What Are YOU Watching This Weekend?

Don't look into his eyes, Mr. Mittens, he'll steal your soul.

Having to attend a wedding in the Fall is enough to strike fear into the heart of almost any sports fan. But, the Gods have smiled upon me, and of all weeks to be traveling away from The 'Burgh (and my television) I've been blessed with the bye week.

Indeed, there are a host of important athletic contests to monitor as the weekend progresses. I will not give anything but the casual glance at The Bottom Line to MLB and NCAA games, however. As far as I'm concerned, The World Series is an extrapolated joke played on us every year by two of the highest-salaried teams. There isn't a single college game that would hold my interest, save Oregon v. USC @ 8PM and I fully plan to have taken a bottle of scotch past the label by then. The Penguins play both Friday and Saturday, games. I'll follow on the phone, but being out of state will dictate I simply check The Pensblog at some point Monday for game updates, most likely.


Denver/Baltimore - Most likely the game you're watching. The game you SHOULD be watching. Gumbel & Dierdorf. Blek. No doubt, you'll be rooting for Denver. I've heard some postulate that we should hope the Ravens win so that we gain a game on the first-round bye vis a vie the Broncos. This nonsense. Where we are right now, our concerns need to be on th immediate, namely winning the division. Stick with rooting against all divisional threats, people. But, remember: We go to Denver next Monday, so every little bit of punishment they receive is a bonus for us as well.

NYG/Philadelphia - The Fox game, so the one you'll be toggling to during CBS commercials. They'll be making a huge deal out of Philly v. NY bullshit due to The World Series. I couldn't care less. I'm thinking the Giants right the ship, but fantasy interests should steer your cheering interests, here.

Seattle/Dallas - I fucking loathe Dallas.

SanFran/Indy - Sure, this upset could happen. And I could shit skittles, too.

St. Louis/Detroit - All fans in attendance will receive a voucher for 5 free therapy sessions.

Miami/NYJ - An example of a game in which you should pull against a team for their potential impact on our postseason down the road as the Jets will likely be in on the Wild Card hunt. Go fish (yes, I realize they're mammals, kill yourself).

Cleveland/Chicago - Bwahahaha.

Houston/Buffalo - Time to find out if the Texans can vie for a Wild Card spot. It's cold up there, Schaub, you still gonna be leading the league in TDs after this game? Pay-pey'll overtake you this week, sorry.

Minny/Green Bay - According to the map, unless you live in AZ or Carolina, you'll be completely immersed in a full-blown Favre-gasm. Watching Favre at Heinz last week, I am further convinced that his body will break down long before he could possibly hoist a Lombardi. Take a good look at the Pack, we face them on Dec. 20th.

Jacksonville/Tennessee - No one is watching. No one cares. But Jacksonville gets a winning record here, with KC coming in next week.

Oakland/San Diego - Chargers roll.

Carolina/Arizona - Beanie Wells available in your fantasy league? Grab him. The Cards are quietly reinacting last year all of a sudden.

NOTHING. NOT A FUCKING THING. - Ape did a good job of detailling this travesty. Guess I'll watch the camera pan through the disgusting, knuckle-dragging Phillies crowd.

Atlanta/New Orleans - Beginning to think Karma is on the Saints' side this year. Atlanta poses one of only a few remaining threats for Brees & Co. I'll be rooting for Atlanta, but expecting a double-digit W for Le Saintes.

See you next week, folks.


The Bye Has Arrived and So Has the Defense

After losing Aaron Smith for the season two weeks ago against the Lions, I said the Steelers defense would never this season look like the dominating unit from a year ago that could win games almost entirely on their own.

And with their first real test, facing an undefeated team that featured the league's leading rusher, the 2009 defense put up a performance to rival that of any from the championship unit a year ago.

Granted, the D gave up 334 yards passing to Brett Favre (albeit on 51 pass attempts), but they forced two game-swinging turnovers for touchdowns and made a key third down stop on the 1-yard-line (it can't be denied that Brad Childress helped on this last one with cretinous playcalling). Subtracting his two longest rushes of 19 and 15, Adrian Peterson's other 16 carries went for 34 yards. Purple Jesus is bound to break a few (his biggest gain came on a pass reception) but even his longest rushes were under 20, while he was contained otherwise. This was a run D that many had expected to take a huge step back without one of their key contributors.

That isn't to say the defense played perfectly. There were a few breakdowns in coverage on 3rd and longs that will need to be addressed in the bye week. Both happened on the Vikings side of the field, but the throws to Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice set up long Minnesota drives. The one along the sideline to Rice, initially ruled incomplete, could have led to a score that would have given the Vikes the lead. In both cases, these were the result of huge gaps in zone coverage that shouldn't exist on such obvious passing downs.

The pass rush, while able to sack Favre four times (two of which were by James Harrison - giving him eight through seven games), had a disconcerting number of blitzes where they generated little to no pressure on the Vikings backfield. That inconsistency may have something to do with the Steelers corners playing a little farther off receivers than they should have most of the game. Except for the occasional gunsling on one-on-one coverage, the Vikes tried to dink and dunk with receiver screens for most of the game, which was for the most part successful.

