I feel like I should be asking to define a Manichean struggle.

When the schedule was first released the Sunday night trip to New Orleans on Halloween looked to be the most imposing of the season, especially given the possibility that it might have been Roethlisberger's first back after suspension.

New Orleans' recent descent back into mediocrity has taken some of the luster off the match-up, at least on paper, but I certainly wouldn't expect the Saints to lay the egg the team has in recent games against Cleveland and Arizona. Luck would have it that Drew Brees wastes a four-interception meltdown against the Browns only to return to form against the Steelers defense. But then, who knows? There's always the chance that this becomes the defining point in a hangover season for the Saints.

Like most Steelers fans, I'm paranoid about how the defense will look in its first full game since losing Aaron Smith for at least most if not all of the rest of the regular season. Not that the Saints are much of a threat to run all over a team even if Ziggy isn't quite as good defending the running game, but there's also the concern of whether the second-year player can help in the pass rush the way Smith has. With Brett Keisel expected to miss his second straight game, the Steelers may not be able to get way with a four-player rush on pass plays and expect to get pressure as they have many times this season. This could be a problem facing a Saints team that can spread the ball around when the offense is clicking.

The Saints have had plenty injury issues of their own. Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush are likely to still be out come Sunday night, but it appears their two starting corners, Jabari Greer and postseason hero Tracy Porter, might return for this week's game. While they only participated in limited practice on Thursday, them playing would be a considerable boost over the scrubs they've made to make do with the last few weeks. Facing the possibility of falling to .500 at the halfway mark of their season, I would imagine they'll make every effort to be on the field Sunday night.

LaMarr Woodley and Flozell Adams both participated in full practice on Thursday and are expected to play, which is a huge boon, especially Woodley not missing time. While Jason Worilds performed admirably for a rookie when Woodley went down in the first half last week, he's a very stark dropoff from Woodley at this point. Steelers Lounge did a good job of explaining while he showed good burst in speed rushes, he wasn't much help in any other duty on defense. He'll get there, but he's not someone you want subbing for Woodley for an extended period at this point.

Flozell not missing more time is helpful as well, given how poor the running game looked in his absence late last week against the Dolphins. Obviously there was more to it than just Flozell being out, but he's proven to be a solid contributor is blocking for the ground game. His slow ass in pass protection is another story. Nevertheless, for all the jokes about his penchant for penalties, it's been Doug Legursky who's been a drain on that front. Thankfully, Trai Essex returns to the line-up for the first time in five weeks.

Anyway, win or loss, I would greatly appreciate a game that doesn't end up with the Steelers being embroiled in the scandal of the week yet again. From Ben's return to James Harrison becoming the posterhelmet for the head shot crackdown to the conspiracy theory fodder that's come out of the review of Ben's goal line fumble has made the past few weeks as exhausting as sports fandom has a right to be. Now let's get ready for a Sunday where Roethlisberger's character is compared unfavorably to Brees'! CAN'T WAIT!


Headaches To Come - More Hopefully From Conspiracy Theorists Than Aaron Smith Replacements

Like it or lump it, lament it or regret it, this is the way it always has to be. Exceedingly popular teams like the Steelers and the Cowboys will always have their close wins overly scrutinized by the media. When there is a truly borderline call, it will be used as a cudgel to diminish tight victories. Make no mistake, the Steelers got a fortunate break that the dead ball rule is what it is, but the referee ruling on the Roethlisberger fumble review was absolutely correct.

The Roethlisberger fumble was a correct call on review, though CBS made it seem like a much more obvious initial call with their goal post angle that viewers could be excused for thinking that refs were fools for ever thinking it was close to being the touchdown. Anyone who saw the field level view knew it was an extremely tight play. If the ball came out before Roethlisberger crossed over the plane, it was just before, it was just at the point it was over the goal line. All week from now until the Steelers play in New Orleans on Halloween, we will see the elevated goal post view. Just as we saw out of context James Harrison hits for the week leading up to the Miami game.

Before we get to the distressing injuries, let's focus on the problems with the running game. Pittsburgh for the first time this season looked like the one-dimensional offense team they have in the past with Rashard Mendenhall being held to 37 yards on 15 carries. It can't be pinned on the early game injury on Flozell Adams, as the run game was generally ineffective on all sides.

Had this been a game prior to Ben Roethlisberger's return, and it might have been had the suspension not been reduced, the Steelers might have been blown out of the stadium. But Ben was able to make several critical conversions on his usual long plays on third and long. Of course, with that came a few mindless error where he tried to make a play as he went to the ground. One on such attempt, he fumbled the ball away to the Dolphins on the Steelers' first offensive possession. On another, the fumble was recovered by Maurkice Pouncey, who was horse collared late in the second half after being taken to the ground once, but no flag was thrown.

Mike Wallace is going to have to emerge as a more multi-facted threat than simply a guy who streaks down the field on fly routes. No doubt he is great on that score, but it is too easy to take anyone that one-dimensional out of the game. Such was the case in the second half where Wallace was pretty much absent from contributions. With Hines Ward having such a huge game, it didn't matter as much today, but it's something to think about going forward.

As for the injuries, Aaron Smith can be devastating. It certainly was in 2007 and last year. Ziggy Hood, now, in his second season had to show he can step up as a viable replacement. Miami couldn't run the ball a lick against the Steelers before Smith's injury and suddenly found some traction once he left the game. Ziggy was a first round pick and has to be able to show immediate dividends for the Steelers to remain a Super Bowl contender.

Jason Worilds was impressive in relief of LaMarr Woodley, who left in the first half with a hamstring injury. Nevertheless, I don't think any of us would want to count on a rookie to go in the difficult string of games facing Pittsburgh over the next few weeks. It's a game of attrition, the NFL is, and no one escapes at least one or two costly injuries throughout the season. Now is the time for Pittsburgh to do just that. As the game wore on following Smith's injury, the defense seemed to find its feet and hopefully such will be the case as the season goes on. Ziggy is certainly a better alternative than Travis Kirschke.

Flozell is another infirmity to consider, as he left the game early. As flawed as he is, the team benefits from him returning sooner rather than later. Trai Essex's replacement, Doug Legursky, was pretty horrible against the Dolphins, especially in the first half where he drew multiple holding calls. Roman Foster wasn't much better in relief of Adams. He didn't quite have the array of penalties, but he was beaten on a few key plays.

