like those silly and ill-fated '94 Steelers, who held a team meeting to discuss the production of a Super Bowl rap video before actually winning the AFC title game (the double-digit underdog Chargers won 17-13).

In Pittsburgh, there are AFC Championship Games, and then there are Super Bowl berths. And one doesn't always necessarily lead to the other.

• The NFL is fairly well populated with good, young head coaches these days, and the title-game round has been a veritable showcase for them in recent years. A pair of rookie head coaches met in last year's AFC title game (the Jets' Rex Ryan and the Colts' Jim Caldwell) and the 2008 game featured Baltimore's John Harbaugh in his first year of head coaching and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin in his second season.

In the NFC, Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt made his conference's title game in 2008, his second season with the Cardinals, and Green Bay's Mike McCarthy did the same in 2007, year No. 2 on the job for him. The trend started in 2006, when New Orleans' Sean Payton had his Saints playing for a Super Bowl berth in his rookie season as a head coach.

This year is actually the first time since 2005 that the conference title games didn't feature at least one head coach making their initial playoff run. All four of this year's head coaches are already making their second appearance in a title game. Both Tomlin and Ryan are 4-1 in the playoffs, with Chicago's Lovie Smith and McCarthy being just a game behind them at 3-2. Starting in 2006, one of these four coaches have been involved in the championship-game round every year: Smith in 2006, McCarthy in 2007, Tomlin in 2008, and Ryan in 2009.

• What's that they say about defense winning championships in the NFL? Three of the four head coaches who have teams playing on Sunday cut their teeth in the league on the defensive side of the ball. Ryan, Tomlin and Smith are all former defensive coordinators, with only McCarthy, the former Saints and 49ers offensive coordinator, breaking the mold.

When you factor in Green Bay coordinator Dom Capers and Pittsburgh coordinator Dick LeBeau, you have two more of the game's best defensive minds working this weekend.

• Speaking of Capers and LeBeau, Sunday could double as an ex-NFL head coaching convention. Each of the league's four semifinalists have at least one former head coach on its assistant staffs, with Green Bay's Capers having led both expansion teams Carolina and Houston, LeBeau being the former boss of the Bengals, and Jets assistant head coach/offensive line coach Bill Callahan getting the Raiders to the Super Bowl in 2002.

And then there's Chicago, in a league of its own when it comes to putting former head coaches to work. The Bears employ ex-Rams head coach Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, ex-Vikings head coach Mike Tice as offensive line coach, and ex-Lions head coach Rod Marinelli as defensive coordinator. Of the whole group, only LeBeau and Marinelli never led one of their teams into the playoffs as a head coach. The other four men all own at least one win in the postseason.

• The Packers at Bears in the NFC is the first playoff meeting of those two historic rivals since 1941, when they met in not only the NFL's first true playoff game, but also the first NFL game of any sort after the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

It's the first NFC title game since 1989 to feature teams from the same division -- the 49ers crushed the rival Rams 30-3 that year -- and this is only the sixth time since the 1970 merger that division opponents have met to decide the NFC title. The best possible news for Bears fans is this: The home team is 5-0 in such NFC Championship Game rematches, with 49ers over Rams in 1989, Giants over Redskins in 1986, Redskins over Cowboys in 1982, Eagles over Cowboys in 1980, and Redskins over Cowboys again in 1972.

In the AFC title game, a rematch of division opponents is much more common. It has happened 11 times since the merger, including as recently as two years ago, when the Steelers beat the visiting Ravens. Home teams have gone 7-4 in those games, meaning that road teams are just 4-12 overall when facing a division foe in the conference round. But take heart, Packers fans. The away team has won three of the past six such meetings: The 1999 Titans won at Jacksonville, the 1992 Bills won at Miami, and the 1985 Patriots won at Miami.

• Don't look to Sunday's title games to settle the argument of how to best develop a first-round, franchise quarterback. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (No. 11 overall, 2004) started from the third week of his rookie season, and the Jets' Mark Sanchez (No. 5, 2009) was his team's opening-day starter as a rookie.

But Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (No. 24, 2005) sat and waited for three years behind Brett Favre before getting his chance to play in 2008, and Chicago's Jay Cutler (No. 11, 2006) didn't start for Denver in 2006 until the final five games of his rookie season, once Jake Plummer had exhausted Mike Shanahan's patience (shades of Donovan McNabb this season).