For what is becoming an all-too-frequent trend, a comfortable lead was cut by the play of the special teams. After surrendering kick returns for TDs each of the last two games (more than they allowed all of last season), coverage has to be a big focus going into a game facing Eddie Royal in two weeks in Denver. Jeff Reed, meanwhile, is far more deserving of criticism for his kick going to the side on the 15 on Harvin's return than his perfunctory shoulder tackle attempt. Factor in Logan's late stripped fumble on the punt return against the Chargers, and the special teams have accounted for three scores by the opposition in the last five games. inexcusable.

Rashard Mendenhall easily spoiled what had been a very impressive game (10 rushes for 69 yards) against a top 10 run defense with a foolish leap over the defense inside the 10 that resulted in a fumble that could have been disastrous for the team. With a 13-10 lead and nowhere close to the goal line, Mendenhall's jump was as pointless as it was risky. The team has a chance to extend its advantage. Taking a two-yard gain at the 8 is preferable to trying to stretch it to three-yards by exposing the ball to an easy strip.

Big Ben didn't have the passing stats many predicted for him in this game given Antoine Winfield's absence. Childress may not be able to figure out that running Adrian Peterson three times inside the 1 might be a good idea, but the coverage schemes were well designed in this game (though I doubt he was actually responsible for these). Excepting the end of the half drive, Ben didn't have a lot of deep pass attempts. Credit to Santonio, though, for one of his smarter games of the year, extending one reception for a 45-yard gain (which was sadly wasted by Mendenhall's fumble). It could have looked better statistically if his touchdown grab in the first quarter wasn't erased by a retarded offensive pass interference call on Heath Miller on the play.

This win changes the trajectory of the entire season. Like I said during the week, going into the bye at 5-2 enables them to make a run at a first-round bye. A win at Denver in two weeks is another huge step to that end. Patching some of the prevalent recent mistakes with running back fumbles and special teams will have them ready for the challenge.


Aaron Smith or Antoine Winfield - Who Will be More Sorely Missed?

Without a doubt this is a huge signpost game on the Steelers schedule. Win, and they go to 5-2 at their bye and will be in great position to vie for one of the top seeds in the conference. A loss will likely cast them into the great swarm of teams hoping to snag a spot on Wildcard Weekend.

As is often the case in the NFL, the game will be largely determined by how well the two teams account for key absences on their roster. Without Aaron Smith, an already steep challenge in containing Adrian Peterson looks downright daunting. Missing Antoine Winfield exposes an already shaky Vikings secondary to what could be a mammoth day from the Steelers passing game.

The Steelers offensive line will probably be the fulcrum on which the entire contest swings. Without Winfield, the Vikes' pass rush absolutely has to get to Roethlisberger or the Steelers could have a Bruce Arians wet dream of 450 yards passing. Just as importantly, they need to prove they can run the ball against stout competition. The Browns did a pretty decent job of cracking down the run game last week, limiting Rashard Mendenhall to 3.6 yards per carry, the lowest of any game in which he's gotten double digit carries. If the run game in snuffed out by the Williams Wall much like it was against the Titans in Week 1, the loss of Winfield won't be as big a deal.

Excluding the runs out of the Wildcat, the defensive line rotation held their ground against Cleveland last week. But, again, it's the Browns. Contain yourself. Still, it was enough to make me think the right side of the line won't be embarrassed on a weekly basis the way it was at the end of the 2007 season. Peterson will probably break off a big gainer or two with his cutback ability, but if the Steelers can keep the remainder of his touches from giving the Vikings manageable third downs, they'll be golden. A forced fumble would also be nice. Don't discount the chances of James Harrison swiping the ball out of Purple Jesus' oft-fumbling hands.

Post Game Heroes had a great breakdown this week about Minnesota's vulnerability to passes to backs and tight ends. The demotion of FWP's stone hands plays into that being a bigger part of the Steelers offense. Mewelde Moore is already a very good receiving back, but for the defense to have to deal with the first guy on the depth chart being able to catch passes makes the Steelers much more difficult to defend. Heath Miller also could continue what has been a banner statistical year for him this week.

As for Favre, I'll give the old attention whore credit for outplaying just about anyone's expectations of him coming into the season. Luckily the Steelers defense has experience in practice dealing with a quarterback who relies on some of his same tactics. Obviously, the Steelers would prefer Favre try to beat them than have Peterson gash them all day. Minnesota got a little of both last week against Baltimore's D, with Peterson going for 148 and Favre throwing for three TDs and no picks. A lot of that was keyed off Favre exploiting a confused Ravens secondary early on. I wouldn't expect the same miscues from the Steelers.


Back Seat for Willie

In addition to addressing recent off-field incidents, Mike Tomlin's press conference yesterday served to confirm what many have already known: Willie Parker has been relegated to second on the Steelers' depth chart, behind Rashard Mendenhall.