A few other notes:

- Nice helmet-to-helmet on Emmanuel Sanders on the opening kickoff to force the initial fumble. It's technically a legal hit, to be sure. But since the NFL wants to pretend it's all about safety, it's hilarious to watch them pussyfoot around cheap shots on people who aren't QBs or receivers.

- Ben smiling after hitting Mike Wallace for the long touchdown. Aw, you just want to squeeze his cheeks until you consider where he's been.

- Oh Ben, let's not run a full two yards beyond the line of scrimmage before throwing the ball. IT MAKES IT SO HARD FOR THE NFL TO CHEAT FOR THE STEELERS!

Just remember this week that when the Steelers referee issues are the story repeated ad nauseum the week and diptard detractors are using it as an excuse to make the usual "refs help the Steelers" argument that the Ravens got a ridiculous amount of help from the officiating today, from the flagrant Anquan Boldin pass interference and overturned Buffalo interception at the end of the first half to the highly questionable Buffalo fumble in overtime when Spiller's forward progress was halted. Of course, those can't be neatly packaged as "controversial" end of game plays. They're just run-of-the-mill terrible calls.


Now Let's Get Out There And Two-Hand Touch Them To Death

Amid the inevitable fallout of media brain drippings coming from Ben Roethlisberger's return against the Browns to the wholly unexpected drama that came with James Harrison being unjustly pronounced being the scourge of "clean" football, it's been hard to remember at times this week that the Steelers have a fairly tough road game on their hands Sunday in Miami. I trust the team did a better job tuning out all the reactionary bullshit than I did, but then I have to focus on that kind of stuff. I doubt Steelers players spent an inordinate amount of time reading blog comments bleating, "FUKK HARRISON HGH THUG I DON'T CARE HE NEVER FAILED A DRUG TEST HE'S ON STEROIDS LIKE ALL THE STEROID STEELERS!"

Whatever. Silverback may have been stuck with an inflated fine to placate the media, but he's still in the line-up for Sunday, which is really all I care about. Of course, there's the sad reality that no one knows how the NFL plans on enforcing its new guidelines for it considers illegal hits. This obviously affects everyone, not just the Steelers, though I imagine Harrison in particular and the Steelers defense in general will be given closer scrutiny than some others because of the comments from Harrison and Mike Tomlin this week about the soundness of the hits against the Browns.

The Dolphins are an interesting case. They're 3-2, yet Miami is one of the three teams with winning records and negative net points. A lot of that has to do with the 41-14 drubbing by the Patriots they suffered on Monday night a few weeks back. I actually thought they looked fairly good in that game outside of the disastrous special teams play that threw them into an insurmountable deficit. I know that's a glib way to discount something that probably cost them a 30-point swing, but you can't count on things going awry like that every game. They certainly looked improved in that aspect in their overtime win last week in Green Bay. That said, somehow Miami is winless at home and undefeated on the road.

Chad Henne being as inconsistent as he is, it's hard to foresee what kind of performance you're going to get out of their offense. When he's on, their attack is potent, if not likely to burn you with huge plays. That said, even with Brandon Marshall on the team and Davone Bess emerging as a minor star in his own right, the Dolphins are still dependent on the running game working to be in a game. Even with Brett Keisel out, the Dolphins face a steep obstacle in the Steelers defense getting the run game going.

In the Week 17 Pittsburgh victory in Miami last year, Ricky Williams was held to only 31 yards on 12 carries. Of course, Miami fell behind early in that game, at one point trailing 27-10. And they were without Ronnie Brown, who had been lost for the year earlier in the season. That they were able to close the gap to a 30-24 final bespeaks the Steelers late-game struggles, but so far that luckily doesn't seem to be a problem again this year. If the Dolphins fall behind 17 in the second half on Sunday, I doubt the final minutes will be quite as dramatic.

Marshall has fared well in two career starts with the Broncos against the Steelers, catching six passes for 77 yards in 2007 and posting 11 catches for 112 yards in the Monday night game in Denver last year. I think he'll get his stats, but similar in the way the Steelers let Roddy White appear to have a big game in Week 1. While White posted a lot of yards, Matt Ryan had his lowest QB rating targeting him comapred to any other Falcons' receiver.

Mike Wallace had a lot success going deep against the Browns. I mean, yeah, if Wallace is going to have success anywhere, it's on fly routes. Vontae Davis was getting killed by double moves from Greg Jennings last week, so it wouldn't be surprising if the Steelers tried to exploit that a few times on Sunday.

Just as we waited to see how Ben would respond last week after his suspension, we stuck with the uncertainty of how the NFL will come down on hits on receivers and how defenses approach what they perceive will be that standard. It's a good thing both these teams can run the ball. The more passing, the messier it's going to be.


James Harrison: History's Greatest Monster

At least according to the mainstream media. That is, until he's inevitably supplanted by Ben Roethlisberger for something or other.

The hysteria that has taken full flower over helmet-to-helmet hits in the last four days was bound to arrive at some point. A definitive study about the effects of concussions, a player dying on the field. Something was going to bring it about the madness we're seeing now. The speed with which it came however was mindblowing even to hardcore football fans.

Somehow, by virtue of two injury-inducing but absolutely not "dirty" hits and a couple quotes, one of which was simply bad on his part and the other taken out of context by the press, James Harrison has emerged as the undeserved villain in what will be a pivotal issue for the remainder of the season.

You can debate the merits of whether Harrison should have been fined. It really doesn't matter. It was going to happen regardless. Just be happy it was an outsize fine and not a suspension, as it might have been. As they did with the Roethlisberger suspension, members of the media simply willed it into happening through sheer power of repetition and a condemning tone. If Roger Goodell has proven anything with his actions of the last few days, it's not as much that he's interested in protecting the health of his receivers as he is preserving the image of the shield once the NFL is cast in a distasteful light.

