2010 Wasn't 2009. Let The Same Be True Of 2011.

For all the fretting Steelers fans (myself included) did whenever the team played an outmatched foe this season, the Steelers time and again took care of business when it was presumed they would. Granted, those included one scare in Cincinnati and a small bundle of them in Buffalo, but nevertheless, the string of gut-wrenching losses to lesser teams that marked the end of the 2009 season haven't come to pass this year.

And now, so as to finally exorcise that demon, and to get the critical first-round bye, the Steelers have to avenge what was probably the most agonizing loss of the year before: dropping a game on the road to goddamn Cleveland. This year's Browns are certainly capable of more than the 2009 edition, but the fight they put most of the season seems to be rapidly waning as the final weeks have played out. Either way, it's a game the Steelers simply must win.

Sure, the team has clinched at least a playoff berth and memories of 2005 will be invoked if they are forced to slink into the 6 seed, but you really think there will be the momentum that there was in 2005, when the team won four straight to make the playoffs, if the Steelers lose an important game to the Browns to back in? Of course not.

Obviously, one of the bigger differences between this year's Steelers and last year's has simply been the presence of Troy Polamalu. Though he said he wants to go, my guess is Troy ends up sitting on Sunday. The defense isn't what it is with him around, but it should be enough to still severely limit a Browns offense with its new star running back roughed up. Peyton Hillis missed practice again on Friday, but I'm convinced he'll still play on Sunday. Nevertheless, it's fortunate that he may be somewhat less than full strength.

The Steelers win over the Browns in Week 6 was Colt McCoy's first NFL start. For the more part, the kid did pretty good under the circumstances, though it seemed like the Steelers were giving him even more dink and dunk stuff than they would to other young quarterbacks. I imagine with LeBeau knowing that McCoy can't be counted on to make the critical mistake, at least as much as some other QBs, he'll ratchet up the pressure a little more.

I generally like the way the offense has been playing the past two weeks. Many are wringing their hands about how the balance of the playcalling has tilted decidedly back to the pass after favoring the run during Roethlisberger's absence. Seems like that was an inevitability if you follow Bruce Arians' habits, but at least if the team is going to be pass happier than you'd like them to be, you have to be encouraged by the way young receivers like Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are coming along, and how much the pass blocking seems to have improved in general. Maurkice Pouncey's Pro Bowl nod notwithstanding, no one is going to mistake Pittsburgh's O-line for one of the better in the league, but it's obviously made gains since having to be shuffled considerably early in the season.

No doubt, the Brownies fans want nothing more than for their team to play spoiler for the Steelers for another season, but barring a Josh Cribbs returnkkake, they'll just have to settle for better prospects for next year than they're usually accustomed to having. The Steelers are too keenly aware of what happened when they let their guard down against them last season to let another slip by. Take care of business and this time next week we'll be looking forward to who emerges from the Wild Card round and possibly cackling at the prospect of Baltimore having to face Indianapolis again. Come up short and it's trying to get over disappointment in time to focus on a trip to Kansas City. The team knows well the former is the far superior of their choices and not beating Cleveland, however seemingly granted by some, is not a task to take lightly.


Panthers Put Down, Now On To The Browns

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.


C'mon Now - It's Carolina

I'm going to be traveling early Wednesday, so I don't have the time to write an in-depth (insofar as anything I write for this site has depth) preview in advance of the Thursday game. Hell, I don't even know if I'm going to be able to watch it live.

At the risk of invoking fate-tempting overconfidence, it's the fucking Panthers. I know, I know: parity, NFL, any given Thursday night game with horrible announcers, sure. Nevertheless, I can't help but return to that it's the fucking Panthers detail.

Not saying Carolina couldn't find a way to win this one somehow, but in the realm of possibility, it's teetering way off the most remote edge. Granted, the Steelers defense is less dynamic without Polamalu playing, but it's not likely to make a huge difference against the league's worst offense. The Panthers are the only team yet to eclipse 200 points or score fewer than 20 touchdowns on the season. Carolina plays some okay defense, but unless we're talking multiple fluky turnovers for scores and maybe a return touchdown or two, it'll take a herculean effort on their part to have a chance.

Suffice it to say, I'm not much worried about the outcome. I mean, it's one of those games where if the Steelers did lose, you'd just have to shrug and say that your guys just aren't that good. And, hey, Heath Miller will be back, so that's no less excuse. That I don't see happening. Not against a constantly confounded Jimmy Clausen. Not with a Steelers defense likely pissed about getting only one sack Sunday against the Jets. Not with memories of losing to bad teams in critical situations last season keeping them grounded.


Steelers Fall Just Short But Have No Reason To Feel Down

I've read a lot of reactions to this game noting how it felt very much like the home win over the Packers last year. I get that in that the the ending was pretty similar, save for the critical and lamentable difference in outcome this time around. No Mike Wallace heroics as time expired this time around, regrettably.

But I was reminded more of the two home wins against San Diego in 2008. I guess it was both the snowy setting and the mostly improved performance by the offensive line and Bruce Arians that sparked the connection for me. In both those games against the Chargers, the Steelers moved the ball seemingly at will with remarkably good protection for Roethlisberger. Of course, both Arians and the line fucked up royally on the Mewelde Moore shotgun draw that went for a safety, but it's a little unfair to dismiss what was mostly a better than usual showing by the playcalling and blocking based on one bad play. Though the Steelers lost, there's some encouragement to take away from that.