Some are already penning Willie's obituary, following the rationale that being the #2 will mean a reduction in production. And while I'm not ready to ascribe the "1a and 1b" label to the Steelers' backfield situation, situational is just what the RB is likely to be from here on out. My guess: Mendenhall will be a slightly less than every-down-back, with FWP spelling him and/or returning to service when it strikes Arians' fancy. Let's not forget that Melwelde Moore has displayed the best hands out of the backfield as well, meaning The Steelers are likely to employ the bane of Fantasy Football Fans everywhere: The Running Back by Committee approach.

I cursory glance around the AFC shows many of the top-tier teams doing the same. Consider Buckhalter/Moreno in Denver, Addai/Brown in Indy, the Jets' tandem of Washington/Jones and until recently whatever you want to call Belicheat's approach in New England. As defenses vary their coverage schemes it is in our best interest to vary our personnel to oppose them, no?

What's more, recall that Willie did some of his best work in 2005, his break-out year, sharing time with Jerome Bettis.

Listen, I'm not advocating this approach, merely denoting it and the fact that we are quite fortunate to have two and a half relatively healthy capable backs, definitely a (quick-) step up on much of the competition.


Skippy Gets Pinched. Again.

Please just know your role, Jeff.

According to the Post-Gazette and numerous other outlets, everybody's favorite tantrum-throwing kicker, Jeff Reed, was cited for public intoxication last night, following the Steelers' 27-14 win over the Browns. Versions of the offending behavior are sure to vary, but it appears Mr. Reed was over-served in or around McFadden's bar back in Pittsburgh's North Shore. At which point he attempted to take on one or more of Pittsburgh's Finest.

Do you realize how much of a dick you have to be to get arrested outside a Steeler Bar/"Meat-Market" yards from the stadium...WHEN YOU'RE A FUCKING STEELER?!?!

Normally, I'd say this is a non-issue. I think I speak for the bulk of Steeler Nation when I state that Jeff has done his job at an above-average level for the past eight years. Kicking in wind-whipped Heinz Field is no easy task and he does have two Super Bowl rings. But, this is the second offense of this nature in the last year or so. Additionally, Reed's kicks have been noticeably shorter this season (most kickoffs LAND around the 15 yard line) and Reed cost us the Bears' game in the minds of some. I think it's safe to say that the Rooneys are likely to at the very least be looking at their options at jettisoning Reed.

I regularly see Reed, all fake-tanned with his NJ-Guido "blow out" hair, at Penguins home games, macking on underage chicks and just making a general ass out of himself. Having just inked a 5-year contract extension at the end of this year, I would heartily encourage Mr. Reed to fulfill the role of kicker as envisioned by every Steeler Fan everywhere if he hopes to re-sign: KNOCK IT THE FUCK OFF AND JUST KICK THE DAMN BALL.

[UPDATE: As an astute commentor pointed out, Reed's contract is up this year and he will be an Unrestricted Free Agent. CBSportsline reports that Reed's agent turned down an offer tendered by the Steelers this passed Spring. It'll be interesting to see how this affects his market value.]


Somewhat Sloppy, Yet Satisfying

For the fourth consecutive game, the Steelers gave up a touchdown via the offense or the special teams to make the game closer than it should have been. The last three of those four, they've walked away with a win against teams that shouldn't be allowed to hang around against the defending champs.

Unlike with the Chargers and Lions, the Browns never got within a score late in the 4th quarter. The defense only gave away seven points overall and didn't look exposed in the running game without Aaron Smith. At the same time, it's the Browns. And if their receivers were capable of hauling in even most of the most basic of receptions, it could have been different. The Wildcat was largely effective against the Steelers defense with Cribbs running the show in terms of yardage, but the most it could accomplish on the red zone is an interception by Polamalu.

Troy was in on a vast majority of snaps on the first half, though his time was rightly limited after he limped off the field following the interception. It was a good sign to see him back on the field at the opening of the second half, though I doubt he will play a full game against the Vikings either. Still, with the pick he had on Cribbs and the one Ryan Clark secured later in the game, the two have all the picks the team has in the first six games for the team. Of course, Polamalu has them in what amounts to one full game of action on the field.

Rashard Mendenhall (or according to Solomon Wilcots: Rashard Mendinghall) has his worst game so far as a starter with 17 carries for 62 yards and a score. Still, it wasn't Mendenhall the coughed the ball up on the Browns side of the field with a chance to put Cleveland away. Parker's near-critical fumble will likely cost him ever more touches in the running game. [Update - it escaped me that Mendenhall did in fact get stripped on Cleveland's end of the field. At least he didn't drop the ball on first contact as Parker did]

The passing game is still a frightening weapon for the offense. Big Ben went over 400 yards with both Hines and Santonio eclipsing 100 yards on the day. Ben got a little sloppy with the lead in the second half, forcing a few balls that might have been picked by defensive backs with surer hands. Still, Ben has had a rating over a rating 100 each of the previous three weeks while Hines has 23 catches for 358 yards and two scores over the same span. Not many other tandems in the league could claim similar recent success. Not to be neglected either is Heath Miller over those three weeks with 18 catches for 204 yards and four touchdowns. Finally, he's been made a key component in the offense. Teams can't seem to deal with it for long.