And of course it was only injured receivers and a tight end who earned defensive players sanctions. The Cribbs hit by Harrison was determined legal. Hell, this helmet shot by a Jags player on Chris Johnson on Monday night generated no controversy at all. What does mean? Is it just another furtive way to make it more difficult for defenses to deal with the passing game? That would be an especially odd approach given that pass plays were the cause of the gravest injury this past weekend. On one hand, changing the helmet-to-helmet rules for a runner would mean exactly that - changing a rule, whereas the league can say that a tougher stance on protecting receivers is merely the more strict enforcement of regulations that are already in place.

Nevertheless, at best this strikes me as window dressing and at worst a poor sop to the players union to ease the passing of a future 18-game NFL schedule. "Look," the owners can say. "We want more games but we're willing to protect a few players from head injuries even if it means a higher incidence of leg and knee injuries due to defenders having to go low on receivers."

God, this whole situation sucks.

Back to Harrison. Yes, both of his contentious hits unfortunately led to injuries, but in each case, it was the action of the target, not a deliberate effort by Harrison, that led to the injury. KSK commenter Potsie offered a nice breakdown on each play:

Harrison on Cribbs — If Cribbs sheds the LaMarr Woodley tackle, Harrison plows through his midsection at full speed like a freight train, likely knocking the wind out of him, possibly causing a fumble, and he’s praised for a spectacular hit. Woodley’s tackle slows Cribbs up and Harrison is already moving at top speed to hit him in the midsection, which just so happens to be where Cribbs’ head stopped.

Harrison on M.M. — Scared receiver + rookie quarterback. QB led the WR into a linebacker, and the linebacker was making sure the WR didn’t get a clean catch. Harrison pushes out with his hands, like any man who can bench 500 pounds would do, to apply extra force on the hit to cause an incompletion. If the WR doesn’t duck to try and avoid contact, Harrison again splits him down the middle.

I agree completely with both of those assessments, but the constant superslow replays being shown on ESPN and other sports networks don't give any of that context. They only show Harrison's helmet hitting Cribbs' and Massaquoi laying anguished on the grass. That's enough for people to break out memories of Harrison roughing up Aaron Francisco in Super Bowl XLIII and pronounce Silverback a dirty player.

As for Browns fans harping about how their players were taken out by dirty play, I would argue that T.J. Ward's helmet shot on Rashard Mendenhall was more dirtier than either of Harrison's hits. Whereas Harrison had to rush to get to Cribbs from behind and jar the bar from Massaquoi at the last second, Ward saw the Mendenhall run coming to the right side the entire way. Instead of making a standard tackle, he leaves his feet helmet first at Mendy's head.

Are the announcers making a stink? No, that's a blatantly dirty shot and they're lauding him for it. Of course, in this climate of concern over injury, it's not so much form as result. Has Mendenhall done down with a concussion, it's likely that Ward would be among those demonized this week. Which is what makes this discussion all the more maddening.

Ward, of course, was the guy who knocked out Jordan Shipley weeks ago on a hit cheaper than any this past weekend save only Brandon Meriweather's cheap shot on Todd Heap. Meriweather was levied a less serious fine than Harrison. The inane reasoning being that Harrison has been fined before and that he had multiple "devastating" hits on Sunday. How that justifies Harrison getting worse sanctions than a guy who almost certainly tried to injure a player who was already being taken to the ground with the ball deflected is beyond me.

As for Silverback's subsequent comments, I'm really irritated how his comments about causing pain to opposing players was distorted by the press. He explained clearly that his aim is not to injure, but to shake people up in a non debilitating way that makes them second guess whether they want to come over the middle again. Ask any defensive player in the NFL and you're going to get the same response. I guarantee it.

The following retirement talk is unfortunate and more than a little embarrassing. I understand the underlying frustration on Silverback's part, but this is a childish way to respond to it. Harrison has to know especially after the pain comments and the fine itself that he doesn't have friends in the media. They'll gladly jump on any slip of the tongue. Sure, his agent claims his retirement talk is serious, though I have very serious doubts about that. Mike Tomlin has already since said that Harrison will be back at practice Thursday after being excused Wednesday. Good, the sooner this latest drama can be put behind the team, the better.


Browns Lose To Steelers And Order Is Restored To Cosmos

Could probably use a little more dried blood, but that's a sufficiently filthy Colt McCoy jersey.

Had Joshua Cribbs not been injured by a James Harrison knee to the helmet on a tackle in the first half, we probably wouldn't have seen 33 pass attempts out of young Mister Wholesome Incarnate Colt McCoy, but I thought the rookie actually did a pretty admirable job given the circumstances. The first interception wasn't really his fault. He never looked jittery, even to the point that he drew a heady "poise" compliment from the announcers.

Peyton Hillis also looked much more healthy than we were led to believe in the days leading up to the game. But the Cleveland offense altogether looked toothless until late in the game when the Steelers defense went into prevent mode and the Browns gladly took their charity score. Cleveland looked outmatched the entire game and it was only late in the first half when the Steelers were stalling in drives and just couldn't expand the lead beyond 7-3 when the game seemed even slightly in doubt.

Of course, the story for anyone not emotionally invested in either of these teams was the return of Ben Roethlisberger. After a poor throw in the red zone that resulted in an early interception, Ben looked mostly solid the rest of the way, connected well on deep throws to Mike Wallace and exhibiting pretty good decision making, though there were a few plays where it seemed like he was trying to hard to make the big play and forced it. Hopefully, this was the case of wanting to make a big splash in his return and Ben will have reined that in somewhat by next week.

Just as encouraging was the amount of running that the Steelers offense did. When it was announced this week that Emmanuel Sanders would dress in place of Antonio Brown, I panicked, thinking it was a sign that the passing frenzy would commence forthwith. But Bruce Arians, either in an effort to ease Ben back into the offense, or hopefully to sincerely keep a emphasis on the run, kept banging it away with Mendy. Spindenhall didn't have his best game, averaging only 3.1 yards per carry, but was reasonably productive throughout. Isaac Redman might have pushed Mewelde Moore out of the third down role with his superb play as well. Sanders, meanwhile, seems to fit in well as the fourth receiver. He had two nice catches to extend drives.

I noticed Chris Kemoeatu left the field late in the first half to have his legs looked at on the sideline, but it appears that it was nothing serious. Doug Legursky went down on the 50-yard pass to Wallace from the Steelers own end zone, but as with Kemo, I haven't heard anything that would indicate it's really serious.

