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A FEARLESS FOURSOME.

Byline: BILLY WITZ NFL

CHICAGO - Perhaps the Patriots and the Colts merely decided that this is what you should do when there is a Super Bowl being held in Detroit: stay away.

The NFL playoff picture became a lot more wide-open this weekend when the team that nobody wanted to play, the Patriots, and the team nobody would be able to stop, the Colts, were removed from it.

This no doubt left legions of NFL fans with a keen sense of history pining for the good old days of the Consolation Bowl.

Instead, we have left in the conference championships a rather Fearless Foursome.

The two teams playing in the NFC might be without their starting tailbacks, Carolina losing DeShaun Foster (UCLA) to a broken ankle Sunday and Seattle's Shawn Alexander in limbo after getting knocked from action Saturday with a concussion.

Probably what football fans around the country are wondering this morning: How do you contain Nick Goings and Maurice Morris?

The two teams in the AFC winners - or is it consolation? - bracket are Denver and Pittsburgh, which each acted upon the graciousness of their opponents.

The Steelers tried to hand their spot to Indianapolis when the Bus, Jerome Bettis, emptied his passenger - the football - in the final minute and Pittsburghers were sure this was the long-awaited comeuppance for the Immaculate Reception.

Not that the Broncos were any less generous. After Champ Bailey intercepted Tom Brady's pass and raced toward the end zone, he began to coast toward the goal line, carrying the ball like a bouquet.

Soon he was separated from it by Ben Watson.

The only thing that saved him from Leon Lett-like infamy - Chump Bailey - was that Watson had the poor fortune to knock the ball out of bounds rather than out of the end zone.

All around, it was really a hard weekend to figure. Of course, nobody expected the Colts to lose. And nobody imagined that Tom Brady, Adam Vinatieri and Troy Brown would all make the big mistake instead of the big play.

Who would have expected that the biggest run of the day by the Seahawks would come from Mack Strong? Or that the highest scoring game of the weekend would be turned in by Carolina and Chicago?

Nevertheless, here we are with two teams who at the beginning of the season were tabbed as Super Bowl contenders, but both Pittsburgh and Carolina will have to win three in a row on the road to do it - something no team has done since the Patriots in 1985.

Then there are Seattle and Denver, whose coaches - Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan - staged a worthy Super Bowl. But that was when their teams were quarterbacked by Brett Favre and John Elway.

This year, they were considered to be teams whose best shots went unfulfilled.

Beauty, though, lies with he who holds the mirror.

``I know the four teams left are the four best teams in the NFL,'' Carolina defensive lineman Brentson Buckner said. ``Everybody's got a 50 percent chance of winning the next game. If you call that wide open, fine.''

Also open for interpretation was the work of the officials, whose weekend wasn't much better than the Patriots and Colts.

There was the questionable pass interference call against Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, a 39-yard play which planted the Broncos at the 1-yard line and set up the go-ahead touchdown just before halftime.

It was a call that peeved Bill Belichick and that even the recipient, Ashley Lelie, acknowledged he didn't expect to get.

But that, and the sticky issue of Bailey's fumble, were quickly overshadowed Sunday.

The Steelers were spared a key procedure call on fourth down when they had clearly moved. But they had their own reason to carp when they appeared to have won the game with an interception by Troy Polamalu - only to have it rather bafflingly reversed.

Then there was a fumble by Chicago's Thomas Jones that left his hand somewhere around the Billy Goat Tavern as he dove for the pylon. No matter. Touchdown, ruled the officials, who at least had the good sense to reverse it.

You'd like to think that we'll see a better set of officiating crews next weekend. Then again, the same could be said for the field.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) STEAL TOWN

Vanderjagt's late missed field goal eliminates heavily favored Indianapolis and sends Pittsburgh to AFC Championship Game

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

(2) Indianapolis Colts fans sit in disbelief long after Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game against Pittsburgh was over.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 16, 2006
Words:766
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