There are different ways to do it, but you can't argue that all four haven't gotten it done. No one in the group has either a losing record as an NFL starter, or in the playoffs. Roethlisberger is 78-31 overall as a starter (.716), and 9-2 (.818) in the postseason. Sanchez is 23-13 overall (.639) and 4-1 in the playoffs (.800). Rodgers is 29-21 overall (.580), and 2-1 in the playoffs (.667). Cutler brings up the rear at 36-34 overall (.514), and an unblemished 1-0 in the postseason.

Not too bad, eh? Add it all up and Sunday's QB foursome is 166-99 overall as starters (.626), including a 16-4 mark and an .800 winning percentage in the playoffs.

• If the Packers and Jets win on the road this weekend, and I'm picking them both to do just that, it'll mark the first time two wild-card teams have met in the Super Bowl. Both are No. 6 seeds, with the 2005 Steelers being the only other No. 6 seed to make the big game.

To think of it another way, it would be the first time in the 45-year history of the Super Bowl that a division champion didn't play in the game. Whoever said finishing second was as good as finishing last didn't have the NFL in mind.

A Bears-Steelers Super Bowl matchup would make history of a sort as well. It would be the first No. 2 seed versus No. 2 seed Super pairing since the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams and started seeding the postseason in 1990.

• I couldn't help but notice that Giants safeties Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips both bravely (or brazenly) took to the radio this week to laud the players-coach style of the Jets' Ryan, and even added that they wished New York's autocratic Tom Coughlin would be more Rex-like.

It really echoed some comments made by veteran Jets defensive lineman Trevor Pryce in Sunday's postgame setting in New England. When asked if he thought more people liked the big-talking Jets than disliked them, Pryce used the question to stump for Ryan's free-wheeling style of coaching.

"There's more people that do like us than don't,'' Pryce said. "Maybe they won't admit it. But I can tell you there's a lot of NFL players that like us. They like us as a team, because of our head coach. I can't say it enough. It's because of our head coach.

"It's kind of like me getting to Baltimore in 2006. Shannon Sharpe told me, 'If you ever get a chance to play for Brian Billick, you go do it.' That's why I went to Baltimore. And I'm telling everybody else in the NFL, 'You get a chance to play for Rex Ryan, you do it.' ''

Ironically, Pryce in Baltimore got to both play for Billick, and play for Ryan, who was his defensive coordinator with the Ravens from 2006-2008. And now he's spreading the word around the league about the guy who signed him earlier this season, once Baltimore released him.

As is Jets guard Brandon Moore, who said Ryan's hold over his players is partly due to his ability to tell them things that eventually come true.

"Rex is weird that way,'' Moore said. "Even last year, everything he said came to fruition. He talked about having the No. 1 defense, and we had the No. 1 defense. He talked about seeing New England again this season, seeing Pittsburgh again this season. A lot of things really comes true with what he says, and I think that confidence just permeates throughout this team and is really infectious.''

• While the wild-card Jets and Packers come into the title games with two games worth of playoff momentum, with both victories coming on the road, the Steelers and Bears have played only once this postseason, winning at home last weekend.

Historically speaking, does that give any team a decided advantage, on either side of those two scenarios? Not really. I checked.

Since the playoffs expanded and seeding began in 1990, there have been 17 previous conference title-game matchups featuring one team with two playoff wins traveling to play at a team that had a first-round bye, and won at home in the divisional round.

The two-win teams are 7-10 in that situation, a pretty good mark considering they're playoff road teams and lower seeds, but it's not what you would call a definitive track record.

For the host Steelers, the best news is this: The past three AFC title games have all fit the two-win road at one-win home scenario, and the home team has won each time. The Colts beat the Jets last year, the Steelers beat the Ravens in 2008, and the Patriots beat the Chargers in 2007. So much for the factor of greater momentum, I suppose.

On the flip side, in six of the previous nine such title-game matchups, the two-win road team did prevail over the one-win home team: The Giants beat the Packers in 2007, the Steelers beat the Broncos in 2005, the Panthers beat the Eagles in 2003, the Ravens beat the Raiders in 2000, the Titans beat the Jaguars in 2000, and the Broncos beat the Steelers in 1997.

It's true, you know. You really can make statistics say anything you want them to say.

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