Delhomme rises to occasion in playoffs

There is something about the playoffs that brings out the best in Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme.

In his three years as a starter, Delhomme has thrown 47 interceptions in 1,417 attempts, for a 3.3-percent interception ratio. He had at least 15 interceptions in each of those seasons and, in some quarters, is regarded as being prone to giving up the ball in key situations. Come playoff time, though, Delhomme has gone from careless to caretaker in terms of ball security. And that has helped make Delhomme the winningest, and most effective, quarterback left in the postseason. A media buddy of mine often refers to Delhomme as "Jake the Fake," but there has been nothing phony about the Panthers' quarterback in postseason play.

With Sunday's win at Chicago, in which he threw three touchdown passes, Delhomme is now an impressive 5-1 in six playoff starts. The starting quarterbacks for the other final four franchises are a combined 6-6 and, of that group, Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh (3-1) is the only other starter with a winning record. In those six starts, the only loss coming to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Delhomme completed 98 of 157 passes for 1,446 yards, with 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He has thrown for 270 yards or more four times and has two 300-yard performances and two games with three touchdown passes each. His quarterback rating of 108.5 in the postseason is 24 points higher than his regular-season rating. The postseason ratings of the other three starters: Roethlisberger, 89.1; Matt Hasselbeck (Seattle), 84.4; and Jake Plummer (Denver), 73.9.

A notorious streak shooter, Delhomme always seems to have a hot hand at playoff time. He seems far more aware of ball security in the postseason and, while he takes just as many chances, Delhomme wins more gambles in the playoffs. The Panthers will need him to be brilliant Sunday at Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, especially given the broken ankle suffered by tailback DeShaun Foster in Sunday's victory at Soldier Field.

Praising Punters
This might be the only forum in which punters get even a smidgeon of recognition for their efforts this weekend, so a tip of the "Morning After" fedora to the punters from the four victorious franchises in the divisional round. The four -- Tom Rouen (Seattle), Todd Sauerbrun (Denver), Chris Gardocki (Pittsburgh) and Jason Baker (Carolina) -- all posted exceptional outings.

As a group, they averaged 42.9 yards gross and 39.1 yards net, with 13 kicks inside the opponents' 20-yard line among them. They combined for just two touchbacks and forced four fair catches, and the longest punt return against the four was for 14 yards. Every one of the punters had at least three kicks inside the 20-yard line and each forced one fair catch.

Sauerbrun, in particular, had a spectacular outing, with a gross average of 45.7 yards, a net average of 39.5 yards, three kicks inside the 20-yard line and no touchbacks. The 11-year veteran, acquired from Carolina in a trade in which the Panthers added Baker, also averaged 69.0 yards on five kickoffs for the Broncos. And he forced a fumble by New England return man Ellis Hobbs that set up a field goal.

Human Touch
No need now to conduct those DNA tests of New England quarterback Tom Brady to see if he's an alien. As demonstrated on Saturday evening, the guy is human after all.

Poised to grab the lead in the third quarter of Saturday night's game, Brady tossed up a duck in the end zone that Denver cornerback Champ Bailey intercepted and sprinted with 100 yards down the left sideline. The only thing Bailey didn't do was score, thanks to some incredible hustle by Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson, who managed to chase him down at the 1-yard line.

It was, through about 2½ quarters, a strange game. And with some strange calls. How about the fade pattern that Broncos coach Mike Shanahan called on a fourth-and-inches from the New England 3-yard line in the second period? But by far the strangest occurrence of the evening was the uneven play of Brady, who threw for 341 yards but also had two picks (after having tossed just three interceptions in his first 10 postseason starts). You just kept waiting for Brady to get into one of those zones where he completes about a dozen straight passes, but it never happened.

Official Explanation
Every Wednesday evening, NFL senior director of officiating Mike Pereira appears on the NFL Network's "Total Access" show to review and explain some of the controversial calls from the previous week's contests. The candor of Pereira, who has been accessible and open during his tenure, and the various camera shots that permit him to explain why a play was called the way it was (often to the chagrin of zebra-bashers), makes the segment one of the best the NFL Network airs.

Here's betting, though, that Pereira has an even bigger than normal audience this week. Because unless you spent the weekend in a cave, you know that the officiating in the divisional round was a bit uneven, to be kind. From the dubious 39-yard pass interference call against Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, to the would-be interception by Pittsburgh strong safety Troy Polamalu that was reversed after being challenged by the Colts, to the touchdown call (eventually reversed) on a run by Bears tailback Thomas Jones during which he fumbled at least a yard shy of the end zone, there certainly were some head-scratchers.