With the victory, the Steelers jump to second place in the division. Even had the Ravens not lost to the Vikings, with a win over the Browns the Steelers would have passed them in the AFC North standings by virtue of a better conference record. But are the Ravens still the team to worry about in the division? Baltimore's secondary looks absolutely pathetic. Granted, Cincy fell at home to a team anyone in first place should be able to knock off, but they're possessing a knack at making big plays at critical moments that other teams in the division are not.

Next week with be a huge test for Pittsburgh. Polamalu's inclusion made a difference in the first half. Hopefully he can make a more sustained performance at home against Minny. Should the Steelers knock off the Vikes, they will go into the bye in very good position to walk away with the AFC North at the very least.


Going for the Brownie Dozen

The Steelers, unless they plan on scuttling the rest of their season, should claim their 12th win in a row over the Clowns on Sunday. Like with the Lions the week before, as much as we all will humbly say we will take a W in any form, this is a game where they want one of those cupcake game slaughters you get in the early weeks of the college season.

There's a decidedly mixed feeling among Steelers fans going in. The team is getting Troy Polamalu back on the field, but have lost Aaron Smith for the season. This was supposed to be a return to the defensive form of 2008, but the sad truth is that that unit will not be showing up at any time in 2009. The 2009 edition might show flashes of that dominance and have it for specific stretches of certain games, but the same sustained performance won't be duplicated.

That doesn't necessarily mean the team is doomed. Whereas without Smith on the line, the defense will take a step back (sorry, the four-headed rotation of Eason, Kirschke, Sunny Harris and Ziggy Hood can't entirely replace him) so long it doesn't become a glaring weakness like it did toward the end of 2007, the team can still thrive. Though the offense was timely last year, for the most part it was plainly average to below average. It's decidedly better this year, especially with Rashard Mendenhall's emergence, the O-line's improved play and Big Ben having a stellar year. Should those factors continue to play out, the Steelers can contend with a good offense and a merely very good as opposed to a worldbeating defense.

That said, that defense still has to yet to reach its potential with its remaining parts. The performance on third down against the Lions last week was embarrassing and some of that falls on Dick LeBeau. Several of Detroit's conversions came on screen passes that should have been expected from a team starting its backup QB with its top receiver out of the game. LaMarr Woodley showed signs of life in the pass rush in the final defensive stand last week. That has to continue. Should Troy's return help with negating opposing tight ends and slots receivers and Smith's fill-ins at left end provide stable play, a lot of the problems on the defensive side quickly vanish.

The Browns will likely test the left side of the Steelers line often, especially when they can't have a ton of confidence in their passing attack. Jamal Lewis ran 31 times for 117 yards against Buffalo last week. I wouldn't expect similar output, but unless they fall behind huge early, Mangini will probably be content to give him an amount of touches comparable to that.

Meanwhile, the distribution of the Steelers carries will be of great interest. I can't predict how it will shake out, but I can't see how FWP would get more than a third of them unless he manages to break some huge plays in whatever chances he gets. With Mendenhall being underused late last week despite a lead an average per carry of over five yards, the Steelers would be mistaken in going away from him unless a sizable advantage gives them that luxury.

So here's to some momentum building and continued Cleveland irrelevancy.


Late Night Big Ben

I was just asking how many TIMES you shake.
You know, when you're done.

I'm not a late night talk show kind of guy, but apparently, Leno is dying a death at the 10 o'clock spot. Even Roethlisberger can't save your ratings, Jay! Especially when Letterman has the LEADER OF THE FREE WORLD on his show and then follows that up with an unprecedented sex scandal.

This is the Madness That Browns Fandom Produces

It's almost tragic. But then I'm a big fan of gallows humor.


Because This is Exactly What We Needed

Looks as though the always - to the point that it's a careworn cliche - underrated Aaron Smith suffered what could be a serious shoulder injury Sunday against Detroit. Just as the Steelers are set to welcome Troy Polamalu back to action this week against the Brownies, another, nearly as significant, cog in the defense could be looking at time out of the lineup. And that's just loverly.

As of now, how long his departure will be depends on tests being run today, but memories of Travis Kirschke's impact on the run defense late in 2007 will make the pleas to our maker for a minor injury to be that much more manic. Either that or Ziggy Hood could be getting a quick trial by fire. Certainly the decision to take him in the first round could be prove more prescient than we could have cared for.

Update: Looks like he's out until January. [/pulls an Owen Schmitt]


This Time, the Defense Holds Their Ground

Even if the Steelers got the runaway victory the team and their fans desired, the qualifier would be that it was against the woeful Lions. The Steelers didn't end up getting that lopsided victory, but they did manage, by dint of three consecutive sacks on a final defensive stand, to get a win, albeit one that isn't giving off the sense that all their problems are yet fixed.

