Remember that the Steelers, the No. 6 seed in the AFC, are in their sixth conference title game in 12 years. The Panthers, No. 5 in the NFC, were in the Super Bowl two years ago and finished 11-5 this season, as good a record as anyone in the NFC but the Seahawks. In fact, a Super Bowl between two wild-card teams wouldn’t be a huge surprise – it would hardly be a shock if the Steelers win Sunday in Denver and the Panthers win in Seattle. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORESanta Anita opens winter meet Saturday with loaded cardA lot of it has to do with the coaches. John Fox of the Panthers was the Giants’ defensive coordinator when they got to the Super Bowl in 2001 and is 5-1 in the postseason with Carolina. His offensive coordinator is Dan Henning, a head coach with Atlanta (1983-86) and San Diego (1989-91), but also a former assistant under Joe Gibbs with Super Bowl winners in Washington. What they’ve done in two games might even be called astounding: shutting out a top offense and moving at ease through a top defense. Even New York’s Tiki Barber, normally careful with his comments, noted (correctly) how badly Carolina outcoached the Giants in the Meadowlands, blanking an offense that had scored 421 points in the regular season, third most in the league. Then the Panthers went to Chicago, scored 29 points and put up 434 yards on what all season had been the NFL’s best defense. That was against Coach of the Year Lovie Smith, as Henning and Jake Delhomme exploited defensive weaknesses that no one else seemed able to find. Only the 1985 New England Patriots have won three games on the road to get to the Super Bowl. Don’t put Pittsburgh and Carolina – both trying to accomplish the same feat – in a class with New England, which lost 46-10 to Chicago and became a footnote to history. They are legitimate contenders who ended up at the bottom of the seedings because of injuries and fluky plays, not because they lack ability. Pittsburgh? Cowher takes a lot of heat for four title-game losses at home. But maybe his critics should note that it takes a good coach to get that far six times in 12 seasons. The defensive schemes cooked up by Cowher and coordinator Dick LeBeau, another former head coach, had Peyton Manning rattled and out of sync for three quarters of last week’s game. He couldn’t decipher the blitzes and was throwing off his back foot much of the time – just like his brother Eli did with the Giants against Carolina. Also give the Steelers credit for offensive innovation. A team committed to the run more than any team in the league, they came out throwing early against a defense stacked to stop the ground game. They jumped to a 21-3 lead and won a game that wouldn’t have been close at the end if not for an egregious officiating error. Beyond that, these are teams that at the beginning of the season were expected to be there – but seeded higher. Pittsburgh probably would have won the AFC North had Ben Roethlisberger not been banged up during a three-game losing streak that put their playoff chances in peril. The Panthers would have won the NFC South if not for a fluky running-into-the-kicker penalty that cost them a game against Dallas. Also remember that both are better on the road than at home (each is 8-2 on the road compared to 5-3 at home, including the playoffs). Some people who have watched the Steelers closely through Cowher’s 14 seasons also think they are playing better because less is expected from them. All five of the previous title games under Cowher were at home, and they are 1-4 in those, including a 41-27 loss to New England last year. Fox, meanwhile, is establishing himself as a premier playoff coach and Jake Delhomme has become a premier playoff QB, 5-1 overall. He quarterbacked Carolina to a win in Philadelphia in the conference title game two years ago, and he excelled in the game he lost: the 32-29 shootout with New England in the Super Bowl. Yes, he went undrafted coming out of college, but he’s totally outplayed two inexperienced first-round picks: Eli Manning and Rex Grossman. “Once you do something, it makes it a little easier to do it again,” Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers said. “Experience plays a part in it. I’m confident in our ability to go on the road and do well because we’ve done it before.” So forget about those ’85 Patriots, mismatched in the big game against one of the better teams of the modern era. These low seeds are legitimate. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!
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