Obviously, what also doomed the Steelers was the opening kickoff that went for a touchdown that didn't require Brad Smith to do much but run in a straight line for the end zone. If there's anything that's going to remind Steelers fans of last season, it's poor kick coverage and a defense that struggles to get turnovers when Polamalu isn't playing. The pass rush only managed one sack. They would have had more, but Sanchez escaped their grasp on a few occasions. Nevertheless, they got pressure but pressure was about it. The inability to bring down the QB let the Jets extend some scoring drives.

Sanchez played a decent, if unspectacular, game. He made one nice deep throw to Braylon Edwards and the Jets made a smart fake on his naked bootleg to give the Jets their only offensive TD of the game. Still, I would not be at all worried to face him again, especially if Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith are playing. The Jets ran slightly better than I would have liked, but the same obviously went for the Steelers as well. After a few mediocre weeks, Mendy had a great game, posting 100 yards on only 17 carries against one of the best run defenses in the NFL.

It was frustrating to see how much contact Antonio Cromartie and Dwight Lowery got away with in coverage on Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. The Steelers got the benefit of a few bad spots when they had the ball, so I'm not gonna cry about the officiating, but if corners are going to allowed to yank on Wallace's jersey at will while he's blowing by them, then that obviously neutralizes a huge big play potential for the Steelers. The non-call on Lowery at the end of the last drive was pretty bad, but, again, you have to play well enough for the refs not to make a difference and the Steelers didn't. Just hope that isn't the case in the coming weeks.

It would have been very nice to get the win, not only to show the Steelers can beat good teams even when they're missing key contributors, but we know that to be true even coming up a hair short. Even though I thought Matt Spaeth and Ryan Mundy did all right in relief of Heath and Troy, they weren't able to be significant difference makers, either. As I said in the preview, it wasn't all that significant a blow to the standings and I'm not all that broken up about it. Miller is expected to return Thursday against the Panthers. Any self-respecting playoff team should make short work of them, Polamalu or not. While the Browns won't be a cakewalk in a game that will decide whether the Steelers are a 2 seed or a Wild Card team in Week 17, Pittsburgh will at least have almost a week and a half to prepare for them.

Coming into this week, panic was rife about the performance of the offense. Only putting up 17 points can't make you giddy, but they played well, moved the ball at ease and maybe were one 10-yard completion away from putting up 24 and a win on one of the league's tougher defenses. The Steelers defense looked a little off against a Jets offense famously struggling coming in. The performance was solid, but not stifling, which it needed to be and would likely be if the teams played again. You never want to call a loss encouraging, but this one wasn't devastating by any means either. A bad call on the goal line and bad kick coverage early cost the Steelers a game that might not have been close if they had the safety who's been an absolute force the last month.


Jets-Steelers Means Points Aplenty

The last month for the Steelers and Jets have been remarkably similar. They both got blown out by the Patriots. Against everyone else, however, they're playing a lot of defense but not exactly lighting the world on fire when they have the ball.

For the Steelers, the offensive struggles haven't been a huge problem because an opportunistic defense has found ways to get key and timely turnovers. The Jets have had that luck most of the season, but just couldn't come up with it last week at home against Miami.

Of course, the reason for each team's offensive woes result from different causes. For the Jets, it's Mark Sanchez reverting to the turnover-prone liability that he was most of last season, coupled with the running game being less effective than it was at the outset of the year. There are many that assumed both were likely to happen at some point in the season. Maybe they were, but the latter was especially inevitable with LaDainian Tomlinson getting the bulk of attention in the ground game.

The Steelers, meanwhile, are dogged by a depleted offensive line and a coordinator who refuses to adjust to that reality. Perhaps that's being too cruel, but so far all the only answer Bruce Arians seems to have developed against the problems with blocking are quick receiver screens to players at the line of scrimmage. While that strategy might be smart to get Mike Wallace the ball when corners are playing off, it's woefully inadequate when it's the only means for Ben Roethlisberger to get rid of the ball quickly.

It was assumed and hoped that Heath Miller would be back this week, though that is increasingly seeming like it won't be the case. Nice that the Steelers lose a starter for two weeks on a heinous cheap shot by a Ravens player that wasn't even flagged. Disgusting. Worse still, reports are now saying Troy Polamalu won't be active, either.

Those are both significant, especially Troy, who has come up with huge turnovers in three consecutive games. For the Jets to have a chance to win, they'll need a much better performance out of Sanchez. Polamalu being out doesn't assure the Sanchise can be competent, but it certainly makes matters much easier on him. The Jets won't be able to run much, so it's imperative to get as much pressure on Sanchez. After a few down weeks, LaMarr Woodley is playing at a high level again. And Damien Woody will miss the game, opening up that more of a chance to him to have a big impact.