All in all, this was a taking care of business game with a slight emotional element given Roethlisberger's return. Pittsburgh won calmly and smoothly, got Ben the confidence boost he needed without sustaining any significant injuries. Plus, thanks to the Ravens tanking in New England, Pittsburgh once again has sole possession of first place in the AFC North. Now the Steelers can dig in for an important four-game stretch against Miami, New Orleans, Cincinnati and New England.


Pray For McCoy, Prepare For Cribbs

An upstanding Jeebus-y rookie quarterback forced into starting his first year because of injuries? Why, that was once a description that fit Ben Roethlisberger. Not that comparing Ben to Colt McCoy now isn't as problematic as comparing them as rookies. Ben carried quite a few more expectations as a first-round pick who more than a few pegged as the best quarterback in the '04 draft.

Meanwhile, there were rumblings that the Browns were considering cutting McCoy, who was thought to be a steal in the third round in this year's draft, in the preseason. I never bought that. Even the Browns would wait longer than a first preseason to give up on a kid with a shot at being in the franchise quarterback in a few years.

Obviously, Colt stayed and because of that, he has the unenviable task of going against the Steelers defense on the road in his first career start. And that's likely with his starting running back hampered by an ankle injury and the back-up having been traded days ago for an inferior runner.

Before you get too caught up in your pregame boasting, remember that the Browns were starting no one better than Brady Quinn when they beat the Steelers in the second meeting of the teams last year. And if they're going to win Sunday, they're going to have to count on Josh Cribbs coming up as big as he did in Week 14 last year.

In that game, the Browns rolled off nearly 160 rushing yards, with Cribbs getting 87 of them on only eight carries. He had 200 all-purpose yards in that game. It's easy to dismiss that performance to some degree by saying Aaron Smith was out, but there's not much of an excuse for any defense to be beat like that on the ground when the other team has little threat of the pass.

Of course, it wasn't only defensive lapses that doomed the Steelers in that game last year. After all, the Browns only put up 13 points. No, equal blame was on the offense, which gave up eight sacks. With 30 mph winds gusting that evening, Bruce Arians stupidly persisted with five-receiver sets even in terrible conditions. It was the clearest example why the Steelers needed to renew their commitment to the running game.

And with Roethlisberger having missed the first four games this season, there was the mixed blessing that the running game would have to get better to avoid a disastrous start. So far, it's clear that is has. Which is what makes this one of the more intriguing games for the Steelers offense this season. There were reports this week that the playbook would open with Ben coming back. On its face, that report is obvious. Roethlisberger is better than Dixon and Batch and can allow the offense to do more and better things. But then there's concern that "open playbook" is Arians code for "FUCK OFF RUNNING GAME, IT'S BACK TO FIVE WIDE ON 3RD AND 1."

One interesting roster move that has me worried that Arians is leaning that way is the decision to dress Emmanuel Sanders instead of Antoinio Brown for Sunday. Aside for the one long run back on a reverse for a TD against the Titans, Brown has done a respectable job returning kicks. Sanders though is further along as a receiver, which is why Arians said he is getting the go. That signals to me that the passing game is taking primacy over the return game, which Sanders by the coaches' admission is behind Brown. Not sure why you would take that risk for the team's fourth receiver, but let's just hope the team isn't going to pay for it.

The way the defense is playing, the offense isn't exactly going to have to amaze anyone for the team to prevail this week. No complaints if that happens, but for the most part, I just want to see that Ben looks sharp and has a connection going with his receivers. If he happens to hit Mike Wallace for a few scores, my fantasy team wouldn't mind. Besides play calling, I'll be keeping a close eye on the pass blocking, not only because it was beaten so viciously by the Browns last time, but because as a unit the offensive line as done well so far this season, but hasn't been asked to do a lot of pass blocking in obvious situations.

As for the news that a group of women will be protesting Roethlisberger before the game on Sunday, if you didn't see that coming as soon as the Georgia story broke, then I don't know what to tell you. My only advice would be brace yourself, because that's not even going to be among the top 10 most annoying reactions to Ben's return within the next week. For example, here's one.

[Lame Clowns video via Steelers Depot]


Your Quarterly AFC Team-by-Team Beakdown

Coolest Lunchbox...EVAR! (Yes, I know it's outdated)

Alright, let's look at what we've got around the AFC. Remember: what matters most when it comes to making the playoffs are the slate of opponents in your OWN conference. Besides, that way we don't have to think about Favre:

"Lead Dogs"
NY Jets (4-1):
I'm not really sure how to take this team. I still don't think Mark Sanchez is a quarterback that I'd trust with the keys to a franchise as the passing game for the Jets is middling, but he's certainly improved from last season. The Jets are average at best against the pass, too, something Reivis' nagging injuries would keep me from saying that will change. But, there's really no denying LaDanian Tomlinson was one of the best signings in the off season as he's carrying the bulk of the Jets' top-ranked run offense, averaging an impressive 165 yards a game. The Jets have the highest positive point differential in the NFL, a win against every team in their division, a top-10 defense and impressive play-calling on both sides of the ball. Damn. I guess I do know how to take this team: They are winning the AFC East.
Baltimore (4-1):
Sommonabitch. Looks like the only other team to 4 wins are these bunch of purple-clad miscreants. Baltimore's better than last season on the offensive side of the ball. Ray Rice's is a threat, even if we were able to mostly neutralize him, and the WRs have definitely been an upgraded from last year. Of course, the only win that indicates they are an above average squad to me was this week at home against Denver. I don't think Flacco will ever hoist a Lombardi Trophy, but then again Trent Goddamn Dilfer did for these guys. Which brings me to my point: this is not a championship caliber defense. Yes, they'll be getting Ed Reed back, but he doesn't play in the front seven, and they're the ones giving up chunks of running yards. Still, with Buffalo, Carolina and Cleveland left on their schedule, Joe Unibrow seems to be able to manage his way to enough wins that we'll likely be in chase made for awhile. It's a long season yet, but we'll need their two marquee match-ups against The Pats & Saints to go our way or we might not even be able to catch them come December 5th. UGH. If I spend all season pissed at Housh's catch over the middle, I'm going to swallow some antifreeze. Words elude me when I try to summon the hatred I have for the Ravens and their fans. Well, let's try:

I hate Edgar Allen Poe, that dark bastard deserved the cold, self-loathing existence he had.
WHO NAMES THEIR TEAM AFTER A POET?!? Someone told me the mystery around his death remains unclear to this day. I punched that someone in the throat because I know what killed him: Being in Baltimore. If I were born in or around Baltimore, and survived my crack whore mother's rearing, I would probably kill myself. But knowing my luck, some out of state Johns Hopkins student would probably save my pathetic, Dundalk, sewage-swilling life. But, I know one thing I would NOT do. I would NOT be a Ravens fan. I would NOT back a team that was stolen by a money-grubbing owner with no allegiance and slapped with a new coat of pre-menopausal paint. Basically, unless you are under the age of 8 you don't have an excuse for being a Ravens fan. You're a johnny come lately or a traitor. With like 5 STDs. And you probably touch kids where they pee.

