by Robert Ferringo - 01/13/2006
Speed versus Power. Aerial aplomb versus rugged running. Good, clean and wholesome heroes versus rough-and-tumble bad asses. Super Bowl favorites versus Super Bowl long shots. This is what football is all about.
The Indianapolis Colts (14-2) will face the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at 1 p.m. on Sunday in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. At stake: a trip to the AFC Championship game against the winner of the Denver/New England contest.
This game is a rematch of a Week 12 tilt which Indianapolis won handily, 26-7. The Colts scored on the game's first play from scrimmage, an 80-yard bomb from Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison, and it was smooth sailing from there.
Since that meeting, these teams have been headed in opposite directions. Indianapolis made it to 13-0 before a crushing home loss to San Diego. With home-field advantage secure, Indy proceeded to mail it in for the rest of the regular season, splitting its last two games.
On the other hand, that loss at Indy was the middle of a three-game slide for Pittsburgh. The Men of Steel momentarily fell out of the playoff field, but then roared back with a five-game winning streak to seize the No. 6 seed.
Pittsburgh clearly has the edge in momentum heading into this match up, but that hasn't stopped the books from issuing Indianapolis as 10-point favorites. The line has settled at 9.5, with Indy at -450 and Pittsburgh +325 to win straight up.
The Colts have been the chalk pick to hoist the Lombardi Trophy since training camp. Manning leads an offense that scored more touchdowns (53) than it had punts (52), and the Colts defense managed to finish second in scoring at a modest 13.6 points per game.
There is also a fervent sense of purpose instilled in this group. The suicide of coach Tony Dungy's son on Dec. 22 galvanized the organization, and instantly vaulted the Colts into the role of Sentimental Favorite in the eyes of the general public.
The fact that Indianapolis is playing on turf, in front of a raucous home crowd, makes beating them an even more daunting task. But if anyone is up to it, it's a Steelers club that's tied for the most total wins (28) of any NFL team over the past 18 months.
Rolling into the RCA Dome shouldn't faze the Steelers. In fact, they have actually been slightly better on the road (14-3) over the past two seasons than they have been at home (14-4). Their defense has allowed only eight touchdowns away from home this season, and the club has been a bountiful 7-2 ATS outside of the Steel City.
Pittsburgh is hoping to impose its will, and style of play, on this game. Backed with the AFC's best defense, they would much rather turn this into a grinding, street brawl than a high-scoring track meet. Their massive offensive line will be charged with carving up the Colts defense, opening running lanes for Willie Parker to blaze and Jerome Bettis to bulldoze.
A key will be whether or not Pittsburgh can put points on the board early - taking advantage while the Colts shake off the rust. If the Steelers can pop a quick 10 on the board they may be able to steer Indianapolis away from its most potent offensive weapon - Edgerrin James.
James and his Golden Grill rushed for a healthy 124 yards on 28 attempts in the first meeting. The Edge (1,506 yards) has been instrumental in what appears to be a philosophical shift by the Colts this year: establish the run, and then use the pass to make teams pay. His performance in this contest will be vital, especially given that Pittsburgh is 12-0 this season when outrushing its opponents.
History rests overwhelmingly on the side of the Steelers in this one. The franchise is 4-0 all-time against the Colts in the postseason, and has claimed victory in 13 of the past 15 meetings.
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