The Steelers can still beat the Jets without Polamalu and Miller, but it will be that much more difficult. While I'm not conceding the loss, I want to put the game in some perspective. Even if the Steelers lost and the Ravens beat the Saints, the Steelers would remain in first place in the AFC North by dint of a better division record. So let's all thank the Bungles again for beating the Ratbirds back in September. Of course, that would make the Week 17 game against the Browns a pretty huge deal for the Steelers. Cleveland has certainly been much more feisty this season, though by then hopefully Pittsburgh would have a lot of its main contributors back. There's no excuse for not beating Carolina no matter who you're missing.

With Ryan sending the house, it'll be difficult for Roethlisberger to have time to go deep for Mike Wallace, even if he weren't being covered by Revis. So it's going to be incumbent on other receivers to come up with big plays. That happened last week with great catches by Hines and Randle El. Hopefully that manifests itself again, along with a better scheme by Arians. I'll just go ahead and presume the former has a better chance of happening. The Patriots had a lot of success with quick release plays against the Jets, but then he know that's not Arians' nor is it Roethlisberger's style. Best case scenario, the pass blocking can provide protection in turns to open up big plays, or even red zone conversions.

And, yeah, there's the return of Santonio. I'll be the first to say I wasn't on board with the stupid trade that sold him to the Jets for pennies on the dollar. At the same time, Holmes saying he expects a standing ovation from Steelers fans on Sunday is a little annoying. I mean, yeah, 'Tone, you were really good, and you made a mammoth play to win a title but you weren't exactly a team icon for a generation, either. I'm sure he'll get some cheers and deservedly so, but not the hero's welcome he presumes is coming. Santonio had a horrible drop last week that might have even cost the Jets a loss, so he no doubt is looking to rebound, in addition to exacting a measure of revenge on a team that dumped him for cheap. Without Polamalu, that will be easier. Then again, he still has Mark Sanchez throwing him the ball. That's still the greatest impediment of all.


Thanks For Sucking, Carson Palmer

The condition of the offensive line being what it is, it's hardly surprising that the Steelers offense wasn't exactly plowing through the Bengals on Sunday. But had Carson Palmer not charitably put 14 points on the board for Pittsburgh, who knows how dicey the closing of that game would have been.

Not that Pittsburgh was wholly unable to move the ball. The team put up 354 total yards of offense, but was wholly unable, either by dint of dumb penalties, bad playcalling or poor execution, to do anything in the red zone. The Steelers now have two touchdowns in their last 30 or so offensive possessions. Obviously, one of those was an incredibly timely score late in the win in Baltimore. Nevertheless, that's not going to cut it if they ever think they're going to beat a team like New England in the postseason. Tom Brady's not going to throw two pick-sixes and you're not gonna field goal them to death.

As for Sunday, I'll admit I had some genuine concern set in at the beginning of the 4th quarter when the Steelers came up empty of a potential scoring drive that got as far as the Bengals' 15 and terminated with back-to-back sacks to push them out of field goal range. That's the inability to put teams away late that killed them in 2009 and probably should have cost the Steelers in Buffalo.

But then Carson Palmer deposited one in LaMarr Woodley's hands on the first play of the successive drive and all was moot.

Now, I don't want to overly dump on a decisive win over a division opponent. There were definitely some positives to take away. Terrell Owens was largely marginalized in this game. In fact, the Bengals couldn't muster anything approaching an offense after their opening scoring drive. Thankfully Troy wasn't hurt significantly on his interception return for a TD. In fact, in a rare and welcome twist, the Steelers didn't appear to sustain any huge injuries, though Emmanuel Sanders suffered an ankle injury. From early indications, it doesn't seem to be all that serious.

And though I was willing to settle for anything above Mitch Berger-level awful, Jeremy Kapinos was actually decent in his first game with the team. So the worries that the special teams will be a liability in field position games haven't been realized just yet. It was also a standout game by the receivers with awesome snags by Hines, Mike Wallace and Antwaan Randle El in particular.

So overall, it was a satisfying voctory. Bengals getting swept just feels right. The red zone offense needs to pick it up, but at least getting Heath back next week will help on that score somewhat.

The only gripe I have is with Cincy geting away with a bunch of questionable hits on Roethlisberger in the first half.

In just the one drive at the end of the first half, Big got hit in the head and his facemask raked on one dropback. Then, on the third down before the field goal, Roy Williams nailed Roethlisberger after taking five or so steps following the quarterback releasing the ball. All that after Ben got kneed in the head by a lineman getting up after a play. It goes without saying that if James Harrison commits any of these, not only is he getting flagged and fined, but it's leading highlight packages of the games by all the networks. It's extremely annoying, but it's a trend that doesn't seem like it's going to change at any point this season.


Stop Terrell Owens And Wait For Everyone Else To Screw Up

If it weren't for Jordan Shipley's hands of stone, the Steelers would have suffered a loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati earlier this season that was eerily similar to the one that lost in Paul Brown Stadium the year before.

That wouldn't have been possible were it not for Terrell Owens going off for a 10-catch, 141-yard, two-touchdown performance to make what seemed like a salted away win into a near-defeat. Owens accounted for more than half of Carson Palmer's passing yards and routinely torched William Gay.

While Gay has played far, far better in the games since, he really has no business guarding Owens for the better part of a game. It wasn't until late - almost too late - that Ike Taylor was moved to cover Owens in the first contest.