Old Bay. That's all that's good in Baltimore. That's it.

"Playoff Probable"
Kansas City (3-1):
Yeah, they just got their run at immortality dashed by the Colts. But if you watched that game, you saw a surprisingly adept defense. They don't put up crazy numbers, in fact, they're last in the league with 3 sacks. I hate the cliche, but it's more of a "bend, don't break" approach. Jamaal Charles. He's good. Matt Cassel. He's not. Prognosticating is worth less than my Enron stock, but look at their SCHEDULE. Jesus. Only three of those opponents had winning records last year, one of which is San Diego, whom KC already beat. See you in the playoffs.

New England (3-1):
Moss is gone. All that is left is a receiving corps whiter than your local racquetball club. Previous experience would lead us to believe Brady is going to bootleg and slant their way to a winning record. I'm not buying it. The defense is the real story here. They're averaging allowing over 20 points a game. And that wasn't against any real contenders, save the Jets. We'll know more after this Sunday as the Baltimorons head to Foxboro for a game that I would hope ends with a mass grave. Oh, Mass. grave, get it? (State Abbreviation Joke!)

"And now, The Entire AFC South"
Houston (3-2):
Arian Foster was eating bullets and sharting ice cream the first couple of games there, huh? And the rest of the offense, as we perhaps recall too strongly from last season, is pretty potent with Andre Johnson and Schaub chuckin' it. The Texans throw the ball sixty percent of the time. But their opponents throw it nearly eighty percent against them. That's a secondary that has given up 1,648 passing yards, dead last in the NFL. One dimensional teams are not long for the win column. Look for Houston to fall back with four of their next five against teams with winning records.

Indianapolis (3-2):

Two losses this early? The injury situation here is about as bad as I can recall this early in a season. Addai, Garcon, Wayne, Brown and Hart all with nagging issues on offense, not to mention Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea and Gary Brackett all casualties on the other side of the ball. Still it'd be hard to believe a playoffs without "Pay-Pey™". The bye week should yield some positive momentum just in time for the uber-important Week 8 matchup with Houston, where a loss would mean giving up the tie-breaker and a probable Wild Card birth at best for Indy.

Jacksonville (3-2):
Since assuming the role of starting QB for the Jags in 2005 (Yes, he's been their guy for 6 six years, I know, right?) David Garrard has had an average passer rating of 85.something. He throws for more TDs than picks and he hands the ball off to MJD. He's a dependable game manager and the Jags always seem to find themselves right around the playoff bubble come year's end. This year, the AFC South seems to be more open, so are they capable of more? Not really. Garrard, Jones-Drew and Sims-Walker's numbers are all down a bit. Jacksonville's D is giving up 27 points a game. And they're averaging 20 a game on offense. Um, that'll be an issue. In order to avoid their usual fate, Jacksonville will need to pull off some impressive wins, yet. This week's matchup with the Titans would be a good start.

Tennessee (3-2):
These guys have to be the front-runner to come out of their division. Both of their losses (to us and Denver) were by a single score. In both instances, Chris Johnson was almost completely neutralized, something I can't imagine most teams doing. Vince Young only has 600-some yards passing and only 2 picks. Because he hasn't needed to throw the ball that much, running an offense that still manages 27 points a game. Just this past week, they were able to defeat a desperate Cowboys team. But, they rely on Johnson too much. And their D is really susceptible to the pass. And that's how it will remain until their ousting in the first or second round of the playoffs. If it weren't for the fact that Johnson IS able to be bottled up and defense is at a premium in the playoffs, I'd pick them as a threat to do more.

Miami (2-2):
Another difficult one to call. Two decent running backs, a legit deep threat wide out and a top-ten defense. But, Chad Henne's stock is plummeting, aided by a public statement of lack of confidence by his own GM, and The Fish suuuuuck against the run. Wins over Buffalo and Minnesota don't look so impressive, now. Coming off the bye, I'd expect them to pull of a mini-upset and snag a win against Green Bay, especially if Matt Flynn (36.1 career passer rating!) is under center. If that happens and they are able to figure out a way to get the ball to Brandon Marshall, this squad could take advantage of a paddy-cake schedule and back door in to the playoffs. I wouldn't bet on it, though.

Cincy (2-3):
Is ANYONE really all that surprised that the Bengals "TOcho" experiment isn't going so well? I heard some talking head spouting off about how Cincy has moved away from the run in favor of an aerial attack. Not really. Benson is still putting up over 4 yards a carry. They've just been playing from behind and Carson Palmer sucks. Cincinnati had a top 5 defense last year. This year? Middle of the road. So if you're playing from behind, with a QB that only completes a little over half of his passes, you're bound to have issues. I mean, these guys lost to Cleveland and Tampa. Still, we cannot afford to overlook them, as their offensive weapons will always give them a puncher's chance.

San Diego (2-3):
Phil Rivers is leading the NFL in passing yards and TDs. The Chargers' D ranks 3rd & 7th against the pass and run, respectively. So how have they lost to the Raiders, Chiefs and Seahawks? Special Teams has been an issue. I'm sure they'd like to redo the Tomlinson decision, but that's been more a function of Ryan Matthews being injured than anything. Can't really say the holdouts of McNeil and Jackson have been an issue, either. The usual Chargers team starts 2-3 and then have a spree of 5 or 6 wins, but not this year. Their schedule is prohibitive. I'm not sure how they dug themselves in to this grave, but they aren't getting out of it.