Now the Lions were the worst team in the league last year, and while they're still a subpar team, they're nowhere near as putrid as they were in 2008. They've already won a game, they've had second half leads against Minnesota and Chicago. That said, this improved Lions team was without their starting quarterback for the entire game and their best receiver for most of it.

There were some similar frustrations that Weeks 2-4 offered in this game. Mike Wallace pulled a Limas Sweed and dropped what would have been an easy touchdown grab. Unlike, Limas, however, he rebounded to haul in another bomb for a score. There was a big turnover by the offense that made the defense, which only gave up 13 points - in a tougher position.

The playcalling by Bruce Arians, who despite his checkered past with the Steelers has actually been largely competent this year, got far too pass happy late in the game when the team wanted to salt away its two-score lead. While the passing game has been lethal the previous two weeks, the running game has been right in step with it. How is coming off a 165-yard two-TD game, Rashard Mendenhall given only 15 carries, still at a rate of over five yards, when the team has the lead the entire game? Because the pass blocking started to break down late in the fourth quarter, this gave the Lions a number of quick stops to put their offense in a position to take a shot at a tie.

It's difficult to complain about Big Ben's play when his line reflected a 23/30 performance with three touchdowns and one pick. However, that line betrayed some sloppiness in his play. That one pick was an ugly and very costly one. I incorrectly pinned the pick-six against the Bengals on Ben when it was actually on Santonio running the wrong route, but the one today was entirely on Ben not throwing on an out route soon enough. He also had what would have been a second interception nullified by a low late hit by a Lions defender. The expectation for victory shouldn't be Roethlisberger playing perfectly, but the guy noticeably didn't have his sharpest outing today.

Not that weren't positive signs to take away. The pass rush put up numbers comparable to a outing from last year's squad: seven sacks overall, three by James Harrison (including a forced fumble) to go with one and a half by LaMarr Woodley, who needed badly to get on the board this season. Ryan Clark came away with an interception on a misguided duck by Daunte Culpepper under heat. Despite having the Lions move the ball reasonably well on their two opening drives, the Lions did little offensively after that. Also: the repeatedly mocking of Larry Foote's digging-his-toe-into-the-dirt celebration was a appreciated touch.

Next week the Steelers get another game they should win, this time at home. With Polamalu possibly returning for spot duty before hopefully fully getting into the action in Week 7 against the Vikings, the team is close to wear it needs to be, though as we've seen, it's one or two mistakes that can separate a convincing rout from a competitive battle.


I Like Where Cris Carter's Head is At

Apparently not only will the Steelers beat the Lions on Sunday, but they're gonna ambush the Colts-Titans Sunday night game WWE-style (I knew there was a reason Ben did the Raw appearance) and claim victory there too.

Meanwhile, Keyshawn Johnson is picking the Lions to win. Really?

Wait for it... COME ON, MANNNNNN!

[Punches himself in the dick]

Thanks to Sean for the tip.


Larry Foote is Your Spiteful Ex-Girlfriend

How many times in life have you had what seemed to be an amicable parting with someone, only to find them badmouthing you months after the fact?

Usually that's a thing that's usually reserved for former significant others as opposed to linebackers, but then emotions run high in football, I guess.

Most Steelers fans were a little dismayed to learn that Larry Foote was rooting for the Steelers to lose in Week 1 against the Titans. Why exactly wasn't entirely clear. Lingering bitterness about losing his starting job to a younger player? Sorry, dude, it happens sometimes. Lawrence Timmons is a highly talented first-round pick. It's not like you were supplanted by some random practice squad scrub.

Now Foote is letting it be known that he thinks he was screwed over by the Steelers. I don't think I can dismissively wank my hand fast enough.

He's carping because the Steelers waited until after the draft to release, thus costing him some money because teams had already put some aside for rookies and other free agents. Fine, well, perhaps Larry the Steelers wanted to see if they could shop someone they knew they would be letting go in exchange for picks. Not garnering any worthwhile offers, the Steelers cut Foote loose and he got to sign with his hometown team, the Lions.

Maybe this is the bellyaching Foote needs to get fired up to play a team he helped win two Super Bowls. Frankly, Daunte Culpepper has more reason to feel jilted by Pittsburgh than Foote does.

Speaking of Daunte, with Matt Stafford (and Calvin Johnson) not practicing yesterday, there's a decent chance the Steelers will be seeing the QB they turned down in favor of Byron Leftwich last year. I think most would agree that would make an already favorable matchup in Detroit all the better. Granted Stafford at this point in his career is still probably good for a careless turnover or two against our defense, the Lions offense looks like a respectable unit with him under center. And if Megatron is out, well then it might get ugly in a hurry. Meanwhile, Willie Parker appears unlikely to contribute much this week. I think most people are interested in seeing whether Mendenhall can roll off consecutive impressive games, so we can deal. And while it's good to see Troy back in practice, albeit in a limited capacity, I think everyone's in agreement that he doesn't need to see the field until the Vikings game at their earliest (or in very limited action against Cleveland to knock off any rust).

