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Superbowl Prediction: Broncos vs. Seahawks

By Shreyes Seshasai

The NFL Playoffs continue this Sunday with the NFC and AFC Championship games.

While the latest round of playoff games provided more excitement than the blowouts from Wild Card weekend, don’t expect much more this Sunday. Here’s what to look forward to next Sunday.

AFC Championship Game: Steelers at Broncos

Sunday’s match-up in the AFC Championship Game features two of the toughest teams in the league. The Denver Broncos, coming off a win over the Patriots, will look to hold the Steelers rushing duo of Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis in check while trying to find an answer to a Steelers defense that kept Peyton Manning and the Colts off balance last Sunday.

Both teams bring a strong defensive presence, especially against the run. But the game also features two of the better secondaries in the league. The Broncos have been led in that department by veterans Champ Bailey and John Lynch, while the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu continues to make big plays.

On the offensive side of the ball, both teams rely on the rushing game to set the tempo, with Mike Anderson and Tatem Bell carrying the load for the Broncos. Establishing the running game early will be important to both teams as it will take the pressure off the quarterbacks. Broncos QB Jake Plummer is playing in his first League Championship game, while Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger did almost nothing in the second half against the Colts except hand the ball off. Ironically, the game will come down to who can make the big plays in the passing game once the rush has eased up coverage in the secondary.

This game could also hinge on which team can control the ball and make the fewest turnovers. Denver has the fewest turnovers of any team in the league, and Plummer must continue to protect the ball and play smart football against a Steelers defense that will most certainly bring the same pressure that was so effective against Manning and the Colts.

Overall, I expect a tight, low-scoring game. While I’d love to pick the Steelers and see a No. 6 seed advance to the Superbowl for the first time, I can’t overlook the fact that Denver is undefeated at home this year. My pick: Denver over Pittsburgh.

NFC Championship Game: Panthers at Seahawks

Seattle has clearly been the top team in the NFC all season, facing little challenge in the depleted NFC West. Running back and league MVP Shaun Alexander, coming off a record setting season, carried the load for the team throughout most of the season, but he suffered a concussion early in last Saturday’s game against the Washington Redskins. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck responded well, but he will have to continue to play efficiently to get the offense moving against the strong Panthers secondary.

The Panthers defense has been impressive all season, but it will face a stronger challenge against the Seahawks and Alexander. While the Panthers were able to hold Giants running back Tiki Barber in check in the Wild Card game, Alexander is a much stronger and smarter back, despite the concussion. Seattle also has more experience than both the Giants and Bears at the quarterback position, so look for coach Mike Holmgren to use Hasselbeck to test the Panthers more than the inexperienced Eli Manning and Rex Grossman did.

Seattle’s defense faced little challenge last week against the weak Redskins offense, but this Sunday’s game will be different. The Panthers’ Jake Delhomme has done well against the Giants and Bears over the past two weeks, making few mistakes and throwing the football accurately.

But the offense took a big hit last week when its starting running back DeShaun Foster went down with an ankle injury. The Panthers will be forced to start Nick Goings, who just a few months ago was third on the depth chart behind Steven Davis and Foster. With Foster out of the game, the Seahawks will have to focus on shutting down All-Pro receiver Steve Smith, who leads the league in almost every receiving category. Smith has been able to find a way to get the ball thus far in the playoffs, don’t expect that to change against the Seahawks.

Like Denver, Seattle hasn’t lost a home game all season, and with Alexander in and Foster out, it will be hard for the Panthers to control the ball. Seattle has been able to dictate play all season, and I don’t expect this game to be any different. My pick: Seattle over Carolina.