Hold T.O. in check and the rest falls into place. The Bengals can't run on the Steelers. Ocho never does anything against Pittsburgh. And Carson Palmer isn't good enough to make teams pay in any other way. Somehow I doubt him going to Jermaine Gresham is going to be a force enough to swing a game in their favor.

Remember when Mike Zimmer was hailed all throughout last season and this past offseason as the latest emergent defensive guru in the league? He even had a sympathetic personal story to draw more admiration his way. Too bad, then, that the Bengals are 28th in points allowed and 20th in overall yardage.

Of course, the offensive line problems being what they are, it doesn't necessarily even require a good defense to hold the Steelers offense in check. The Buffalo game with its myriad penalties and Kyle Williams domination should be evidence enough of that. Thankfully Flozell is expected to start on Sunday, which didn't seem likely in the immediate aftermath of the win over the Ravens. So no Trai Essex adventure, thankfully.

Cincinnati gave the Saints a scare at home last week, but the Bungles are riding a nine-game slide, which is bad enough even to force Ocho to momentarily go into silent mode. That might also have to do with his dreadful one-catch performance in the first meeting in Paul Brown Stadium.

For all the aggravation caused by Bruce Arians' red zone playcalling last week, I was encouraged by some of the quick throws to Mike Wallace at the line. It's basically what the team used to often use with Santonio and is almost always good for at least 10 yards or so when the defense is playing back to protect against the deep pass. Far preferable to constant bubble screens to Hines. It will be interesting to see whether they continue to go to that to set up the long pass. Wallace had a good stat line against the Bengals in Week 9, though that looks that much better with him making a great play on an iffy gadget touchdown pass by Antwaan Randle El.

The Steelers were doing a serviceable job running the ball against the Ravens until Flozell and Heath went down and the ground game completely went to shit. Hopefully having Flozell back (though somewhat hampered) and Spaeth back in to block will get it back going against a Bengals team ranked 24th against the run.

The immediate discussion from players following last week's win turned to getting their business done. Even in the immediate postgame interview, James Harrison said if the team failed to close out, then the big win over Baltimore would have meant nothing. That's the usual self-effacing thing players are taught to say to the media, so now it's time to show that it's not just hollow means to assure the fan base and writers ready to spring on any comment that goes against accepted convention.


Steelers' Playoff Push: Sifting Through Possible Opponents

Hells Yea, Baby.

Miami, New Orleans, Cincinnati. Three close games. For the Steelers, a string of road games from Oct. 24-Nov. 8 that resulted in a few things of note. First, Pittsburgh lost a number of its starters to injury (Smith, Keisel, Starks, etc.). Second, it was probably the high-point of the season, you know, until New England came to town. Lastly, and most importantly, it secured what the Steelers are the ONLY team in the NFL about to enjoy: Three of their final four games at home to end the regular season.

The permutations and variance in playoff scenarios is still too complex to map out a probable course for Pittsburgh. Yes, The Steelers need to handle their business and just beat the Bengals this week. But, the separation between the teams currently listed as "in" the playoff picture and on the outside is surprisingly pronounced this season. It seems reasonable to say that 9-7 won't be good enough to punch a dance card in the AFC. This leaves only four teams with a shot to upend those currently "in," ten total teams with a chance at all.
Let's look at em:

Patriots (10-2):
We shouldn't be facing these guys until the AFC Championship, so long as we keep our #2 seed. And we have an extraordinarily good shot to do that, even if we drop one of our final four. See how that schedule is a big deal now? Sure, they blew us out on our home turf and Brady has an all-time NFL record home winning record going, but...eh. Let's just worry about them if/when we need to.

NY Jets (9-3):
Only team on this list we'll face before the playoffs. I'll reserve most of my judgment until then, suffice it to say: They're better than 147-2 or whatever it was they lost by last week. Some have postulated that New England "exposed" the Jets' weaknesses and that they've been mostly smoke and mirrors this season, eeking out wins against less than stellar opponents. But let's be careful not to buy in to that ideology. As far as I'm concerned, a win against NY give us the #2 seed in two weeks. Beat the Bengals for a chance to earn that 2 seed.

Kansas City (8-4):
The only team that could over take us for a first round bye if we lose one game. Of course, they would have to run the table to do so, starting with a trip to San Diego this Sunday. Man, I hope they win that one. We'll get to this later, but I'm actually rooting against San Diego harder than any other team right now. Plus, I would LOVE to face KC in round 2 of the playoffs. I'm not overlooking them, by any means as McCluster, Bowe, Charles & Meoakikiki are legit offensive weapons. Still, Matt Cassell? Muhahaha...

Baltimore (8-4):
The idea that we'll face the Ravens in round 2 of the playoffs here at Heinz makes the pubes on the back of your throat stand up. What a scenario. It would definitely be the biggest game since the 2008 AFC Championship at Heinz. But, Baltimore heads to Houston this week, not as simple a matchup as the two teams' records would indicate. If the Ravens would somehow lose to Arian, Andre & Co. they'd face Drew Breesus coming to town the following week. At that point, they might be looking at Indy or San Diego in their rear view. Still, don't you almost get the feeling Steelers/Ravens III is preordained?