Denver (2-3):
Another team with a losing record and a statistical beast under center. Kyle Orton has been bombing it lately, nearly 350 yards per game, but the Broncos have no appreciable running game. Knowshon Moreno is only rushing for 2.something per carry. And they cannot stop the run either. If they could correct either issue, they'd be a real threat to grab a Wild Card spot, maybe even to Kansas City's division title claim. Like the Chargers, they could easily be 3-2 or even 4-1, but unlike them, they have a more palatable schedule.

"About Right"
Oakland (2-3):
We remember Bruce Gradkowski. He's the hometown guy who sent us spiraling down to playoff purgatory last season. Well, he's back, after a failed attempt to give Jason Campbell the reigns in Oakland. The fact is they simply don't have enough weapons here. Louis Murphy is a good 3rd teir receiver and McFadden and Bush are capable of putting up 100-yard games occasionally, but when your tight end is your main target, something is amiss. They'll hover below .500 all year. The Raiders will be coming off the bye when we play them on Nov. 21st, which would make repeating the mistake of overlooking them all the more egregious.

"Almost Pity. Almost."
Cleveland (1-4):
Aside from a hilarious victory over Cincinnati, The Browns are winless. But there are some salvageable parts here: Peyton Hillis is tied for 3rd in the league in rushing TDs and...NOPE, THAT'S IT. THAT'S ALL THEY GOT. When you are disappointed that Seneca Wallace is hurt and unable to start for you, your season is over. Dead. It's actually impressive that they've been able to contend in every game, loosing four games by a total of 22 points. They'll jump up and nab 2/3 more wins this year, but it sure as hell better not be against us.

Buffalo (0-5):
Fred Jackson put up some numbers this week. The rest is horrid. When you start a QB one week and then he winds up on waivers the next, it's generally not a good sign. If you're in a suicide league pool, these guys are your horse to ride all season. Though, I would love NOTHING more than watching them come off the bye and posting a W on Bawltymore. Hey, a kid can dream, right?

Only 5 teams in the AFC with a single loss as we pass the quarter pole? It seems to me that the conference is more open than usual. I mean, just look at the AFC South. The AFC jumped out to an early lead on the NFC as far as W/L, but hold only a slight advantage, now. Still, I think 9-7 will snag a Wild Card spot in the NFC, while it'll take 10-6 in our conference. Playoff Picks are essentially pointless at this point, but hey why not?

East: NY Jets 12-4(BYE)
North: Baltimore 12-4(BYE)
West: Kansas City 10-6
South: Tennessee 11-5

Wild Card:
Pittsburgh - 11-5
Indianapolis 10-6

(Don't hold me to this stuff...)

Congrats To Stefan Logan And Tampa Bay

Sproles-sized former Steelers returner Stefan Logan yesterday took a kickoff 105 yards to the house in Detroit's first (though, really, it should've been their second) victory of the year. I was sad to see Logan go and thought he showed enough signs late last season that indicated he would be better for the Steelers in a second year. Of course, the emergence of Antonio Brown obviated Logan's place on the roster. And Brown has a TD return to his credit this year, as well, so it's hard to fault the move too much. Still, would be nice to see more out of the young guy.

In division action, the Bungles lost in hilarious fashion at the last second at home to Tampa Bay. Carson Palmer played dreadfully and has soon to be protesting Cincy fans describing him as "Carson Delhomme." As for the real Horsefeathers, it took an amazing play by the Falcons' Kroy Biermann, but Jake Delhomme got his killer interception late in the game to lose it for Cleveland.

The Ravens won convincingly, but it was probably asking for too much to expect the entire division to lose, especially when Baltimore usually destroys Denver at home. With Knowshon Moreno hurt and the generally awful Laurence Maroney starting, Denver couldn't really even bother to try running the ball on Baltimore's weakened front seven. It doesn't help either that they were trailing the entire game. The Ravens offense looked really good for probably the first time this season, though Kyle Orton managed better than okay numbers against Bawlmer's mostly untested secondary.


This Week In Manufactured Ben Drama

Hopefully that's the only pink his junk is touching for a while.

As you might have heard a few thousand times from a multitude of sports new outlets, Ben Roethlisberger returned to practice this week after the completion of his four-game suspension. Reports from practice say he's looked sharp, which is good, I guess - better than the alternative. There's also been a lot of hype about how Ben had been taking more reps than he usually would during his suspension. I guess we'll find out how much of that is true next weekend and how much is simply outward effort to burnish the perception created during the summer that he hasn't been the hardest worker in the world at early parts of his pro career.

Yesterday, ESPN posted this interview Ben did with mentor and fellow dimwit Merril Hoge in which Roethlisberger admitted he's at times considered getting out of football in the past few years. Hey, turns out, he almost succeeded in doing just that! Trying to distance his bad behavior as the result of adopting Big Ben persona is more than a little hokey, but whatever he has to do to not put himself in stupid situations is fine with me. Plus, it looks like he's finally getting around to flatly denying the allegations using strong language, which is nice, but it probably would have been advisable to try that a few months ago, Benny.

Should be interesting what the league does to address the Favre dickcam shots to Jenn Sterger, if anything. So far, there hasn't been any acknowledgment in official channels outside of one brushed-off question at the press conference welcoming Randy Moss back to Minnesota. I'm of the view that the NFL and all major sports outlets are likely going to ignore the issue as long as they can, though it will strike a weird note if it is raised publicly if Roger Goodell doesn't take action in some way. There's not a clear parallel between what Ben was accused of and what Favre is. If true, Favre is guilty of sexual harassment, not rape, and it's not like Sterger pursued the matter with the league or the Jets organization. Not saying that because she didn't seek punishment that it excuses the matter, only that it makes punishment more difficult to identify in codified league policy. Nevertheless, Goodell has established that he is willing to legislate on morals. Even by that shifting standard, he would have to do something with Favre. Sterger's allegation may not be proven as yet, even if the voice on the recordings sounds like Favre, but the accusation is out yet. That was evidence enough for Roger just a few months ago.

