01/20/2006 12:00AM

NFL Analysis: Super no matter how you look at it


LAS VEGAS - The popularity of the NFL never ceases to amaze.

The Super Bowl is the prime example. Even during the 80's and 90's when blowouts were commonplace, 40 percent of televisions in the country would be tuned into the game with hundreds of millions of viewers.

The ratings obviously peak when a big-market team or really popular team (read: Packers) is involved, but people tune in just because it's the Super Bowl and the NFL. This year, the popular team was the Colts, so all this will be put to the test as they didn't even make it to this Sunday's conference championship round.

And people will tune in Sunday no matter the quality of play or the questionable officiating. I'm thinking this will also be put to the test as I'm forecasting low-scoring affairs, which may not be that exciting for the video-game generation.

But, hey, it's the NFL, so we gotta watch.

Steelers (+3) at Broncos

Pittsburgh is trying to become only the second team to win three straight road games to reach the Super Bowl (the first was the Patriots of 1985-86, who ended up as sacrificial lambs to the Bears' championship team) and the first No. 6 seed to pull the trick. I'm thinking they are very capable.

If this was a regular-season matchup, I might be looking to go against a team like the Steelers in the week after a big upset (think of the Chargers falling flat vs. the Chiefs the week after ending the Colts' perfect season), but in the playoffs I think all the momentum is with the Steelers and there's reason to think they'll suffer a letdown.

Pittsburgh is really playing like a team right now with an aggressive, physical defense and coach Bill Cowher utilizing the strengths of Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker in the running game and Ben Roethlisberger back to his former self.

Part of the reason I like the under is that Roethlisberger, despite flinging the ball all over the place last week in the Steelers' brilliantly executed gameplan, is mostly asked to just be a game manager, which is also the role that Denver quarterback Jake Plummer has accepted this year. With so much on the line, that should continue with conservative game plans and while both have the mobility to avoid pressure, they're just as likely to be content to throw the ball out of bounds instead of risking an interception as they are to make a big play downfield.

The other reason is that while the Broncos have the No. 2 ranked rushing defense in the league and the Steelers are No. 3, both teams are very run-oriented on offense and will stubbornly try to establish the ground game and that should keep the clock running.

In the end, the game should come to the wire. From a betting standpoint, it's much easier to see the Steelers either winning the game straight-up or losing by just a field goal than to see the Broncos win by more than a field goal. Kudos to the people who got the Steelers at +4 or +3 1/2.

PLAY: Steelers for 2 units and under 41 for 1 unit.

Panthers at Seahawks (-4)

When this game kicks off, hopefully the Panthers are trying to become the third team to win three straight road games on the way to the Super Bowl (meaning the Steelers would have won). But, despite typically looking to the underdog first, I don't think they're as likely to complete the road hat trick. That's more of a tribute to the Seahawks as opposed to a knock on the Panthers.

The Seahawks really showed a lot last week in beat the Redskins and winning their first playoff game since 1984 despite losing MVP running back Shaun Alexander to a concussion in the first quarter. Matt Hasselbeck stepped up at the right time and got the job done before the home fans, who should provide a noticeable home-field advantage as they have all season.

On Friday's "Stardust Line" radio show, Ken White Las Vegas Sports Consultants pointed out that Seattle led the league with an average of three false-start penalties by opposing offenses during the regular season. That coupled with a Seahawks' defense that led the league with 50 sacks this year should make it harder for Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme to have time to hook up with receiver Steve Smith - and you know the Seattle defensive coaches have been devising all sorts of ways to defend Smith.

A lot has been made about the loss of Carolina starting running back DeShaun Foster and the dropoff to Nick Goings, but Goings had five 100-yard games for the Panthers last year down the stretch after Stephen Davis and Foster were both hurt and Carolina will still attempt to establish the run to slow down the Seattle pass rush.

Again, that should help with the under. The way I see it, both teams will be playing close to the vest early with the Seahawks winning the field-position battle as Alexander and the Seahawks' offensive line takes control (this could be enhanced if Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers is less than 100 percent, as he is expected to be). With Seattle in the lead, Alexander will continue to milk the clock while the crowd gets crazier in anticipation of their team's first Super Bowl appearance and makes it harder for the Panthers to rally. Championship games often turn into blowouts with one team rolling along and the other falling apart as their season comes to an end.

PLAY: Seahawks for 1 unit and under 44 for 2 units.

Last week: 4-4, including 2-1 on 2-unit plays, for a net profit of 0.5 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Postseason record: 7-9 for a net loss of 5.3 units.

Pittsburgh-Seattle might not be the sexiest of matchups either geographically or with their styles of play, but, hey, it's the Super Bowl and people will watch anyway.