Jacksonville (7-5):
The current place-holder atop the AFC South. I still have visions of David Garrard scrambling (via an obvious un-flagged hold) away the Steelers' playoff aspirations as a wild card in 2008. And MJD is a legit runner. But, the next two teams on this, and I cannot stress this enough, they would be a GODSEND as division champs. We would match up awesome with them as they don't have a legit first receiver (Sims-Walker is poor and Mike Thomas has come on but as a #2) and they're all ground game. For now: Go Jags.

Oakland (6-6):
How could the Raiders make the playoffs, you ask??? A game against the Jags this week (which they're slight underdogs), then rudderless Denver and Indy. Indy has 57 injuries and could be eliminated by, well...tonight. That would leave them with KC to cap of the season in an awesome scenario. Oakland showed a lot of spunk taking down San Diego last week. Considering the other 6-6 squads, I'd pull for them IF they take down Jacksonville. Still, it's difficult to think that the Raiders could still run the table to sneak up.

San Diego (6-6):
Man, Chargers' loss to Oakland was huge. If you look back, I've oscillated my take on the Chargers all season. From scared to sure they were out of it. I'm sure you've seen the stats. #1 in total defense. #2 in total offense. If push came to shove, I'd have confidence in the Steelers' ability to take them down at Heinz, but I REALLY don't want it to come to that. Next to Baltimore, I really fear these guys the most. I'll be rooting against them second only to pulling for Pittsburgh. Amazing. Let's just err on the side of caution and get them out of the discussion.

Indianapolis (6-6):
Another team that I won't be happy until they're dead and buried. I don't know how you could be a Manning fan unless you are a) from Indy or b) a Manning. Yes, the Colts are injured (they just brought Dominic Rhodes back FROM THE UFL!) and clearly, Pay-Pey is struggling, but the suffering cannot be too great.

Miami (6-6):
Surprised to these guys on this list? I know I am. The Dolphins' D (ranked 4th overall) is keeping them in games. I'm thinking their season will be over this week as they head to the Meadowlands to be the Jets rebound bitches, though. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't mention that their two games after are Buffalo & Detroit...if they can upend the Jets (hilariously), that'd give'em something to play/injure the Patriots for in Week 17.

The Moral Of The Story:
I can't work the percentages, but I think it's looking a lot like NYJ & BAL will be your wild cards. It's also looking like they are better than the remaining teams on this list, San Diego excepted. The natural conclusion to draw there is that we'll face one of them for our first playoff game. I would vastly prefer facing the Jets over the Ravens, if for no other reason than when we play the latter injuries tend to mount. Plus, can you imagine Sanchez trying to elude our defense right now? OF COURSE, the only thing that matters and should be focused on by the Steelers right now is winning the game in front of them. But, it's intriguing to look at what lay ahead and to get figure out who to pull for in EVERY game. So go root for your Steelers. And Jacksonville. And Kansas City. And Peyton Manning to throw 37 more picks.


Ravens Can Batter Ben, But Still Can't Beat Him

This past week was one of the worst I've had in a while. A couple weeks after having to take my car for a costly transmission repair I can't really afford, I lost my job at SB Nation for reasons that still aren't entirely clear or reasonable. That firing, of course, came five days after the company made me miss Thanksgiving with my family because I had to work in the late afternoon and evening with them.

So it goes without further complaining that I personally really needed that Steelers victory.

Not that it wasn't supremely important to the team or any other fan for that matter. You'll forgive me my self-involvement after such an emotional win, right? After all, this was one of the most satisfying and impressive Steelers regular season victories for as long as I've watched the team. Impressive obviously not in the sense that it was a dominant showing but an incredibly resilient effort.

With what was their best chance to win the division on the line, the Steelers went into Baltimore with a depleted line, a hobbled quarterback and won despite incurring more injuries and ceding the lead in the first quarter and not getting it back until there were three minutes left in the game.

All during the week we heard jeering comments from Ravens fans and idiots like Mike Florio that Ben Roethlisberger was doing his drama queen thing again because Roethlisberger happened to sustain a foot injury against Buffalo. Only minutes into the game, Ben gets his nose broken on an uncalled shot to the face by Haloti Ngata. Roethlisberger struggled with his accuracy early trying to adapt to playing with the boot on his foot, but was on par with his usual output by the time the second half came around. His escape from a Terrell Suggs sack two plays before the winning touchdown was one of a handful of huge plays the team came up with in the waning minutes. Isaac Redman's touchdown catch and run was no less amazing, having broken tackles by Dawan Landry and Jarret Johnson before plunging into the end zone.

In many ways, it felt like a repeat of the 2008 road victory in Baltimore to take the division. Of course, while the controversial call in that game went in favor of the Steelers, there were multiple big non-calls on Sunday night that went the way of the Ravens. I can understand missing the Ngata hit on Roethlisberger, but for McClain's incredibly illegal decapitation of Heath Miller to go unflagged was egregious. Maybe it was the fact that the sloppy flags were such a prominent storyline the week prior that made the referees more hesitant than usual to dispense them. Whatever the reason, it's inexcusable.

