Sat, Jan 14, 2006 - Page 20 News List

AFC teams appear tough

DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS Indianapolis, New Engalnd, Pittsburgh and Denver all seem to be capable of going all the way, but then again so do the NFC challengers

AP , NEW YORKAP, ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK, GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN, LOS ANGELES AND CANTON, OHIO

Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer looks to throw during practice at Broncos headquarters in Denver, Colorado, on Tuesday. The Broncos will host the New England Patriots in the second round of the AFC playoffs at Invesco Field in Denver today.

PHOTO: AP

For the past few weeks the catch phrase for these NFL playoffs has been "Fear New England," the team rounding into form just in time to make a run at an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl victory.

But also fear Denver, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.

"When I take a look at all the AFC teams, I say `Hey, I think there's a legitimate chance for every team to win,' says coach Mike Shanahan of Denver, which hosts New England on Saturday as the playoffs begin their second round. "And that doesn't happen very often."

Same in the NFC, where there is a legitimate chance the fifth- and sixth-seeded teams, Carolina and Washington, could meet in the championship game. Today, Washington plays top-seeded Seattle, which benefited from a division where no one else won more than six games. Tomorrow, Carolina is at second-seeded Chicago, which depends on defense for most of its scoring.

Shanahan has a 3-1 record against New England's Bill Belichick since 2001, the year of the Patriots' first Super Bowl win. It's the best record against Belichick of all the coaches who have faced him at least four times in that span.

But to use his foot up on Belichick as a source of confidence, or point to it as anything to brag about -- it's something Shanahan won't do. He knows he's going up against a coach who is every bit as brilliant on defense as Shanahan is on offense.

"We've seen it all through the years," Shanahan said. "If you do pick up a weakness, it's not there very long. You have to adjust throughout the whole game, and they are fundamentally sound. They play good, solid football. His players always know what they are doing. I don't care if they are rookies or veterans -- they are very well coached and they play at a very high level."

The Broncos were second in the NFL in rushing this season and came close to having two 1,000-yard rushers. Tatum Bell was 79 yards short of joining Mike Anderson in that category, and Ron Dayne, the No. 3 back, averaged 5.3 yards per carry.

That plays into New England's strong front seven, who will probably win if they can stop the run.

"We've been stopping the run, allowing us to make games more one-dimensional," says the Patriots' Willie McGinest, who also stopped the pass with a playoff record 4.5 sacks in last weekend's 28-3 defeat of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Patriots have won 10 successive playoff games, and Tom Brady was the starting quarterback in all 10. However, Jake Plummer has yet to win his first playoff game for the Broncos -- he had one victory with Arizona. Denver is 0-3 in the postseason since John Elway retired following the win in the 1999 Super Bowl.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts meet tomorrow for the first time since the Colts beat the Steelers 26-7 on Nov. 28.

But the Steelers are playing better now, winning five straight since a three-game losing streak that coincided with knee and thumb injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. That includes a 31-17 win in Cincinnati last week.

Indianapolis, which started the season 13-0, lost to San Diego at home on Dec. 18 in its last meaningful game. That was five days before coach Tony Dungy's son James was found dead in Tampa.

So rust is a question. But the mental state of the team doesn't seem to be -- Dungy returned a week later and the players have rallied around him.

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