Team Rallying Around Flozell, Of All People

The Steelers have arrived in Dallas and so the real hype madness can ensue. There were rumbles over the past week that the team wanted to frame the game as an effort to win one for Flozell Adams, who spent his entire career prior to this season in Dallas but never made it to the Super Bowl before this season.

I guess they're taking it more to heart than they had even been leading on. Upon arriving on Monday in Dallas, the offensive line, including an injured Maurkice Pouncey, was seen exiting the team plane wearing Flozell's Michigan State college jersey in a nod similar to what the team did with Jerome Bettis' Notre Dame jersey when arriving in Detroit for Super Bowl XL. Nothing wrong with seeing camaraderie from the O-line, especially with Pouncey almost certainly out.

Meanwhile, Hines was sporting his western get-up with giant S belt ("stands for SUPELL!"), which will undoubtedly get the majority of the attention for the day.

Oh yeah. Let's not forget amid the countless warmed-over, sharted-out Steelers hate pieces and forced sound bytes that it's really all about this.


Hopes For Pouncey Just Got Fainter

In addition to a high ankle sprain, center Maurkice Pouncey also has a broken bone in his left ankle, according to Gerry Dulac and Ed Bouchette. None of us want to fully abandon hope that he'll be in the line-up for the Super Bowl, but it's looking highly unlikely at this point. Then again, Pouncey was apparently in a boot instead of a hard cast on Friday, so there's something to keep the hopes stoked for at least a few more days.

So, an already battered offensive line will be without its most talented member. Some fans have praised Doug Legursky for playing well in Pouncey's stead against the Jets. Botched snaps aside, I don't know if that's entirely accurate, but he wasn't exactly bad, either. I think getting the full two weeks working at center with the first-team offense should help significantly with the snap problem.

When Pouncey has struggled this year, it's come against massive nose tackles like Kyle Williams, Vince Wilfork and Haloti Ngata. If there's one advantage Legursky has over Pouncey in this point in his career, it's size. Granted, it's not a significant upgrade there, either, but it's something. Besides, do you really want a center who has struggles against huge linemen trying to block B.J. Raji at considerably less than 100 percent? Not really.

In further distressing news, the comeback story of Aaron Smith hasn't yet followed its preordained heart-warming script just yet. He continues to remain limited in practice and there are those who say he's an extreme longshot to play in the Super Bowl as well. Again, it would be very nice for line depth, but Ziggy Hood has played well enough that it's not devastating by any means not to get Smith back for the game. Again, nothing is completely definite until the inactive lists are set, so we shall see.

The Steelers beat the Packers last season without either Pouncey and Smith. Obviously, there are additional factors at play, but if any team is equipped to play extremely shorthanded on the O-line and thrive, it's the Steelers.


Attack of the '94 Defense

"At least I only failed once as a head coach."

The Steelers can't seem to avoid their recent past in the Super Bowl. Two years ago, the team had to square off against former assistants Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. In Super Bowl XLV, the past is present comes knocking once again in the form of Dom Capers, Kevin Greene and Darren Perry.

Yeah, all three were on staff as Green Bay defensive coaches when the teams played last season in Pittsburgh, but as a storyline, it beats repeating that head coach Mike McCarthy grew up a Steelers fan. Together, they've helped make the Packers defense only slightly less impressive than that of the Steelers. Good on them.

Kevin Greene has imparted the pass rushing significance of long flaxen tresses to Clay Matthews. Conversely, Matthews offered Greene a handy lesson in how to avoid getting caught using steroids.

Perry is the only member of the three to have won a ring as a player or coach. Of course, he got his as an assistant coach with the Steelers in 2005.


It Begins

E-mail from a reader this morning:
My friend is in Dallas for non-football related business and toured the Cowboys Stadium (or whatever the name is) yesterday. He sent me this pic. You have my permission to post on KSK or DCSN, if you want to stick a knife into Ray Ray's back (and his fans) some more.
Very nice. All that remains now is getting the hypocycloids on this year's Super Bowl ring. Oh man, it needed to be kickoff five minutes ago.


