Two weeks after suffering a concussion, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger accomplished the improbable Sunday. He led his team to victory as a home team in the NFL playoffs.
Overcoming the head injury was the easy part.
The top two seeds in the NFC, the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers, and the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Tennessee Titans, all were victims of upsets. But the Steelers finished out the weekend by beating the trend.
Pittsburgh, a 61/2-point home favorite, defeated the San Diego Chargers 35-24 to reach the AFC Championship Game.
The NFL has an unlikely final four lined up for Sunday. The Steelers opened as 51/2-point home favorites over the Baltimore Ravens, and the Philadelphia Eagles are 31/2-point road favorites over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
“I think an Arizona-Pittsburgh matchup in the Super Bowl would be interesting for us,” MGM Mirage sports book director Jay Rood said. “There are still some interesting combinations out there. Nothing classic.”
The biggest potential Super Bowl draw for the sports books was a Giants-Steelers matchup. But the defending champions were knocked out Sunday.
The sixth-seeded Eagles, 4-point underdogs, won their second consecutive road playoff game and eliminated the Giants 23-11 as quarterback Donovan McNabb accounted for two touchdowns.
The Las Vegas Hilton posted Pittsburgh as the new Super Bowl favorite at 8-5 odds, followed by Philadelphia (11-5), Baltimore (3-1) and Arizona (5-1).
After the Eagles’ victory, Rood said the MGM Mirage was put in a position of needing the Steelers to win the late game because of several parlays connecting the four underdogs.
“The bettors have not been jumping on the favorites with blind ambition,” Rood said. “The public is more sophisticated than in years past, and they’re starting to realize how valuable the points are in these games.”
The points did not matter, however, as Pittsburgh covered comfortably and Arizona, Baltimore and Philadelphia won outright as underdogs. It was the first time since 1971 that three road teams won during a playoff weekend.
Also for the first time, none of the top three seeds in the NFC reached the conference championship.
Roethlisberger passed for 181 yards and one touchdown, but Willie Parker carried the Steelers by rushing for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
The result was a relief for Rood, who said “about 40 people bet” the Chargers to win the Super Bowl at 500-1 in early December after they dropped to 4-8 and seemed destined to miss the postseason.
After opening the Eagles as 3-point favorites over the Cardinals, Rood said all the early action was on Philadelphia.
“I’m kind of at a loss as to which direction this line is going to go,” he said. “I could see hanging 21/2 but I figured we’ll put it at 3. I think the Cardinals are becoming a good public team.”
Arizona, 7-2 at home this season, was blown out by the Eagles 48-20 on Thanksgiving night at Philadelphia.
The total for the Eagles-Cardinals game opened at 48. The Ravens-Steelers total opened much lower at 33.
Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore 23-20 at home and 13-9 on the road, and now Roethlisberger must overcome one of the most tired clichés in sports: It’s tough to beat a team three times in one season.
Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory three years ago.
The Hilton posted the AFC as a 3-point favorite over the NFC in Super Bowl XLIII on Feb. 1 at Tampa, Fla.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
EAGLES VS. CARDINALS
WHEN: noon Sunday
WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
TV: Fox (5)
LINE: Eagles -31/2; total 48
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
RAVENS VS. STEELERS
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
TV: CBS (8)
LINE: Steelers -51/2; total 33