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FIRST LOOK CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

Lacking That Familiar Ring

January 16, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

All four NFL coaches in next weekend's conference championship games have led teams to at least one Super Bowl. But Denver's Mike Shanahan, Carolina's John Fox, Seattle's Mike Holmgren and Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher don't have a lot of championship ring owners on their rosters.

Pittsburgh, for instance, has won four Super Bowls, yet not one Steeler starter has a ring. In fact, several key players -- among them quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu and running back Willie Parker -- were born after Jan. 20, 1980, when the Steelers last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.

The only player in Carolina's starting lineup who has reached pro football's mountaintop is center Jeff Mitchell, who was a member of Baltimore's Super Bowl-winning team in 2000.

Even Denver, which won consecutive titles in the 1997 and '98 seasons, has but a few holdovers from those teams, among them center Tom Nalen, tackle Matt Lepsis, defensive end Trevor Pryce and kicker Jason Elam. Safety John Lynch won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay in 2002.

So, now that New England has been eliminated, a lot of potential Super Bowl newbies can start making room in their jewelry boxes for some gaudy additions.

"We're one game away from the Super Bowl," Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward said after Sunday's stunning victory at Indianapolis. "We have one chance."

For the Steelers, that chance comes Sunday on the road at Denver's raucous and rowdy Invesco Field, where Tom Brady might as well have been barking out audibles from the upper deck. New England was flagged four times for false starts.

"Home-field advantage is sweet, man," Denver defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban said. "What the fans did was tremendous. ... Those false-start penalties were 20 yards of field position that we gained just from the fans being loud. I don't care about Indy, man. All I care about is playing at home."

That's why Sunday the Broncos were the biggest Steeler fans this side of the Pennsylvania state line. Had Indianapolis won, the Colts would have played host to the Broncos, whose last two seasons ended with playoff losses at the RCA Dome.

"I'm going to buy my Roethlisberger jersey and go to the nearest bar and root," Denver receiver Ashley Lelie said late Saturday.

Playing a championship game on the road could be a good thing for Pittsburgh, which has lost four of them at home under Cowher. This is the sixth AFC title game in Cowher's 14-year tenure, and the Steelers made league history by becoming the first sixth-seeded team to advance this far.

Pittsburgh last played the Broncos in 2003 and lost, 17-14, at Denver. That Steeler team finished 6-10.

Seattle played host to Carolina last season and defeated the Panthers, 23-17. Shaun Alexander rushed for 195 yards in 32 carries, and scored two touchdowns -- one rushing, one receiving.

Heading into the conference championship games, the Broncos are the healthiest of the Super Bowl hopefuls. Alexander is recovering from a concussion he suffered early in Saturday's victory over Washington. Pittsburgh's Roethlisberger was hit from behind in the second half against the Colts and appeared to injure his arm; he didn't leave the game, but, for the most part, he handed off the rest of the way. And Carolina is coping with running back DeShaun Foster's broken ankle, and a shoulder injury to defensive end Julius Peppers.

Of the four remaining starting quarterbacks, only Carolina's Jake Delhomme has played in a Super Bowl. But the other three -- Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, Denver's Jake Plummer and Roethlisberger -- all had better passer ratings this season.

Should the favored teams win on Sunday, Super Bowl XL will have a familiar feel -- a rematch between Shanahan and Holmgren, whose teams battled for the crown eight years ago when Holmgren was coaching Green Bay.

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