Almost certainly, the most important football game of the season — the AFC championship game, which some folks are sure to call the real Super Bowl — will be played outdoors on what could well be the coldest day of the winter in Pittsburgh on Jan. 23. That became probable Sunday when the 14-1 Steelers won the home-field edge through the playoffs.

Pittsburgh is a running team built for Pittsburgh weather — which is to say bad weather. And its probable opponent that winter day will be a passing team, either the 13-2 New England Patriots with Tom Brady or the 12-3 Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning.

It's true that, this year, Corey Dillon has given the Patriots what they needed most — a running back.

And it's likewise a fact that tailback Edgerrin James has been vital to Manning's play-action game.

But there's a difference between running the ball for change of pace — which is, basically, what Dillon and James do — and running it steadily, which is what the Steelers do with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. For title day, the Steelers are counting on either bitterly cold weather or high winds. In milder, windless weather — with a sloppy field to retard the running backs and defensive backs — the advantage could shift to Brady or Manning. In any case, Pittsburgh's offensive line is still the envy of the league, and good blockers can throw blocks in any kind of weather.

Cheap Shot Downs Roethlisberger

THE STEELERS are where they are today, of course, because of the remarkable contributions of their new quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, the most successful rookie the NFL has known in six decades — since quarterback Bob Waterfield of the old Cleveland Rams beat Sammy Baugh in the league's 1945 championship game.

Nonetheless, as the passer on a running team, Roethlisberger throws only an occasional pass. And there came a time in the Baltimore game Sunday when he couldn't even do that. After a cheap shot by Raven linebacker Terrell Suggs, a second-year pro from Arizona State, Roethlisberger went to the sideline with one of the most painful of all injuries, bad ribs.

He had just thrown the second of his two touchdowns to defeat Baltimore, 20-7, when Suggs sneaked up on his blind side and got him well after the ball was gone. In the era of Coach Brian Billick, the Ravens have been widely known for moves like that. To win their only Super Bowl in 2001, they knocked out all three passers they faced in the playoffs. And more recently, it was in a Baltimore game last September that Roethlisberger's predecessor, Tommy Maddox, went down and out with an elbow injury.

The Maddox incident backfired on the Ravens — they'd be that much closer to the Super Bowl today if it weren't for Roethlisberger — but who knew that? Who could have expected a rookie to do what Big Ben's doing?

Best Passer, Worst Quarterback?

THE DENVER BRONCOS are favored to win a wild card spot in the playoffs next week by turning back the only NFL quarterback who ever, in one season, threw 49 touchdown passes. Say hello to Peyton Manning, whose comeback conquest of San Diego in overtime Sunday, 34-31, identified him as one of the best passers of recent years and one of the worst quarterbacks.

As a field general, that is, Manning leaves much to be desired. He loves what's known as play-action football — handing off or faking handoffs to runner James before dropping back to throw or fake a throw — and the faking is essential, but all those handoffs are not.

Against a San Diego team whose quarterback, Drew Brees, passed aggressively on nearly every first down and parlayed touchdown throws — one a 74-yard pass play for the game's longest touchdown — Manning kept handing off for small gains on time-consuming, profitless drives. In five quarters, James totaled but 81 yards on 22 carries. In the first quarter alone, Manning had possession for 24 plays to nine for Brees, who led at the end of the quarter, 7-0.

A half dozen James runs per game would be more than enough to, as they say, keep any defense honest. Instead, in the second half Sunday, Manning kept running James until San Diego had opened a 31-16 fourth-quarter lead on Brees' passes. Just then, when the Colts seemed dead, and were dead unless somebody could return the kickoff all the way, the improbable happened, reserve Colt running back Dominick Rhodes bringing the kickoff back 88 yards to save Manning.

Until Rhodes stole away, it was obvious that Manning had wasted so much time dancing around in the backfield after handing the ball to James that, now, he couldn't catch up throwing passes. And that's bad quarterbacking.

Manning Tosses Nine Straight Passes

MANNING PROVED in Sunday's fourth quarter that he's a much better passer than quarterback. To win the game in the final minutes, he stood back in shotgun formation and fired away, dispensing with his play-action nonsense and all other quarterback responsibilities on the game's decisive 80-yard drive. After Rhodes' big punt return closed the score to 31-23, the Colts needed eight points to tie, and the crucial problem, arising before a two-point conversion could be thought of, was getting the touchdown. Manning got it by lining up as a shotgun passer and throwing (or attempting to throw) nine consecutive passes, six of which connected.

There were no runs on that drive by Edgerrin James or anyone else. There were no window-dressing stretch plays. There was no elaborate faking. Although Manning often skips importantly around in the backfield before snaps, apparently conferring with teammates and pointing a finger zealously left or right, there was none of that. There was no need to huddle. There was no need for the sandlot plays Manning may have used at least once — his exceptional wide receivers, one or more of the three, were open on all nine plays.