Welcome to The Pulse, the place to find out what the sports world is thinking. Every day on ESPN.com, SportsNation registers its opinion on a wide range of topics by casting votes and chatting with experts in The Show. We collect the daily highlights and put them in The Pulse.
Story of the Day: Broncos vs. Steelers
Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are renowned, and notorious, for going to any length to support their favorite football team, perhaps explaining why the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs is SportsNation's pick to win Sunday's AFC Championship Game in the team's third road game in as many weeks.
Or perhaps, as the Indianapolis Colts would probably attest, the Steelers are just that good.
Whatever the reasoning, the Steelers are solidly the 'Nation's pick to become the first team since the 1985 New England Patriots to take the wild-card route to the Super Bowl without benefit of a home game. And if you're looking for an explanation, check out the ground game. Despite finishing behind the Broncos in rushing yards allowed, by a scant margin, the Steelers are given the better run defense by 71 percent of voters. And when it comes to the backfields, a similarly healthy majority prefer Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker to Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell.
Which team will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XL? (258,154 votes)
56.9% Pittsburgh Steelers
43.0% Denver Broncos
If you're Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who would you worry the most about containing? (224,714 votes)
38.4% Jake Plummer
21.2% Mike Anderson
21.1% Tatum Bell
19.3% Rod Smith
Which pair of running backs would you rather have? (224,714 votes)
61.5% Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker
38.5% Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell
Which team's defense is better against the run? (224,714 votes)
71.4% Pittsburgh Steelers
28.6% Denver Broncos
Which team's defense is better against the pass? (224,714 votes)
54.1% Pittsburgh Steelers
45.9% Denver Broncos
Voice of the Fan
I do not want to sound like a homer, but I am more confident in Jake Plummer losing the game for the Broncos than I am of him beating the Steelers.
SportsNation clearly feels the AFC title will be decided on the ground, but these teams don't run the wishbone. When forced to take to the air, will Ben Roethlisberger or Jake Plummer come up big? Check out the results on which QB is most important to his team's success.
31.0% Jake Delhomme
30.0% Ben Roethlisberger
23.0% Jake Plummer
15.0% Matt Hasselbeck
"Denver will generate some run game, but ultimately this game will come down to the QB's and which one can make the plays at the end of the game."
Jeremy Green in chat
I'll take the Steelers with that suffocating D, and I look for Jerome Bettis to have a big game running, on a mission to get to the Super Bowl and avenge that uncharacteristic fumble last week. I like the Steelers by seven points.
Joe (Washington, D.C.)
The Steelers have to be the favorites. They went into Indy and beat the Colts. The only thing working in Denver's favor is that the Steelers may suffer a hangover from such a crazy game last week.
Pittsburgh will win, as long as they make Jake Plummer beat them. He had the deer-in-the-headlights look going last week until he engineered those two one-yard drives.
The two teams match up very well against each other, but Pittsburgh has more weapons on offense. A great running game, and Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and Heath Miller? Who is Denver going to stop? And Denver may have to have a drive longer than 30 yards to score this week.
After many bluffs, Denver is the true holder of the disrespect card. Despite Pittsburgh's flash, the teams are nearly equal, and one of the league's most significant home-field advantages gives Denver the victory.
Tom (Parkville, Md.)
Denver wins, hands down. They have the No. 1 rush defense and their pass rush is no slouch either. They will force Ben Roethlisberger to put the game on his shoulders. Then they will make him make mistakes.
David (North Carolina)
I still have a hard time seeing Pittsburgh pull off three very emotional road games in a row. It's just not easy to do. Sure Cincinnati and Indianapolis weren't long road trips, but the travel is there just the same. It wouldn't surprise me to see them come out a bit flat, and that could their downfall.
SportsNation's Show: AFC Championship Game
Jim (Kansas City): Why are the Broncos getting no respect? They are 13-3, undefeated at home, have a 5-1 record against playoff teams, play tough defense and a positive turnover ratio. What will the "experts" say if they win the Super Bowl? Will they all eat crow? Could they be the most disrespected team in history?
Chris Neubauer (Pro Football Weekly): These Broncos are definitely one of the most disrespected 13-3 teams in history. They are good. People aren't on their bandwagon because they don't trust QB Jake Plummer, the Broncos use RB by committee and their only star on defense is Champ Bailey. Not a ton of story lines there, that's why there's so much disrespect. Sad, but true.
Wesley (Casper, Wy.): I'm not hearing too much about the Denver passing game vs. the overmatched Pittsburgh secondary. Troy Polamalu is a stud, but nobody else back there scares me. Before everyone starts talking about keeping Jake Plummer in the pocket and forcing him to beat you, remember they only ran the bootleg once and beat the defending world champs. Thoughts?
Chris Mortensen: If you're a Denver fan, you would hope the Broncos' offense has more success than it did against New England. Plummer wasn't great working from the pocket. I think it's a must that the Broncos run the football more effectively Sunday. And you're right, the Steelers' secondary is pretty ordinary with the exception of Polamalu -- one of the best football players in the NFL -- but Dick LeBeau does a great job as the Steelers defensive coordinator.