All right - hopefully this is the last time in a while I have to harp on some of this stuff, though something tells me it won't be. Looking forward to the bye week games. The Ravens have a falsely inflated pass defense ranking the first few weeks, though that's mostly the product of getting to play back-up quarterbacks in half of their games thus far. In the first four weeks, they've only faced a team with passing attack ranked above 22nd place once. The other was the Bengals, whose are 6th because they put up big numbers on the Browns' and Patriots' shitty secondaries in comeback efforts. Should be interesting what the Broncos can do coming in with the passing yardage through the first quarter of the season. The Bungles get Tampa at home in a game they should win or we should stop taking them seriously if they don't. Keep close eyes on the Browns game against the Falcons at well. Cleveland is playing better this season even if their record isn't showing it yet. They finally held on for a win last week. Them taking down the Falcons should make Week 6's game look a bit more interesting.


Christ, What An Asshole

"Hurrr, I breathed through my mouth. It's a miracle!"

We've always known the Ravens and their fans have a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to the Steelers, but let's try to wrap our heads around this quote from Terrell Suggs from yesterday, shall we?
"The world thought it couldn’t be done. Pittsburgh, they’ve got a really great D. Our offense went down there and scored. They won the game for us."

To the Ravens and their retard fans, beating Charlie Batch is a miracle. A MIRACLE! Sorry, the person Donte Stallworth killed with his car rising from the dead? That is a miracle. Beating a fourth-string quarterback is something so mundane that it happens with great regularity.

Yes, it was the Steelers defense that surrendered the go-ahead score and Charlie Batch does not play defense, though he may have actually done a better job of covering Houshmandzadeh than Bryant McFadden on that touchdown throw. Of course, the fact that Batch couldn't get a first down on that last series does affect the defense. As did the several three-and-outs he Steelers made with him under center Sunday. That's why Baltimore ran 15 more plays than the Steelers. Having Roethlisberger back improves the Steelers in many ways beyond just having a better passer. The opposing defense backs off, giving the running game more space to operate. The Steelers offense performs better and thus the defense has less pressure on it.

With the Pittsburgh defense holding on a goal to go situation with less than three minutes remaining, they did enough to win the game. Flacco had his chance to shine there and missed badly on an endzone lob to Boldin. You can fault Tomlin and Arians for not trying to throw backed up on their own end with the lead as I did, but that's obviously a decision they don't make if Ben is playing. One first down there wins the game.

The whiny Ratbird fans can be excused some for getting carried away. Their team hadn't won in Pittsburgh since the magical one-and-down in the playoffs season of 2006. It was a big win for them, but let's try to keep a little perspective. Just kidding, here's the mind-melting bullshit from Nestminder:
For the first time in the Flacco-Harbaugh era, the Ravens won at Heinz Field. And you couldn’t write a more perfect script of how it came to pass.
Really? PERFECT? As in, in no conceivable way could the game have ended better? This was the platonic ideal for Ravens victory. I mean, I would assume a more perfect script would involve beating the Steelers at full strength. Or against the QB who has defeated the Ravens five times in a row. Or in a playoff game. Not a Week 4 game with Charlie Batch starting.

The Steelers have to repay the Patriots for playoff losses early last decade. When Pittsburgh went into Gillette Stadium and blew out the Pats in 2008, it was great, sure. But did anyone even try to suggest that the score was settled by beating Matt Cassel? Or that it was a perfect scenario for victory? Of course not. And at least Cassel is worthy of being a regular starting quarterback in the NFL. In all likelihood, Batch won't take another snap this season. Not to mention that the Steelers won handily in that game. They didn't need to score a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute to squeak out a victory.

Normally, I can ignore the Bawlmer fucktardery (except referee blaming, because that's always a treat) but with them winning going into the bye week, there's nothing else to take my attention away until after this coming weekend.


So, Yeah, About That Long Term Deal...

I'll freely admit the recap from yesterday was pretty shitty. I had to rush it when I got home from the bar. With the evening editor shift at SB Nation starting at 6, I only had about 40 minutes to knock the post out beforehand. So I didn't have a lot of time to let myself collect my thoughts about the game. Also, I was still drunk, so the results were pretty much a mishmash of boozy anger and poorly constructed thoughts. Pretty much Jeff Reed's constant stream of consciousness.

Anyway, it always sucks to lose to Baltimore, no matter what. A bunch of their retard fans have naturally showed up in the comments trying to talk shit and beat their chests. That's as par for the course as them making excuses when the Ratbirds lose. It must be awesome to be so thrilled about your savior quarterback throwing one touchdown pass and finally beating a division rival on the road. In his fourth try.

At the same time, the Steelers played well enough that they were in a position to win holding the lead inside two minutes. That they failed is a unfortunate revisit to last season's stumbles, but given the circumstances, they can't feel like they shit the bed, either. Baltimore is one of the AFC contenders this year. While Ed Reed improves their defense and a fully healthy Ray Rice is a weapon, you can't say that them being back to full health accounts for the same gap as an elite starting quarterback and a fourth stringer who might have been cut if Roethlisberger weren't suspended.

Joe Flacco played reasonably well. He was good in the first half when the Steelers left short stuff open and at the very end. Then there was most of the rest of the second half when Flacco pretty much almost gave the game away with an interception to Ike Taylor that the Ravens were fortunate not to have paid for. That this is considered a "coronation" for Flacco is silly. He threw one touchdown and that was on his second chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. The guy still has more picks than touchdowns this year, for crying out loud.

It will be interesting to see how LeBeau plays them the second time around. The defense was all too willing to give up the nickel and dime stuff in the first half and Baltimore was smart enough to take it. I understand why the Steelers didn't blitz most of the game, but playing that far off the receivers is bizarre, especially when the Ravens don't really have a deep passing threat. It seems like it took until the second half until that was tightened up any. Fortunately it was still only a three-point game by then.

Dave's Football Blog had an excellent post chiding Bruce Arians and Mike Tomlin for not at least attempting to convert that last 3rd down on that last offensive possession at the goal line. On one hand, I can understand not wanting Batch to risk a turnover, but given that the Steelers had just had to stop a 4th and goal a few minutes earlier, being that willing to put overwhelming pressure again on the defense is such quick succession is a bigger risk than any one pass attempt.

