Holiday distractions kept me from getting to the recap sooner, as did they from even watching the first half of the game live. So essentially I got to see the Steelers go into conservative mode in the second half, knowing full well Jimmy Clausen wasn't going to be able to get the Panthers anywhere close to making up a 20-0 halftime deficit.
Clausen is so terrible, it makes evaluating the defense's performance almost impossible, as there's no way to compare how a competent quarterback might have fared against similar conditions. Even when Clausen seemed to have time to pass, he would scamper needlessly around the backfield until someone hit him. Just the kind of "pro-ready" discipline his defenders crowed about during his freefall down the draft board this past spring.
The margin for error against Carolina is about as wide as Big Snack, but I'd still rather not see the careless mistakes like the fumbled snap and the first half and the Isaac Redman fumble on the Steelers side of the field in the second. And Shaun Suisham finally had his first miss since joining the team. Of course, better that it come in a blowout victory against the Panthers than in a more pivotal moment. Like, any in the coming weeks, for example.
As expected, the Ravens dispatched the Browns, so the Steelers must return the favor Sunday in Cleveland to win the division and keep the second seed in the AFC, unless of course the Carson Palmer to Jerome Simpson connection proves to be the new hotness and the Bungles beat the Ratbirds for the second time this season, but obviously I'll be going into Sunday operating on the assumption that that won't be happening. The Ratbirds did the Steelers one slight favor in roughing up Peyton Hillis in their victory on Sunday, not that Hillis did much in the running game in the Steelers' Week 6 victory over the Browns in Pittsburgh, but he was effective receiving out of the backfield, as he has much of the season. Him being limited restricts that offense's best weapon.
Mike Tomlin isn't ruling Polamalu out of Sunday's game, but at most Troy would get work in at practice on Friday. It's certainly an important game on Sunday, but I think the Steelers are more than capable of winning in Cleveland without him and I'd just as soon have Troy at full speed for the playoffs.
Preliminary weather conditions for Sunday appear to be clear with winds around a mild 13 mph, so the chances for Bruce Arians to try five-wide sets in blustery conditions, as he did in the Thursday night loss in Cleveland last year, should be significantly lower. The Browns got their lone touchdown against the Ravens on Sunday on a trick play and will likely open the playbook as much as it allows with this likely to be Eric Mangini's final game as their head coach. Josh Cribbs didn't do much in the first go-round because JAMES HARRISON IS A MALICIOUS BASTARD WHO INTENTIONALLY TRIES TO HURT PEOPLE AND THERE'S NO TWO WAYS ABOUT IT so I'd imagine the Brownies will try to feature him a great deal more on Sunday. So long as he doesn't break any big returns, I'm not too worried.
Not getting into any potential playoff matchups in the second round, as obviously the Steelers need to take care of business Sunday and the Browns, with wins over the Saints and the Patriots, have showed they're far from a pushover when they're on their game. The last three weeks haven't been quite as kind to them, but they'll obviously be trying to close out their season on a high note. So long as the Steelers are determined to seize their fate, they can take the best shot from the Clowns, Troy or no.