Story of the Day: Seahawks vs. Panthers
Mention coffee consumption, and Seattle springs immediately to mind. Mention music, and the city by the Puget Sound still owns a prominent place in the minds of most. But mention pro sports, and the city suddenly becomes a distant kingdom, far removed from the mainstream of American sports.
The Seattle Seahawks enter Sunday's NFC Championship Game with the best record of the four teams still in the running for Super Bowl XL and a home game against a wild-card team down to its third-string running back and hoping for the best out a hobbled defensive star.
So is the outcome a foregone conclusion? Not according to SportsNation voters, who make the Seahawks only narrow favorites to beat the Carolina Panthers. And while most voters expect Seattle running back Shaun Alexander to be healthy, it appears they think Qwest Field and its distance from Carolina will be the deciding factor.
Which team will represent the NFC in Super Bowl XL? (87,469 votes)
54.4% Seattle Seahawks
45.5% Carolina Panthers
Which team would you pick if the game was in Carolina? (87,469 votes)
60.2% Carolina Panthers
39.8% Seattle Seahawks
What do you expect from Shaun Alexander after he suffered a concussion against Washington? (87,469 votes)
69.1% He'll play and be effective
28.8% Hell play but won't be effective
2.1% He won't play
Which was more impressive in the divisional round? (87,469 votes)
52.0% Carolina winning on the road in Chicago
48.0% Seattle overcoming early loss of Alexander
Which factor do you think will play a bigger role in this game? (87,469 votes)
55.2% Carolina playing third road game in as many weeks
44.8% Seattle's inexperience with games of ths magnitude
Voice of the Fan: Carolina's Plan
The Panthers need to stuff the run, which they can do. On offense, they need to run the ball some to keep the Seahawks from dropping eight into coverage. And they must control turnovers. All things they have done, and will do again. Panthers win!
Jake (Virginia Beach)
If the Seahawks are going to earn SportsNation's respect, stopping the player considered the NFL's best WR by 45% of SportsNation would be a good place to start. The Seahawks know he's coming -- 90% of voters say Smith is the guy Seattle must focus on -- but will they be able to stop him?
"He'll run slants and hitches if you try to play off, and if you try to jam him, he'll go deep. He's the toughest guy to cover that I've seen in recent years."
Gary Horton in chat
Keary Colbert and the rest of the supporting cast of receivers need to make a guest appearance. I'm pretty sure they will be seeing single or no coverage most of the day.
The Panthers need to hit TE Kris Mangum up the seams. And protect Jake Delhomme to give him time. Believe it or not, every receiver BUT Steve Smith is important for the Panthers in this game.
Josh (Knoxville, Tenn.)
I think they should give the ball to Steve Smith on every play. Reverses, direct snaps, screens, whatever. If he touches the ball 60 times, he will score at least four touchdowns.
The Panthers must get pressure on Matt Hasselbeck, jam the receivers and stop Shaun Alexander on defense. On offense, they must establish the run early and often, working the play-action game.
Richard (Des Moines, Iowa)
Everyone is saying that the Panthers need to stop the run AND the pass? If they need to do both things in order to win, it's going to be a long day for Carolinians. Might as well watch the Duke game instead.
Scott (Watertown, Mass.)
Successful for Nick Goings would be 3.5 yards a carry -- enough to keep the defense from triple-teaming Steve Smith. Whether it's 14 carries for 48 yards or 30 for 105, he needs positive production when he touches the ball.
Matt (Washington, D.C.)
Nick Goings needs to be able to draw attention away from the passing game and be enough of a threat to prevent double and triple teams in the secondary. As long as he averages more than three yards a carry, they could pull it off.
Kyle (Natick, Mass.)
SportsNation's Show: NFC Championship Game
Brian (Durham, N.C.): In the Panthers-Seahawks game, assuming neither side will have a dominating ground attack by virtue of going against the NFC's top two rushing defenses, who do you feel has the edge in the passing department? The Seahawks with an effective three- or four- WR set, or the Panthers with the "You all know we're throwing to Smith and you can't stop us" air attack?
Gary Horton (Scouts, Inc.): I would think that Carolina has the edge -- ironically -- because nobody can stop Smith. Beyond that, Carolina's two corners -- Gamble and Lucas -- are the best duo in the NFL in man-to-man coverage. They can cover their men without safety help, in my opinion. Even though Seattle has more weapons, I think Carolina is equipped to cover them better.
Kyle (Maria Stein, Ohio): Many people think John Fox, even lacking a Super Bowl title, is the best coach remaining in the playoffs. Do you agree?
Jeremy Green: I agree that despite the lack of the ring, he is the best coach left, and that he will get "rings" in the near future. He is a great X-O coach. His teams play smart, mistake-free football. I think he will out-coach Mike Holmgren this weekend.