Like Behind The Steel Curtain, I was confused that, if the hold called on Fox on the successive punt occurred in the end zone, then why wasn't it ruled a safety? It doesn't make much difference, ultimately, as the way the Ravens were moving the ball at the end, they would have probably gotten a go-ahead field goal even if they got a safety on the Fox hold. Just curious as to the ruling.

Mendy didn't put on a show in the running game, but it's still surprising how well they were able to run with the passing game being the modest threat that it is. It's not like Ed Reed is a huge help in the running game, so it'd be interesting to see what's caused the drop-off in the Baltimore front seven. The pass blocking was pretty good, as well, with Baltimore not getting a ton of pressure unless they sent the house. That bodes well for the next match-up.

Like I said, I was pissed off yesterday, so emotion got the better of me when I said the Ravens won't have a shot at the division. They'll definitely be in it, and this was a big win for them. It was really one they had to have. I'm not going to be okay with missing the chance for the Steelers to put a lot of distance between them and both Baltimore and Cincy.

As for Jeff Reed, it has to be over now. I can't imagine they would try to replace him before the end of the year, though unless he actually starts getting shit together soon, that's not entirely off the table, either. I understand those are both longish kicks into the open end zone in Heinz, but that's three critical field goals now he's missed this season. Deeper kick offs or not, if he's not making himself worth the trouble, then he has to go.


The Difference Between Ideal And Very Good

By now, we've all had a chance to express our incredulity about the Steelers' 3-0 start. If the narrative spun by scores on NFL writers is to be believed, no one person thought it possible that the Steelers could achieve a winning record - much less a perfect one - without Ben Roethlisberger under center.

That's not entirely true. I mean, I certainly didn't expect it. But I definitely considered the possibility, however remote. And if it were going to play out in the Steelers favor, it was going to have to be exactly as as it has been. The defense, with four players returning who were either injured or missing in 2009, would have to be the overpowering unit it was in 2008. It was been. The offense would have to do just enough to win while minimizing turnovers. For the most part, that has been the case. The Steelers are tied for first in the NFL with a +6 turnover differential.

And now the Steelers can complete their improbable four-game run before Roethlisberger's return with a perfect record by besting the hated, inferiority complex-plagued Ravens . For all their bitching to the NFL about how they're the bastard child of the league that always gets screwed over, Baltimore has had pretty favorable scheduling the first four weeks. The NFL gave them their two most difficult road games in times when they would be the easiest; To wit: the Jets before Raven killer Santonio Holmes returns and the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers, meanwhile, weren't given their toughest stretch out of the gate, but it certainly wasn't the easiest, either. Only one of their first four opponents was a playoff team last season, but two of the others were certainly playoff caliber and had been there the season before last. The difficulty of Pittsburgh's early run is evidenced by the fact that, of their first three opponents, the Steelers have been the only team that beat Atlanta, Tennessee or Tampa so far this season.

As for the Ravens, there was an interesting quote to come out of the Trevor Pryce drama that unfolded yesterday. Pryce, of course, was cut earlier this week by Baltimore, with the understanding that he would re-sign early next week. Happens all the time. The Steelers did it with Byron Leftwich just the other week. Except Pryce signed the Jets on Thursday. It was amusing to watch Terrell Suggs get all pissy about it after the fact, but not quite as amusing as this line from Pryce about the Ravens defense he was leaving behind:

"We couldn't stop water from running. We had some stuff to work out."

Oh, that's tasty. That Ravens defense, of course, gave up 144 rushing yards to Peyton Hillis last week at home. They let LaDainian Tomlinson average 5.6 yards per carry in Week 1 when the Jets posed absolutely no threat in the passing game. Baltimore's secondary was supposed to be the clear weakness coming into the season, only now their run defense is looking vulnerable as well.

Of course, they did a halfway decent job of containing Cedric Benson in Week 2, so Baltimore at least has the capability not to let teams always run over them. But make no mistake, this is not the Ravens suffocating defense of years past. You can run the ball on this team. And the Steelers will test that on Sunday. If they make inroads early, this could be a blowout repeat of last week. While the offense struggled on its first few possessions against Tampa, once this team gets the lead, it doesn't look back.

Joe Flacco finally put together a decent performance last week against the Browns. That's against Cleveland's pass defense at home, so it's mostly whatever, but seeing Flacco establish a connection with Anquan Boldin is worrisome for this Sunday. Flacco last year did well when teams were throwing the house at him with the blitz, so it's probably the good thing the Steelers can bring pressure with only four rushers. LaMarr Woodley, I've noticed, has been dropping into pass coverage a lot through the first four weeks and been doing a better than average job at it. That was the case early last season as well before the Steelers turned him loose later in the year. Woodley owns the Ravens on defense every bit as much as Santonio Holmes did on offense. He posted three sacks in the two meetings against them last year. Flacco sucks ass against the Cover 2, as was established with his four interception performance in Week 2. Woodley can bring enough pressure that the Steelers can get away with dropping some people back in passing situations.

It's to be expected with the Roethlisberger shitshow going on, but people have overstated Charlie Batch's performance last week. Many of these people probably didn't even watch the game and just saw the box score or highlights. Don't get me wrong, Batch played all right, but his numbers were greatly enhanced by the two deep balls to Wallace that were benefited by clueless coverage or fortunate tips. Batch has to play a more thoroughly sound game Sunday for Pittsburgh to have a chance.

I imagine Ray Rice will play, but in a somewhat limited capacity and with limited effectiveness. McGahee is a decent alternative option, but doesn't worry me anywhere nearly as much as Rice, who is also a huge weapon in the passing game. Without Rice, the Ravens are much easier to defend.

So, sure, the Ravens got the break of having their road game in Pittsburgh out of the way with Ben suspended. But the Steelers did catch them at a time when both Ed Reed is out and Ray Rice is hampered with a knee bruise. Both teams are sufficiently shorthanded that there shouldn't be any excuses. While even I've been guilty of using the "house money" line this week, there are no taking wins for granted in the NFL. This is a Steelers team that started 6-2 last season only to flame out down the stretch. The last thing any of us wants is another situation like last season where we've counting the close calls, knowing that if any of them had gone the other way, Pittsburgh would have been in the postseason.

That and hearing the Ravens search for a way to blame the refs for another loss is to tantalizing a possibility not to pine for.