A lot of Ravens fans are harping on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron for opting to pass on a 2nd and 5 with the lead and three and a half minutes left in the game. If Joe Flacco had slightly more awareness at the line of scrimmage, it's probably not a terrible play, as the Steelers allowed a five yard run on the previous down being in nickel coverage and were now poised to send the house. Of course, this was the same Joe Flacco who had been playing amazing football for the past month or so and had supposedly turned the corner as a complete quarterback. And it's not like the Steelers had a decisive effort in the offensive coordinator department. Bruce Arians' decision making on the Steelers first trip to the red zone in the second half could have been the difference in the game had Polamalu not made his play. Having lost two of the team's better run blockers in the game, Arians calls up back-to-back runs up the gut before a quick dump pass to Mike Wallace that has almost no chance of making it into the end zone.

It can be somewhat excused (or at least slightly mitigated) because he was returning from injury, Bryant McFadden had yet another terrible game against the Ravens. Granted, he helped break up a pass in the end zone on the Ravens final drive, but he was being picked on all evening the way William Gay was most of last season. Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett haven't made the leap and Ike Taylor is going into free agency. Keeping Ike and taking a corner high seem like huge priorities for the offseason. Of course, it would be difficult not to pull the trigger on a offensive tackle should a good one fall to Pittsburgh.

Not often does it happen in big games or against the Ravens in general, but Hines Ward had a rough day. Hines had only one catch all game, coupled with a bad drop on the Steelers final offensive possession of the first half. Had he made that one, the team would have likely been able to put up at least three before intermission. In the second half, he and David Johnson ran into each other on a route, which left no one open and Roethlisberger having to swallow the ball for a sack.

The win came at no small cost, however, with Heath Miller almost certain to miss Sunday's game against Cincinnati. Flozell Adams suffered a high ankle sprain and will be a question mark as well. Worse still, Daniel Sepulveda tore the ACL in his right leg and will miss the rest of the season. So we're looking and near and long term issues for the rest of the season on offense and special teams. The blocking will be aided slightly on Sunday, as Matt Spaeth has been cleared to return to practice on Wednesday.

Obviously the team can't allow themselves a slip-up after such a pivotal victory. The Bengals gave the Steelers a scare in the first meeting in Cincy and now it appears like the team will be even more shorthanded than they've been accustomed to this season. Nevertheless, it's a game they should be able to win to maintain their hold on the division and the second seed in the AFC.


Better Than Ed Reed Strikes Again

Your game-winner, ladies and gents. Scratch that. Your division winner, ladies and gents.


Finally - A Quarterback Higher Than Third String

Let's just say if the Ravens get another one of their fan-described "miracles" this Sunday, at least it won't have come against the Steelers current third- or fourth-string quarterback. Of course, it would also allow them to update that incredibly old and overused Bart Scott picture from 2006 as their go-to beat-off fodder after rubbing Old Spice on themselves and imagining its Ray Lewis' tongue.

Then again, they just might have to deal with yet another in a long string of frustrating and humiliating defeats to the Steelers in big games. That's right - stakes is high. While it's still a tad premature to definitively say the winner is assured of the second string in the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye, they'll obviously have a nice inside track toward that prized position, especially with the winners in the two other of the AFC divisions far behind the North and East leaders.

I've been thinking all week about how important Emmanuel Sanders' role might figure in this contest. I would assume one of the main goals in the Ravens' defensive strategy, much like it was in the first contest, will be to take out Mike Wallace as best as possible. Teams have shown this can be done, so long as you're willing to commit the extra safety to covering him deep. Hines will be there for possession-saving catches and the like, but the opening for Sanders to make big places will have to be taken advantage of. Manny has showed a lot of promise this year, but can be as unreliable as you might expect a rookie to be. His drop late last week in Buffalo could have proven to be costly and regrettable.

Chris Kemoeatu had his worst game of the season last week trying futilely to block Kyle Williams. Or even slightly impede his march into the background. He'll have no less a difficult assignment Sunday with Haloti Ngata, though Ngata was nowhere nearly as unblockable in Week 4 as Williams was last Sunday. I also just expect Kemoeatu to bounce back after being embarrassed. Can't say I'm any more comfortable with Jonathan Scott's first go against the Ravens' defense, but can't do much but hope for the best on that one.

LaMarr Woodley is just as desperate for an improved showing. Woodley has been silent in two of the last three games. He's typically a huge factor against the Ravens. The Steelers might be more tempted to test a somewhat gimpy Michael Oher with James Harrison rushing, but Woodley is going to have to win his one-on-one matchups more often to keep Flacco from having time to throw. With Le'Ron McClain out, the Ravens will likely do more passing than they might usually do against the Steelers (yeah, I know they threw 37 times in Week 4) being without one of their most important blockers in the run game.

Rashard Mendenhall was huge against Buffalo and should likely do even better against Baltimore than he did in the first meeting with the threat of a potent passing game from the Steelers. Nevertheless, Mendy has lost two fumbles the past two games. Obviously, any turnover in this game Sunday can and likely will be critical. Can't afford to cough it up again.

Bryant McFadden, Nick Eason and Brett Keisel are all expected to play. Welcome news, obviously, though the same was said to be true about Keisel last week, so we'll just have to see on that. It seems doubtful that Matt Spaeth will go, which is a shame as he could be used for help with blocking.