To steal a phrase from the old "I Love Lucy" sitcom, Pereira has some 'splainin' to do. And so will Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter, who charged that the officials tried to "steal" the game, and who probably will be fined for his remarks. Porter was correct, though, in questioning some calls. Then again, the league's game officials are so much better than most of us care to admit, Pereira just might change all of our minds about the most scrutinized calls of the weekend. But we doubt it.

Carolina's Cornerbacks Excel
For much of the season, we've touted the Carolina cornerback tandem of Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble as one of the best in the league. For much of the season, the Panthers' duet has been ignored, often in favor of pairs such as Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman of the Chicago Bears.

Well, in Sunday's divisional game, Vasher and Tillman were part of a much-ballyhooed Chicago defense that allowed Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith to cavort all over the field. Lucas and Gamble? Oh, they had a typical performance, as they combined for 11 tackles, one interception and four passes defensed. Just another day at the office for a couple of guys who are terrific two-way defenders (how many corners today average more than five tackles per game?) and who deserve some attention.

Oh, yeah, Lucas faces a Seattle franchise next week that allowed him to escape in free agency last spring, when the Seahawks seemed to be re-signing just about every other key player on the roster. There's some added incentive for Lucas, right?

Dungy Exits Gracefully
Here is all you need to know to understand the class and dignity of Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy: An hour after having his team fall short of its Super Bowl goal once again, just a month after burying his eldest son, Dungy stood in the bowels of the RCA Dome on Sunday night, signing autographs, posing for pictures with Colts fans, and greeting some of the media types who had lingered a little too long in the Pittsburgh locker room and failed to make it to the home-team dressing area in time to catch the coach's remarks.

Yeah, we know this is redundant, but we're going to say it again anyway: Dungy is one of the best human beings you can ever be blessed enough to know.

The goal-line fumble by Jerome Bettis in the final minutes Sunday was his first of the season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the New York Jets' Curtis Martin is the only back in modern league history to handle the ball more times than Bettis in his career and have fewer fumbles. Then again, it's notable that The Bus put the ball on the ground twice in the 2004 playoffs. ... Washington and Seattle combined for 25 offensive series on Saturday, and 13 of the possessions ended in three snaps or less. ... This hasn't been a very productive playoff series for running backs. In the eight playoff games so far, just one back, Carolina's DeShaun Foster, has authored a 100-yard outing. There have been four 100-yard performances by receivers. ... Howard Mudd of Indianapolis is one of the top offensive line coaches in the league, but he might have to change some of his unit's pass-protection techniques. The Colts, especially with their inside people, use a tap-block technique in pass protection. The Steelers' defenders referred to it Sunday evening as molly-blocking. It was more like get-mauled blocking. Pittsburgh got plenty of pressure from its blitzing linebackers and the Colts struggled once again against a 3-4 front. Even the tactful Peyton Manning, frustrated in defeat, acknowledged publicly that Indianapolis had protection problems. ... The Pittsburgh passing game really took advantage of Bob Sanders, the Colts' young Pro Bowl safety who is much better playing in the box than in coverage. ... The 32-yard run by Seattle fullback Mack Strong, who finally earned a long-deserved Pro Bowl berth this season, was the longest of his career. ... In his first 13 seasons, Steelers coach Bill Cowher failed to win a single playoff game on the road, and suddenly he's got two. Pittsburgh has won consecutive road playoff games, in fact, for the first time in franchise history. If the Steelers don't get a third, though, the first two won't mean much. ... The Steelers are the first No. 6 seed to advance to a conference championship game. Carolina is just the third No. 5 seed to play in a conference title game. Not since 1993 have the top-seeded qualifiers from both conferences advanced to the Super Bowl. ... Carolina has been in the league for only 11 seasons and next Sunday will mark the third NFC title-game appearance for the expansion franchise. ... Seattle rookie linebackers Lofa Tatupu and LeRoy Hill combined for 19 tackles. ... Although the Washington defense put plenty of early pressure on Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, it didn't register a sack. ... For the record, Redskins free safety Sean Taylor had seven tackles, one pass defensed and no saliva-related incidents. ... Redskins guard Ray Brown, who started in place of the injured Randy Thomas, announced his retirement after 20 seasons in the league. ... Both of the host teams for the conference championship games, Seattle and Denver, are undefeated at home this season.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.