Interesting tidbit: other than that little Super Bowl the Steelers won following the '05 season, this is their first trip to Detroit since the coin flip game on Thanksgiving in '98. All the more reason not to let the result still be in doubt late in the game.


Your Quarterly AFC Team-by-Team Breakdown

Once again: Mini Helmets Rule.

Let's just get to it:


Denver (4-0): I think most were willing to ascribe the Broncos' quick start to a tepid schedule until last week. After all, that "fluke" Stokley deflection in week 1 against Cincy was all that stood between them and running with the conference bottom-feeders. But beating the Cowboys, apparently having an elite receiver back in the fold and posting +54 point differential will be turning some heads going forward. Do I think this team is going to win the Super Bowl? Absolutely not, they won't even earn a bye. Games against New England, Baltimore and The Giants all loom too large to allow for that. But they're spreading the ball around nicely (8TDs by 6 different guys) and they'll take this division, I'm just about certain of it.

Indianapolis (4-0): Maybe it's because Pey-pey is on my fantasy team or the fact that Brady is drawing more ire from me this year, but I'm not as strong in my hatred for the Colts. Manning continues to impress and with different pieces in his large-foreheaded puzzle. Garçon is making people everywhere search for and find the "ç" button as well as offer a better 2nd receiver to Wayne than Harrison was last season and running back Donald Brown is going to challenge for ROY, mark my words. Indy's D always seem to play a large role in how high of a ceiling they have, because Manning's consistency delivers an above average offense. With games against two win-less teams and the bye week coming up, these guys are going to be 6-0 and the media's darling soon enough. Alright, I hate them again.

"One Hiccup"

NY Jets (3-1): Remember when Pete Carroll was openly miffed at his QB's decision to bail on USC early? I'll admit, I was a bit surprised at his decision to walk away from another BCS title shot and year of limitless blow-jobs from perky-titted cheerleaders. But Sanchez's decision, of course, elicits the time-honored sex debate: New York "cooz" or California "punta?" Sanchez is in for a ton of the former as the Jets' impressively stout defense and paddy-cake schedule (upcoming games: MIA, BUF, OAK, MIA) will punch their ticket to the postseason. It does warrant mentioning that like the Broncos, my confidence that this squad will make it past the opening round of the playoffs is limitted: a platoon approach of average running backs and wide outs plus a rookie (albeit, talented) QB just won't hold water come January.

New England (3-1):
The loss to the Jets was a big blow, but the win against the Ravens was a bigger step forward for Belichek's Aging Wonders. I'm not ready to say Tom Brady has lost a step. Yet. He isn't in the top half of the league in Passer Rating, TDs or Yard per Attempt. Where this team does lack is establishing the run. Fred Taylor is not a very stable primary option for the whole season and I'm sorry, but I can't see Sammy Morris or Lawrence Maroney stepping up, either. Much like the Steelers, their defense and arial attack have been what has delievered the wins. Because of their divisions' scheduling tie to the soft NFC and softer AFC South, I think it'll be a photo finish between the Pats and Jets for the division with one likely snagging a Wild Card.

Baltimore (3-1): Well, I hate to say it, but the Ravens are not to be trifled with this year. Joe Flacco's progression from doofy unibrow-having rookie to mostly stoic unibrow-shaving starter has meant a marked upturn in the Baltimoron's offensive production. In fact, they're in the top 5 of all three major offensive categories. However, a closer look at their schedule reveals Kansas City, Cleveland and San Diego as their victims. This team is probably the best example of one where the jury is still out. Personally, I look for the Ravens' game every weekend right after the Steelers' in order of importance for our squad. Sufficed to say: They'll be giving us more of a run for the title than last season.

Cincinnati(3-1): And the Bengals could go a long way in answering some of the lingering questions about the Ravens as well as themselves this Sunday. Seeing as how their AT Baltimore and they just barely eeked out a win versus Cleveland I wouldn't hold out hope they can beat the Ravens, but they are more than likely to pose a threat to Baltimore's surprisingly vulnerable secondary. Cincy will not make the playoffs, of that I am certain.

"Too early to say it's over."

Jacksonville (2-2):
David Garrard continues to fly under the radar as a serviceable quarterback in my opinion. The problem for the Jags is he's really all they've got. Earnest Wilford, a talented and tall receiver is toiling away due to a lack of balls being thrown his way. Maurice Jones-Drew has chops, but is their only real option in short yardage situations and teams stack the box to negate him. However, the news is not all bad for the Jags: Their schedule should deliever four wins out of their next six games. That's right: Mark it down. And remember 'ole DixieNormess said it when we're back here after Week 8 saying they may challange for the Wild Card.