As for all the Steelers targeting stuff seemingly omnipresent again this week, I've said my piece on it. I don't think the league is purposefully going after the Steelers. James Harrison, maybe, but then that's been a situation fostered by the league, the media and Harrison himself. I think if there's any agreement between Steelers and Ravens fans, it's that we'd like not to see intimidated officials force themselves to flag iffy hits on quarterbacks and receivers for what could be critical personal foul penalties. That said, Pittsburgh is going to have to find a way not to kill itself with the other flags. It's highly unlikely they'd get a third straight victory in a game where they've compiled more than 100 penalty yards. Not quite the room for error against Bawlmer that there is against Oakland and Buffalo.

I'll hand it to Joe Flacco; Unibrow has played well the past two months. But he still hasn't shown he can win the big game yet. He's been terrible in the playoffs. Even this season when he stats are improved, he couldn't quite pull it off against the Falcons or the Patriots. He did little to nothing to win against the Jets. He got a fortunate second chance in Pittsburgh after blowing a 4th down and goal attempt that might have sealed a loss had circumstances been different. It'll likely be on him to finally have an impressive outing against the Steelers.


Mike Preston Brainfarts Sound Like Drama

Mike Preston is The Baltimore Sun's resident Ravens homer hack par excellence. So grating are his half-baked or purposefully inflammatory views that he even manages to piss off hometown Ratbird fans with regularity.

Last year, I was in the press box in Baltimore for the Sunday night Week 12 game and this asshole was flapping off with the usual assortment of Ravens trash talk about the Steelers that you could read from fuckwits in comment sections of fifth-rate team blogs. And naturally some of his colleagues were yukking it up with him. That's some nice journalistic integrity you've got there, Sun. True to form, a few days ago on The Sun's web site, he posted an entry on the Ravens Insider blog decrying Ben Roethlisberger supposedly sustaining a foot injury against Buffalo for the sake of pregame theatrics. Of course he did.

As Roethlisberger limped off the field at halftime of the Steelers game against Buffalo last week, I laughed because I knew there was going to be some drama with an injury. If it wasn't going to be his foot that hurt, then it was going to be his big toe or his little finger, or his butt or a tooth. Always something.

I can understand why Roethlisberger might not want to play. He will be missing his two starting offensive tackles, and I don't think the Steelers can handle the pressure the Ravens will bring. But we all know that Big Ben will play. He'll get the ankle taped, take a pain killer and then play.

That's PFT-level mouthbreathing retardery, yet there are scores of fuckwit Ratbirds fans backing him up in the comments. Typical.

Yes, Roethlisberger only sustained a foot injury to ramp up the drama for the following week's game. Of this you can be certain. The injuries to Le'Ron McClain and Michael Oher? Why, those are understandable dings in the course of playing tough. I must have missed the part where Roethlisberger was showing off his walking book to reporters this week while shouting over-the-top promises about there being nothing in the world that could hold him back. That'd be too much like Terrell Suggs' histrionics before the 2008 AFC Title Game.

It should also be noted that the Ravens are once again distributing the knockoff rally towels they used in the home game last year. A fantastically hypocritical move by a fan base that glories in mocking the traditions of Steelers fans.


Your Quarterly AFC Team-by-Team Breakdown

The South is a mess. At least it's not the NFC.

Unless you've successfully avoided all forms of media and permutations thereof in the past 48 hours, you've likely heard we have an important football contest this Sunday.

Lord knows ESPN has their fully engorged hype-boner going "OMFG!!1! AFC SHOWDOWNS ON SUNDAY & MONDAY NIGHTS" and "BIG BEN IN A BOOT!!! WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!?!?1ZOMG!!" I swear, it's only a matter of time until the ABC/ESPN/Disney/Pixar/Exxon/Cheerios/Tampon conglomerate has the ability to directly siphon from my pay-check.

/buys domain sportsdirectdeposit.com

With the apparent separation between the four teams playing in these two games, it would seem as though a win would put the respective victors on the fast track to first-round playoff byes. But, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Casting aside all hyperbole and promotion, this game is about one thing: The division title. Too many factors are in play to determine who will DEFINITELY take it, but with Baltimore already owning a win over us and both the Ravens & Steelers facing a similar remaining schedule, this is likely it, folks.

Steelers remaining opponents' record: 15-28
Ravens remaining opponents' record: 19-25

Either outcome will leave us looking around at possible foes/matchups. So let's see what's in store for us as of now.


NY Jets (9-2):
I don't really think there is any way The Jets take this game. Or the AFC East, for that matter. The Pats don't lose at home under Brady. Rex is a good motivator. Belicheck is a better coach. The streak of close-call wins for NY ends with this game. In fact, with Pittsburgh & Chicago road games still on their schedule, there's an outside chance New York could get paced by the Chiefs/Chargers loser for top Wild Card spot.

New England (9-2):
Do you want to know a big part of why the Patriots don't lose often? Going back as far as Belicheck has been their coach, they haven't lost to a divisional opponent twice in the same regular season. Ever. As if any Steeler fan who saw their team diced by a prepared, methodical offense a few weeks ago needs to hear it: That's coaching. The Pats will face Green Bay in Foxboro in 3 weeks, another prime time game. I'm guessing it will cement for New England a first-round bye.


