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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Lo! and the Four shall become Two....

It's Championship Sunday in the NFL! Yup, up for grabs today are the two berths in Super Bowl XL. As a Bills fan, I have a special fondness for Championship Sunday, because it used to be that this was when we'd see our beloved Bills play their best football. (Would that they had saved some football in the tank for those next games....) I liked it better when the NFL had the games around noon and four o'clock, as opposed to around three and one in primetime, but that's not much to complain about, I suppose.

Some brief football-related ruminations:

:: People often refer to "home field" as being an advantage, but clearly it isn't. In fact, in thirteen seasons since 1992 (including 1992), AFC teams have only managed to convert a top-seed status into a Super Bowl appearance four times. The NFC has fared a bit better, doing it eight times in the same span, but that's not a commanding difference. Of course, this year's AFC top seed is already out, while the NFC's (Seattle) is still standing. And there hasn't been a year in which the Super Bowl featured the top seeds of both conferences since 1993 (the second of the two Buffalo-Dallas matchups).

:: The NFC has never sent a wild-card team to the Super Bowl. All 39 NFC champions to date have been division champs. Contrast with the AFC, which just since 1992 has sent four wildcard teams to the Super Bowl, two of which won it (1997 Broncos, 2000 Ravens), one of which came oh-so-close to winning it (1999 Titans), and one of which didn't come anywhere near winning it (1992 Bills).

:: The last time the Super Bowl featured the road teams from Championship Sunday was in 1997, when Denver beat Pittsburgh at Three Rivers and Green Bay beat the 49ers at Candlestick/3Com before meeting each other in the Super Bowl.

:: Since 1997, the Super Bowl has been won five times by a team that, to that point in its franchise history, had never won a Super Bowl before.

What does any of this mean? Hell, I don't know. I just think it's pretty cool trivia.

Here's something else: in talking to football fans this past week or two, I've discovered that a lot of people just loathe Bill Cowher. Now, I don't know if that's a bit of residual Buffalo anger there or not (see, there was a power-struggle in the Steelers about six years ago that basically boiled down to either Cowher or then-Steelers GM Tom Donahoe staying and the other being fired, and it was Cowher who won, leading to Donahoe's coming to the Bills and basically running the ship aground), but it's there and it always strikes me as a little weird. I like Cowher's fiery persona, and here's a guy who gets to watch his roster get shuffled massively seemingly every offseason, and yet with the occasional bad year every four years or so, he just keeps on being competitive and getting to the playoffs.

Cowher coaches today in his sixth AFC Championship Game, and that run is spread out over the last twelve years. Critics point to the fact that despite all those Championship Sunday appearances, Cowher has only managed to make it to one single Super Bowl (a loss to Dallas in 1995), and thus he is tagged as one of those "can't win the big one" guys. I look at it another way, though: looking at some of the talent he's had to work with, it's damned miraculous that he got to those title games at all. Here's a guy who took Neil O'Donnell to the Super Bowl. Here's a guy who twice reached the AFC Championship Game with Kordell Stewart under center. If Cowher loses today and then walked away from coaching, I think he'd be mentioned along with Marv Levy and Bud Grant as the greatest coaches who never won the Super Bowl, and he'd probably be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But of course he's not going to walk away from coaching after today -- win or lose -- and right now he's got the best quarterback he's ever had, and that guy is only going to get better.

I heard a caller to a Buffalo sports-talk station the other day refer to Cowher as "Billy the Chin". Well, I'd take Billy the Chin to walk the Bills' sidelines any day. He's earned it.

:: OK, I don't usually make predictions, but what the heck? It's pretty obvious by now that I'm rooting for the Steelers today, but then, I always root for the Steelers unless they're playing the Bills (or a Steeler win would impact the Bills adversely in some important way). But I'm not sure I'd predict the Steelers to win.

The problem is that of the four possible Super Bowl matchups that will emerge from today's games, none strikes me as significantly more probable than the others. Picking Denver and Seattle to both advance is probably safe, but it's not overwhelmingly safe, and I honestly wouldn't be surprised if when the dust settles we're watching the Steelers and Panthers heading for Detroit. So I'll go with my gut and pick the Steelers and Seahawks.

Of course, that's the same gut that picked the Arizona Cardinals to make the playoffs this year, so I wouldn't bet the house on my say-so here.

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