Houston (2-2): Every year New Years' Eve comes around and every year you think "This'll be great, I'll hang out with my friends, get some drinks, maybe get laid, really enjoy myself." Then, you wake up with stale Tostitos as the only thing in bed with you, a blinding hang-over and memories of some asshole name 'Twan that may or may not be trying to kill you. That's the Texans: Shitty Reality. They've been trendy preseason picks for like four years running and it's just not happening. Not while Pey-Pey's in their division and not while they don't have a blue-chip QB of their own. No, I don't give a frosted fuck that Matt Schaub is the second highest rated signal caller right now. No, Steve Slaton is not the next Curtis Martin. No, I don't think starting three rookies in your secondary is wise. No, you will not contend down the stretch: fuck off.

San Diego (2-2): Probably the most talented team of the .500 bunch. But, as my Grandma likes to say about such things, "Take that in one hand and a shit in the other and see which one gets full first." The Chargers' defense is a huge disappointment and as was evidenced this past Sunday: their offensive tools are not enough to overcome an above average opponent. This, combined with the fact that they have not had to play any of the NFC East games yet puts The Laser Kings on the outside looking in. I'd say a 9-7 playoff whiff prediction is just about right. Not sure what kind of ship they're running out here but missing the playoffs with this roster's "talent" should lead to some serious job insecurity from the top down.

"Circling the Bowl."

Miami (1-3): Only team here with a shot at a .500 season. A surprisingly adept Chad Henne, useful Pat White and most importantly: more dependable defense would go a long way in keeping them ahead of the Bills.

Buffalo (1-3): Reports of an overdue T.O. melt-down are mounting, but I suspect he'll wait until the after the Bye Week to speak his mind. If anyone should it's Trent Edwards whose O-line is simply hanging him out to dry with a lofty 15 sacks already. The Bills could make a run if Marshawn Lynch and Lee Evans are able to make an impact with some easier opponents around the middle of the schedule, but they still have to face Atlanta, New England and The Jets (twice).

Oakland (1-3): Every game Jemarcuss Russell starts is a game this team will lose. With McFadden out, they'll be lucky to post another win.


Tennessee (0-4): Wow. I certainly thought a drop off was likely, what with Father Time spooning Kerry Collins every night, but no wins? I have to believe that Collins gets the hook and that their running game alone delievers some wins...but not soon with Indy and New England heading into the bye. Which team do you think is horrified by their Quarterback situation The Titans or The Panthers? Yikes.

Kansas City (0-4): No one has caught or rushed for 100 yards on this team. Matt Cassell is not a failed experiment, but their defense is.

Cleveland (0-4): This team is worse than their record. In the words of my Uncle, "If they were playing in the backyard, I'd close the blinds."

The landscape this year is an interesting one. Just looking at the direction some of the teams seem to be headed in causes one to see a line of demarcation between those that will contend and those that won't. Already you have your probable division winners in The West and South. The North and East will come down to RAVENS/STEELERS/BENGALS (gulp) and PATS/JETS with the loser having a respectable shot at the Wild Card. And as I said, The Jags are going to make their move. So basically, The Bungles and Jags are the two teams I'm worried could snag our ticket to the tourney. Then again, maybe it's the Ambien talking.

The Playoff Picture as I see it:

NORTH: Ravens (12-4)
SOUTH: Indianapolis (13-3)
WEST: Denver (11-5)
EAST: New York (10-6)

Wild Card: Pittsburgh (10-6)
Wild Card: New England (10-6)

For Now, Let Us Praise A Season Revived

Everyone's going to freak out about how the Steelers were in danger of blowing an unheard-of 28 point lead to the Chargers at home, and while it got to be an unnecessarily close 35-28 margin at one point, this game was never really in doubt with the complete inability of the Chargers to stop the Steelers offense.

And because it's the Chargers, Steelers fans have to stop themselves from going overboard on the praise of the offense, which actually did its part in putting the opposition away. It was, after all, San Diego's defense that last allowed a Steelers running back to go over 100 yards. Still, it's hard to discount the straight forward running that Rashard Mendenhall did that led to 165 yards and two touchdowns. Add to that that the grouping of Hines, Santonio, Wallace and Heath is bedeviling defenses, and when they're on, they're going to be tough to stop. But it won't always be this easy. We're not deluded Ravens fans thinking we suddenly have an unstoppable offense by beating up on crap defenses.

For the time being, even with the minor scare, let's be thankful that Pittsburgh did what it had to do and won a key game in impressive fashion. Now the Steelers have the benefit of having the Lions and Browns in consecutive weeks to pad their record before meeting the Vikings in a huge contest prior to the bye week. Polamalu will talk in earnest about being back next week, but I'd prefer him waiting for that Vikes game in a few weeks, and even limited action at that.

The pass rush found a way to be more active at the end of this game. James Harrison registered multiple sacks and has three in the past two games. If LaMarr Woodley can get back on track, the defense will get close to where it has been once Troy returns to solidify the secondary.

