Football looks a lot like baseball

Football playoffs a lot like baseball

It's feeling a lot like Major League Baseball around the NFL right now, and not just because Joe Buck was using his football voice on Sunday.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will play the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. It sounds a lot like recent World Series matchups, doesn't it?

The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers won a Super Bowl, it was January 1980. That 31-19 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV followed the Pirates' 1979 World Series victory.

Fans in the Steel City have been waiting for a winner from both teams ever since. Their football team -- a sixth seed that had to win three times on the road in the AFC playoffs -- is going to the big game in Detroit by virtue of a 34-17 mashing of Denver.

The Seahawks joined the NFL 30 years ago, and at last they are going to their first Super Bowl. Mike Holmgren's team dominated Carolina throughout a 34-14 victory as they contained Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and got a 132-yard rushing performance from Shaun Alexander.

Alexander is now in position to do something that is very different from what Major League Baseball fans are accustomed to seeing. He could win a championship in the same season he won an MVP award. One has to go way back to 1988 to find the last time a player won a World Series title and an MVP award in the same season: Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The whole NFL picture is looking very baseball. The White Sox just won their first World Series in 88 years by beating an Astros team that was making its first appearance in the Fall Classic. In 2004, the Red Sox won their first title in 86 years by beating a Cardinals team that had not won it all since 1982. The Angels and Diamondbacks also won first world championships in recent autumns.

If the Seahawks win, then Holmgren becomes the first coach to lead two different franchises to Super Bowl victory. In baseball, Tony La Russa's Cardinals have led the Majors in victories each of the last two years, and he will return in 2006 once again with a legitimate shot at joining Sparky Anderson as the only managers ever to win a World Series in each league.

Neither of Sunday's conference title games were particularly close, but it is the novelty and the reward of patience that makes this championship showdown so compelling. That has become a way of life in modern baseball. Will Seattle's defense have an answer for Big Ben Roethlisberger? Can Troy Polamalu and his Steeler defensive teammates frustrate Matt Hasselbeck the way they did Jake Plummer?

It's easy to like Hasselbeck around baseball, mainly because the former Boston College quarterback grew up with a miniature version of the Green Monster in his yard at home in Massachusetts. And it's easy to like Polamalu around baseball, mainly because he was an All-State center fielder while playing for Douglas (Ore.) High School. It just seems natural now, an outfielder running into a Green Monster.

Are the Seahawks this year's White Sox, and the Steelers this year's Astros? The Seahawks led the NFC in victories during the regular season and carried home-field advantage into the big game, just as Chicago did. The Steelers were the Wild Card and had to get there the hard way, just as Houston did.

One key difference: They play the title game in a neutral setting in the NFL. In baseball, the league that wins the All-Star Game is accorded World Series home-field advantage. Super Bowl XL will be played on carpet in a dome.

These two fans bases make it feel a lot like Major League Baseball, too. And, of course, many of those same Pirates and Mariners fans are waving Terrible Towels or backing the Seahawks. There were an estimated 8,000 Steelers fans who made the trip to Denver for Sunday's game, and before the Seahawks game, owner Paul Allen had a No. 12 flag raised over the stadium in recognition of those fans as the "12th man."

It remains to be seen whether Pittsburgh and Seattle could pull off a Major League matchup next October. Both clubs would have to make extreme comebacks from 2005, when each finished last. The Pirates were 67-95 and 33 games back in the National League Central; the Mariners were 69-93 and 26 back in the American League West. But this is the anything-is-possible era in Major League Baseball, and both clubs have made some changes that improve the outlook on paper.

The Pirates will have a new manager in 2006 in Jim Tracy. Their new talent on the field will include Sean Casey, Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz, and this is when all the young Pirates pitching talent could blossom in the form of 2005 wunderkind Zach Duke and 2002 No. 1 overall draft pick Bryan Bullington. There will be added enthusiasm this season with the July 11 All-Star Game coming to PNC Park.

The Mariners signed prized Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima to a four-year, $16.5 million deal, and the pitchers he will be handling will include Felix Hernandez. Hernandez dominated the Minors last summer and then dominated at in the Majors -- he was 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA (77 strikeouts, 23 walks) after being called up. The Mariners acquired right-hander Jarrod Washburn and designated hitter Carl Everett, and they are hoping Adrian Beltre returns to his 2004 form.

It will be baseball's turn soon enough, to see how those kinds of things turn out. For now, there is another Super Bowl to be played. Pittsburgh vs. Seattle. That's something different. It kind of feels like Major League Baseball around the gridiron these days.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.