- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

This is Paul Tagliabue’s dream. Visiting teams are 5-3 in this season’s NFL playoffs and two teams that were unable to win their divisions — Carolina and Pittsburgh — have won consecutive road games to reach Sunday’s conference title games.

It’s the kind of anybody-can-beat-anybody balance that Tagliabue, the league’s commissioner, relishes.

Pittsburgh is the first No. 6 seed to reach the conference championship. It plays at Denver for the AFC crown. The Steelers beat third-seeded Cincinnati and top-seeded Indianapolis to reach the AFC title game.

Carolina is the No. 5 seed and, dating to 2003, has won four consecutive road playoff games. It plays at Seattle in the NFC title game. The Panthers have downed the fourth-seeded New York Giants and second-seeded Chicago.

“I’m envious because teams that have figured out how to win on the road on a consistent basis usually will be very good and be in the playoffs,” Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said.

The Steelers and Panthers have turned heads the last two weeks because they’re on the cusp of entering rare company:

• They are only the 13th and 14th teams since the NFL-AFL merger before the 1970 season to win at least two road games in a single postseason.

• If one or both win Sunday, they will join the 1985 New England Patriots as the only teams to win three road games to advance to the Super Bowl. Five teams have won two road games to reach the conference title game only to lose one step short of the Super Bowl.

• In the regular season since 2000, 21 teams have taken three-game road trips. Only twice — Jacksonville in 2001 and this season — has a team won all three games. (Counting the regular season finale at Atlanta, the Panthers have won three straight.)

The Panthers came into the postseason knowing they could win on the road. Two seasons ago, they won at St. Louis and Philadelphia to make their first Super Bowl.

Carolina has ridden receiver Steve Smith’s 22 catches (three touchdowns) and a defense that has six takeaways and five sacks. The Panthers outgained the two opponents by an average of 384.5-207.

“We love going to other people’s stadiums and using the crowd against them,” Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers said.

Pittsburgh hadn’t won a road playoff game since the 1989 season and most of Bill Cowher’s postseason history has come at home. The Steelers are 1-4 in AFC Championship games — all at home — under Cowher.

The Steelers have benefited from two strokes of good luck: Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer’s first-series knee injury and Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt’s missed field goal. But Ben Roethlisberger has five touchdowns and a 124.7 passer rating and the defense has nine sacks and has allowed only 142 yards rushing.

But even though both teams have momentum and three AFC and two NFC road teams have won conference title games since the 2000 season, Sunday presents a stiff challenge.

Seattle and Denver are both 9-0 at home this season. The Seahawks have their much-hyped “12th Man,” which shook Qwest Field in last week’s 20-10 win over the Redskins. Last week, the Broncos had five takeaways in ending New England’s quest to become the first team in league history to win three straight Super Bowls.

“I think you kind of feed off the crowd and they definitely give me a lot of energy,” Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. “When they’re right behind you, pumping you up with everything they’ve got, it makes you want to play a little harder.”

But Pittsburgh is taking the same attitude into Denver that worked the last two weeks: Sure, it would be nice to play at Heinz Field, but that’s not an option.

“One game can get you to the Super Bowl,” Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward said, “and I don’t think you need any motivation for that.”

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