Stefan Logan's turnover to allow San Diego back in the game was a questionable one. Some will grouse how the whistle should have blown because he was wrapped up, but he's got to know to hang onto the ball throughout. Perhaps it's time to reconsider getting Santonio back on punt returning duty. After a few years of finally perfecting his technique, it seems weird to strip him of it, especially when the problem for the Steelers was on kick returns.

Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger is completing an amazing 73 percent of his passes. The pass blocking looks ever more dominating each week. If Kemoeatu turns out to be all right, the line is shaping up to be a satisfactory unit. He returns not long after, but he'll see what the injury report looks like.

This was a week where nearly everything came together, even if they had some fluky difficulties in the final quarter. The rest will yet come, but this was a mammoth step and even the biggest downers will have a hard time denying that.


Dispatches From the Enemy - Charger Fan Analysis

Avenger-in-Chief from Chargers blog Avenging Jack Murphy and I decided to swap ruminations on Sunday night's Chargers-Steelers tilt, and boy, don't we sound like the Pollyannaish pair in our appraisal of our teams' respective chances? Mr. AIC gives Steelers fans a host of reasons to buck up and feel good about Sunday night's game, and I do some hand-wringing of my own. If you want to read my breakdown, visit here. What follows is Avenger's take on the game.

Greetings Steeler Nation,

I'm sure the Steeler faithful enter week 4 against the Chargers with legitimate concerns...but hey, this Bolt Fan is here to tell you that 1-2 with a superstar injured ain't that bad!

We start each and every season with a bountiful shitting of the bed yet somehow find ourselves in playoff contention. Praise be the geographic Gods and our placement in the AFC West! This is a luxury, that unfortunately, you don't have Steeler Fan. But that's OK because you're the Champs! I'll try and give you a healthy dose of optimism for Week 4...

So your vaunted defense isn't quite gettin' the rush on? The Chargers' offensive line may be the elixir for that which ails you. Our line has been decimated with injuries; Pro Bowler Nick Hardwick is out but rookie Luis Vazquez may be returning this week. That's right...I said rookie. We eagerly await a rookie drafted in the 4th round to provide stability in the trenches. Regardless of the personnel, Phillip Rivers has been getting knocked around each game. A reasonable solution to our problems would be for Norv to make an adjustment; save Marmalard by calling for three-step drops with quick reads and releases to our surplus of 6' 5" receivers. But that's just not how Norv rolls...and I yell at the TV!

The Chargers will make it easy on you with the run game. LaToeinjury will more than likely be held out an additional week with the bye coming in Week 5. This means you get the little fella, Darren Sproles, all day long. Of course after the Steelers watch the game film they will realize that not only is he still a midget, Norv continues to run him up the gut like he's Earl Campbell. This just tires the little fella out and consequently he's not as effective on special teams. We do have Michael Bennett though and when he runs, he goes for a nice little average per carry. He's clearly had sex with Norv's daughter though, as he sees far too little time in the backfield.

After the San Diego District Attorney dropped the battery charges against Shawne Merriman, Tila Tequilla sought vengeance on #56 via the crotch of a voodoo doll. Alas, The Rape-asuarus will more than likely sit this one out with a groin injury. I suppose that's good news for you and bad news for us....although it's been so long since a healthy Merriman played we've grown accustomed to his absence. So do we have a pass rush? Ehhh...better than last year. We've only got three sacks but we have been bringing a little bit of pressure this year so we'll see.

It's difficult to evaluate our pass defense because we haven't been thrown on too much. Did I mention that we're absolutely woeful at stopping the run? Maybe that's why Antonio Cromartie hasn't looked-a-fool yet. (I need a more solid assessment of Cro' before I start bashing him this season, so can you tell Big Ben to pick on him a bit? In all seriousness, Antonio Cromartie is a physical specimen who's easily distracted by the thought of providing for his many illegitimate children......if he's got any offspring in Pittsburgh, your passing attack should be solid.)

Back to the run: we didn't look too good when ALL Pro Jamal Williams was in there and now he's on IR for the year.....so I would suggest to Mike Tomlin a healthy dose of the power running game.....how 'bout Fast Willie Parker? (he plays for my Fantasy team, The Tila Tequila Choke Slam, and I'd be obliged if I had a consistent #2 running back. Maybe this could be the game?)

Our punter's name is Mike Scifres; he's got a sick leg. Our kicker's name is Nate Kaeding; he just kicks like he's sick...H1N1...who knows? Tiny Darren will be tired from endless runs into the hulking Steeler D-line so fear not the Charger return game.

I hope this report, with all of its blatant negativity, has given you some optimism to get yourselves back to .500 at the quarter mark of the '09 season. In reality though, I don't know who the Chargers are or who they'll become by season's end. I'd venture a guess that Steeler fans probably feel the same about their own prospects. As a fan, I'm just looking for consistency and the Bolts are the model of consistency when visiting western Pennsylvania during the regular season; losses every time. Maybe this trend will finally end.

Polamalu's out, right?