Baltimore (8-3):
Joe Flacco and Ray Rice will not win the game for the Ravens Sunday. Neither are in the league's top 10 in any meaningful category. Receiving? Boldin is 32nd in the league with under 60 y/p. It's the defense. The defense has held almost every team they've beat to under 17 points (they went the route of shoot-out with Buffalo and nearly lost). So, should we be worried? If Harbaugh was paying attention to our MNF disaster, he'll try and dink and dunk to Heap, Mason and whoever is coming out of the backfield. That could be enough to muster a troublesome attack, but not one that would decimate Pittsburgh. Certainly, the return of Ed Reed has been a boon for the secondary and defense on the whole. But at the worst, the Steelers' numbers are a push with theirs. Still, Roethlisberger has a pretty good track record against teams that are predicated on a pass-rush. And an even more impressive record against the Ravens. Lastly, injuries and their impact cannot be overstated. Michael Oher could be out. Keisel could be back. Obviously, Ben's foot will be the center of much discussion as well. In such a physical contest, I'd expect some in-game casualties as well. Predictions are meaningless, but I like our chances.

"How The West Will be One"

Kansas City (7-4):
The phrase, "If the playoffs started today..." is by definition, moot. They don't. Having said that, if they did, we'd get these guys. About the only thing Kansas City has going for them is their ground attack. Up until now, it has been enough. A one dimensional team predicated on the run SHOULD play right in to our hands. If we do end up facing them, it'd be an acceptable consolation for the division, I suppose. Their matchup with surging San Diego in two weeks will determine whether they are for real, though a weak schedule could still let them back in as a Wild Card.

San Diego (6-5):
Here we are again. I shouldn't care that much that the Chargers are back in the positive side of the W/L column, except for the fact that I cannot help but notice what a complete football team they are. And how they, as opposed to all of the other squads with 5 losses (hell, 4 losses) would be MUCH tougher opponent in the playoffs. Sure, we handled them here 2 years ago and if push came to shove, the Steelers' D would give the Chargers problems. But I simply don't want it to come to that. With both a top-ranked D and pass attack (with people off the street catching balls, no less) it's looking like one way or the other, San Diego is going to make it to January. What's more, their schedule is now looking like cake. Four opponents with losing records and three straight home games, one of which is Kansas City. Steeler fans should be pulling Kansas City. Damn.

"Put Them Out of Their Misery"

Miami (6-5):
Not wasting much time, here. A game or two away, which will result in me having to drown out Dolphin fan's bitching about their loss to us. If I knew any Dolphin fans, that is. The best they can hope for is to be vanquished in the final week against New England.

"The Entire AFC South. Still."

Jacksonville (6-5):
If Garrard doesn't go this Sunday (injured hand), then it'll have a massive impact on this whole house of cards. With the Titans imploding, a loss to them would be devastating for Jacksonville. Jags/Titans is essentially an elimination game as only one team is coming out of the South from the look of things.

Indianapolis (6-5):
I don't care if he threw 3 picks. I don't care if their defense is porous from all the injuries, their on their 3rd RB and their WRs don't catch any more. A playoffs without Pay-Pey is an easier road, plain and simple. The Colts are horrible against the run and horrible running it (29th in both), but with Tennessee on their schedule twice, they could easily take this division.

Houston (5-6):
Games at Philly and then home against Baltimore. Lose just one more and they're done. With two talents like Arians and Johnson, this is a real shame. If you can't stop the pass, you can't ice games. Puhleeeeeze let Andre Johnson fight Ray Lewis or Terrell Suggs.

Tennessee (5-6):
You're looking at your NEW suicide league horse, right here. 3rd string QBs don't typically lead playoff pushes. Another shame, as Chris Johnson is a beast, but is completely neutralized as he's their only weapon at this point.

"Not Pictured"

Oakland (5-6):
Raider fans have to be somewhat pleased. Jacoby Ford looks good. Darren McFadden is not, as it turns out, a bust and the defense is above average (when healthy). Sure, Campbell nor Gradkowski are franchise saviors, but they've got some real building blocks. Four remaining playoff contenders on their slate means they are dead in the water. It also means they'll have a big say in who makes the dance...

Cleveland (4-7):
Will be interesting to see if Mangini still has a post come off season. Peyton Hillis and Colt McCoy could be haunting our dreams in future seasons.

Denver (3-8):
Im-plo-sion. Wow. Maybe Pat Bowlen will have more respect for Shanahan, now. Brandon Lloyd is a freak. My fantasy team would like to thank Kyle Orton.

Buffalo (2-9):
They'll win a few, yet.

Cincinnati (2-9):
Nothing pleases me more than to put these guys down here. I would like it if Marv Lewis makes a move to the NFC, however.


EAST: New England (13-3)
NORTH: Pittsburgh (11-5)
SOUTH: Indianapolis (10-6)
WEST: San Diego (10-6)

New York (12-4)
Baltimore (11-5) (Loss to Bengals bites them in the ass)

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