31 points. That's how Pittsburgh beat the Bengals. 31 points. Had the Bengals played defense, Kitna would have been able to guide the Bengals to a workman-like win and use a week's worth of preparation to possibly help the Bengals figure out how to get to the AFC title game, but one time defensive guru Marvin Lewis failed to keep the Steelers under wraps and the game got away from him.
Maybe the injury to Palmer had a psychological impact, but is it not up to the coach to help his guys get past such hurdles and stay focused on the task at hand? Cincy went into the locker room with a 17-14 advantage at the break. Clearly the concern going into the tunnel wasn't Kitna being effective, but the defense giving up 14 points in the second quarter, They responded to the challenge by giving up 14 more in the third. That wasn't Kitna's fault and if you think Palmer would have done better against a Pittsburgh defense that didn't have to respect the run you're kidding yourselves. Pittsburgh was the better team. Period. Marvin is a good coach and the Bengals are a good team, but they need another year to get their heads together.
The Steelers, however might be the team to beat in the AFC. That defense is tough and the offense is clicking. Cincy dared Roethlisberger to beat them with his arm and he responded with three touchdown passes. The Colts might not have an answer for Pittsburgh's running attack and Manning won't be able to run up the score on that defense. The Colts might be the favorite, but it wouldn't be that big an upset if the Steelers win 27-23
On paper the Patriots are an underdog heading to Denver, but Shanahan's brilliance in the post season seems to have had more to do with John Elway than his intellect. The Patriots, however, have a genius roaming their sidelines and he has already taken Denver's best shot. With Jake Plummer having a history of making bad decisions, the Patriots might be able to execute a game plan that forces Denver to turn the ball over time and time again. Belichick is always dangerous when facing a team the second time around. If you think Denver's a lock to win this one you haven't been paying attention to the NFL the last few years. Plummer's interception total might double his touchdown production and the Patriots could win going away 31-14.
Seattle has the talent to go all the way, but I'm not buying into Mike Holmgren. Ever sine he lost to Denver in the Superbowl a few years ago with Green Bay I have wondered if he's the real deal. I think he has a tendency to over coach.
Washignton is simply running on fumes. They limped into the playoffs thanks to a lot of weak NFC finishes and they upended a Tampa Bay team that was starting a quarterback who still has a long way to go. They might beat Seattle, but that's only because Seattle's high wire act is due for a tumble.
The real class of the NFC is in Carolina. They flew under the radar all year but they have enough fire power to outscore people and the defense is tough. Not as tough as the defense the Bears are bringing to the table, but tough enough to put the screws to anybody in the league. The fact that the Bears have an offense that is a liability makes Carolina a real threat to beat Chicago. The Giants had a potent offense going into the playoffs and Carolina forced them into turning over the ball. Chicago's offense is just ugly. This game is going to come down to which offense hurts its team the least and that's got to be Carolina.