Home not sweet in this conference


Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
DENVER - Home-field advantage. From the time training camp begins, the good teams talk about it, play for it, stress over it. They say they'll do anything to have it when this week - the week when trips to the Super Bowl are won and lost - finally comes around.
Funny thing is, home-field advantage in the AFC doesn't give a team anything better than a coin flip's chance of winning the conference championship game. In fact, worse than a coin flip.
In six of the last 11 AFC title games, the road team has won. Nobody has played a more important role in that surprising trend than the Pittsburgh Steelers. With a 1-4 record at home in the AFC title game since 1995, the Steelers have a legitimate reason to say they're happy to be on the road this time, today at Denver, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.
"We've been underdogs pretty much every week since we got into this thing," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "We don't take ourselves too seriously."
Don't believe it. Including playoffs, they are 15-3 on the road the last two years. No team in the NFL has a better record than that. They are trying to become the first No. 6 seed to make the Super Bowl and the first team since the 1985 Patriots to win three road playoff games en route to the Super Bowl (Carolina also has that chance in the NFC.)
The Steelers are built for the road, with a pounding running game they use 57 percent of the time, which figures to cut down on the number of plays that need to be changed at the line and the number of overall mistakes.
They are also a team that, for whatever reason, has had trouble getting it done in the biggest games at home, with the Terrible Towels flying and the expectations soaring.
"It was kind of more of a distraction than anything; more ticket requests, a lot of people want to come and watch," receiver Hines Ward said. "With us going on the road, we really don't have to worry about that too much. We just go out there and just concentrate on football."
Last week, the Broncos talked about what a big deal home-field advantage would be. It was, after all, their first home playoff game since their last Super Bowl year, in 1998. They used home field to beat the Patriots and were stunned when Pittsburgh won at Indianapolis, ensuring them another game at Invesco Field.
But while it was something to celebrate last week, the Broncos are downplaying it this week.
"I think sometimes you get teams who are playing at home and they think since they have that edge, they don't even have to go out and play," coach Mike Shanahan said. "You've still got to go out and play."
Denver is one of the four teams to hand Pittsburgh a home loss in the title game, 24-21 back in the 1997 season.
The Broncos are three-point favorites in this game. Three points is the amount oddsmakers normally give a team with a good home-field advantage. In other words, if there was no home-field advantage, this would be considered an even game.
And why not? The quarterbacks are similar. Jake Plummer and Ben Roethlisberger have turned their games around and taken their teams this far by eliminating mistakes and effectively managing their offenses. Plummer only threw seven interceptions this season. Roethlisberger threw nine (in only 12 games).
For the second-year Pittsburgh quarterback, these playoffs have been very unlike last year's playoffs, when he threw five interceptions in two games. He has thrown one in two games so far this year.
"I want to come out and take care of the things I have to deal with," Roethlisberger said. "As a quarterback, if you do that, and don't turn the ball over and you do the things you're supposed to do, you give yourself and your team a better chance of winning the game."
The running attacks are similar. Both teams split their carries. Denver gives it to Mike Anderson most of the time and Tatum Bell for a change of pace. For Pittsburgh, it's Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis. Bettis' career almost ended on the infamous fourth-quarter fumble in Indy last week, but he got a reprieve and still has a chance to play in the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit.
"If I'm the head coach and I'm down on the goal line, a thousand times out of a thousand I'd run the same play and give him the ball," Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans said.
The defenses have been among the best over the last two years. Both figure to blitz a lot
. Champ Bailey is the big playmaker for Denver. Troy Polamalu of Pittsburgh is considered one of the biggest playmakers on defense that the league has seen in the last decade.
"I'm not a strong safety or free safety, but if I did play that position, that is the way I would want to play," Plummer said. "You have to see where he is and someone has to account for him, because he can cause you some trouble."
Cowher and Shanahan. Ward and Rod Smith. Polamalu and John Lynch.
In so many ways, this game looks so even - the kind that could be decided by a bounce here, a break there.
Or by home-field advantage? Neither team is banking on it. "I just think when you prepare well and believe in yourself," Bailey said, "it doesn't really matter where you play."

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