Embracing an unlikely final four

The NFL might not have ended up with the sexiest final four, but instead of sulking, Gene Wojciechowski is embracing the remaining matchups.

Updated: January 16, 2006, 12:46 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Here at The Toilet Seat, otherwise known as the unfortunately shaped Soldier Field, the Carolina Panthers flipped the lever and flushed the Chicago Bears out of the playoffs. I don't want to push the lavatory metaphor too far, but the Panthers made the Bears play at times like, uh, No. 2.

Carolina won, 29-21, rendering 62,209 Bears fans mute. It was so quiet you could hear beer spill.

Almost two months ago the Panthers left Soldier Field doubled over in pain, the result of being on the wrong end of a 13-3 score. Chicago did everything but send Carolina to bed without dinner. The Panthers gave up eight sacks, fumbled once, threw two interceptions, and were held to their second-lowest offensive total of the season.

So, of course, Carolina returns to the scene of the chalk outline and scores the second-highest point total given up by the Bears this season, holds Chicago to just one sack, passes for 311 yards, controls the clock, and forces Rex Grossman into a 17-of-41 living nightmare. This remarkable reversal prompts one reporter to ask Carolina coach John Fox if he felt that the Panthers "left some points on the board."

Fox reacted as if he just chugged a smelt milkshake.

"You guys are amazing," he smirked.

No, you're amazing. And so are the Pittsburgh Steelers, who somehow eliminated the Indianapolis Colts on the same Sunday that Carolina gave the Bears a playoff wedgie.

Like Don Cheadle used to say, the postseason "makes the impossible ... possible."

Thanks to Sunday's events, your NFL Final Four doesn't include No. 1 AFC seed Indianapolis, No. 3 Cincinnati, No. 4 New England, or even No. 5 Jacksonville. It has to do without the league's top-rated defense (No. 3 NFC seed Tampa Bay), and the league's top two media markets (No. 4 NFC seed New York Giants and No. 2 Chicago).

There's no Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Tiki Barber, Clinton Portis, Brian Urlacher, Carson Palmer, Marvin Harrison, Chad Johnson, Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy and Joe Gibbs. No wonder Fox TV is breathing rapidly into a brown paper bag.

Tune in next Sunday when Paul Mitchell perms Jimmy Johnson's hair! And by the way, the Panthers play the Seahawks.

It isn't Fox's fault this happened, unless you count Carolina's John Fox for sticking it to the Bears. It isn't anybody's fault, though so much for the geniuses who said it was an advantage to have a bye week in the postseason. Some advantage -- Indy and Chicago had two weeks to prepare and now they're playoff history.

Meanwhile, the Steelers beat the Bengals and Colts on the road to become the first No. 6 seed ever to reach the AFC championship. And Carolina beat the Giants and Bears while wearing road unis.

"The four best teams in the NFL are playing," said Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "They earned it."

Victoria's Secret and the NFL say, "Give me sexy." Carolina at Seattle isn't sexy. It isn't even cute. There isn't a casual football fan outside the Starbucks capital that can name five Seahawk starters.

Pittsburgh at Denver at least shows some cleavage, but let's face it: the entire NFL universe, except for those waving Terrible Towels, was rooting for Dungy to reach the Super Bowl. Now we're left with two lesser storylines: Can Steelers running back Jerome Bettis end his career with a Super Bowl win? Will Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer be Mel Gibson's choice for a sequel to The Passion of the Christ?

"It's time for a change," said Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas. "Tom Brady had his time. Peyton Manning had his time. Only God knows what's going to happen next."

And if God knew he'd be in Vegas laying some large money on his faves. But that's the beauty of these bizarre playoffs. This isn't the March Madness equivalent of Bucknell beating Kansas, but it's in the neighborhood.

"Pittsburgh?" said Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers. "Nah, I'm not surprised. Pittsburgh is a tough team, just like us. I'm not surprised by that. And Denver -- they're 13-3. And Seattle? Nah, no surprise. And yeah, we expected to be here."

Or as Buckner so eloquently put it: "Seeds don't mean nothing. It's all about who's going to play the best football that day."

He's right. Carolina was a three-point pooch, but maybe we all forgot that the Panthers had won seven of their last nine games on the road. And you didn't really think the Steelers were going to soil their pants like they did against the Colts in late November?

So instead of sulking about the remaining matchups, I'm embracing them. Who needs sexy when you can watch Bettis' belly set off seismic sensors in California? Who needs marquee matchups when you can watch 5-9 Carolina receiver Steve Smith, inch for inch the best player in the league, make grown cornerbacks weep (Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman was a mere shell of himself as Smith finished with 12 catches, 218 yards and two touchdowns).

I still think the Steelers are going to squeeze past the Broncos, mostly because of that Pittsburgh fraternity, Phi Crack Your Skulla, with Troy Polamalu serving as chapter president. And I like the Seahawks at home over the DeShaun Foster-less Panthers, but I can be convinced otherwise. So there.

"That's why this game is so exciting," Lucas said. "Because nobody knows."

Until Sunday. Then, if we're lucky, more questions.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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