And then there were four

After a wacky Wild Card weekend and four dramatic divisional playoff games there are four teams left. Two of these four will advance to the “big” game in Detroit, and one will even walk away Super Bowl champions. But which teams will advance to the biggest stage in the world? Can the Steelers continue their sixth seed magic and beat the Broncos in Mile High? Will the Seahawks win their second playoff game in a week, when their previous playoff drought lasted 21 years?

In the AFC Championship game it seems simple. Whichever team can keep their composure after easily their biggest win of the season will be on their way to Detroit. The Broncos can’t become too confident after ending one of the few dynasties the NFL has ever produced. Conversely, the Steelers can’t stroll into Denver without a chip on their shoulder after winning the roller coaster ride that was their game against the Colts.

These teams are evenly matched, have extremely athletic defenses, a running game by committee and reliable wide receivers. However, they do differ in a few important aspects. For example, at the quarterback position Ben Roethlisberger is a far better decision maker and much more accurate than Jake Plummer. This will be an important facet of the game to pay attention to, and will make a significant difference in the outcome of the game.

If the Steelers come out blitzing, which is expected, they will force Plummer to make quick decisions, which could lead to the Broncos demise. The Broncos do have an excellent offensive line and Plummer had a season low seven interceptions, but Denver never faced a defense with Troy Polamalu and Joey Porter.

How the Broncos cope with the unpredictable blitzing schemes of Pittsburgh will decide their fate. If they allow the swarming blitz to consume them they will be watching Super Bowl Sunday from the comfort of their own homes, but if they block well and Plummer makes high-quality decisions they will be on their way to Super Bowl XL.

The NFC Championship game will be close and should be decided by seven points or less. Although the Seahawks are playing at home they lack in two key facets: momentum and experience. The Panthers have won two playoff games on the road in a convincing fashion, devastating the Giants in the Meadowlands and finding every flaw in the supposedly flawless Bear’s defense last weekend in Chicago. They are certainly on a roll, and it will take a colossal effort for the Seahawks to end this streak of fabulous play. But the Seahawks are prepared for the challenge.

Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander and company will be ready to show the Panthers that home field advantage actually has some significance. Look for Mike Holmgren to put the ball in Hasselbeck’s hands again and allow him to create plays like he did against Washington last weekend. Surely he will want the league’s Offensive MVP to touch the ball 25 times or more, but it will depend on how he recovers from the concussion he suffered versus the Redskins.

An intriguing match up will be the Seattle defensive backs against Carolina’s flash of a wide receiver in Steve Smith. Michael Boulware, Andre Dyson and Marcus Trufant will need to be up to the challenge in order for Seattle to come away victorious. If they allow Smith to run wild on them early and make a couple big plays they are as good as done.

Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme will gain the necessary confidence if he hooks up with Smith early, which will not only improve the passing game but will also present more opportunities for the running game. This will be the key to the game, containing the fastest and most explosive player on the field.

If the Seahawks figure out a way to keep Smith under wraps, something that the Giants and Bears were unable to do, they will find themselves Super Bowl bound. However if Delhomme and Smith connect early and often Seattle can say goodbye to any hope of playing on Feb. 5 in Detroit.

The road to the Super Bowl might be directly through Denver and Seattle but their fates ultimately depend on how well they contain the playmakers of their motivated opponents. If they do then it will be a reunion of the Mikes (Sherman and Holmgren) in the Super Bowl. If they don’t take care of business two Wild Card teams will appear on the world’s biggest stage.