Somehow, It All Worked Out

In the two days since the Steelers beat the Jets to advance to the franchise's eighth Super Bowl, I've heard mostly exclamations of incredulity from fellow Steelers fans that this seemed like something between a fever dream and a pleasant lie from viewed from the perspective of the preseason. Sure, if one takes that vantage point, the fact that the Steelers are now advancing to Super Bowl XLV seems almost absurd.

I'd like to think there have been enough recalibrations of expectations over the past four months that a broader perspective is needed than one that merely examines the very beginning and now, just short of the very end.

Think back to Week 3 when the Steelers had started 3-0 without Ben Roethlisberger, having defeated teams that had all suffered their only loss of the season to date to Pittsburgh. Perhaps this doesn't quite seem so improbable.

A humbling defeat to the Patriots at home on Sunday night likely set the dial back to maybe being thankful for just getting back to the postseason.

Another late win in Baltimore that essentially secured the division and a first-round bye was enough to make people think that, hey, give the Steelers another shot at the Patriots and they could just mess around and do it.

Of course, we know since then that no such Patriots rematch occurred and that the Jets wanted to justify all the preseason Super Bowl hype that had enjoyed months earlier. In that sense, it was an AFC Championship Game featured a team that summer dictated would thrive being hosted by one that would supposedly be fortunate to keep its head above water.

Maybe in a just world, or maybe a more poetically just one, the Steelers would have been made to pay dearly for their decision to trade Santonio. 'Tone gave it his best and provided the early second half spark that started the nerves rattling. Lucky for us, that was about it out of him.

I'll never be an ardent Bruce Arians supporter, but I'll give him this much: he's figured out how to run on the Jets. Granted, several of the nice gains by Rashard Mendenhall were the result of a mixture of poor tackling and pure effort of the runner's part, but oftentimes the blocking and running schemes were superb. The Steelers ran the ball nearly at will in the first half, with their best offensive lineman only playing the opening drive. This against the league second-best run defense. That's pretty damn impressive.

I'll cop to being overconfident at this point. That a few Jets fans were leaving in the surrounding rows didn't help to assuage that hubris. That lasted for all of about two minutes until Santonio broke free deep and pulled the Jets to within two scores. It probably took me a full hour to let panic return to elation even after the Steelers ran out the clock.

From the Santonio score on, it was pretty much all defense until the final three minutes. Scanning the reactions to this game, Ben Roethlisberger is either being appallingly fluffed by the media or wrongly dumped on. Obviously, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sunday certainly wasn't his best game by any stretch, but he did make several key plays to either extend scoring drives, then to run out the clock at the very end. Like Mark Sanchez, he got away with two or three throws that could or should have been interceptions. His game turned out to be not very dissimilar to the one Aaron Rodgers had against Chicago: a first interception that wasn't really on him followed by an ugly one that took away a score that might have put the game out of reach earlier in the second half. Had Roethlisberger deep throw that was intercepted by Brodney Pool been thrown further toward the sideline, it would've likely been a touchdown. As it was, it squandered what would have at least been probably a key field goal drive. Mike Wallace also had Darrelle Revis beat about two steps on the one long bomb they tried, but Ben didn't put it out there far enough. Let's hope it's his one less than inspiring performance of the postseason.

You don't need to tell you that Rashard Mendenhall was easily the offensive star of this game. It was truly a star-making performance out of Mendy. While I don't think Mendy is a top five back in the league, I allow rarely see him get much recognition in the national media. Perhaps that will change now.

The defense did a better job getting to Sanchez than in Week 15. LaMarr Woodley might not have his multiple sack streak going, but he's still had at least one sack in every postseason game he's appeared in. Woodley had one of the sacks on Sanchez and was close a few other times, including one where he was held pretty badly a few plays before the Jets scored. Harrison was good in run coverage but Ferguson did a sound job of neutralizing him in the pass rush. Woodley will be going against a rookie in the Super Bowl, so it's probably a good chance he'll be getting in on Aaron Rodgers. If Silverback gets going as well, the Steelers chances for getting no. 7 will be considerably better.

So if you got tired of people parsing what to make of Week 15's impact on the AFC Championship Game, I won't have much to console you about how much last year's memorable win (also in Week 15) against the Packers will be pored over excruciatingly for the next two weeks. A few observations/things worth noting:

- Hines and Heath accounted for nearly half of Ben's 500 passing yards

- Greg Jennings had a pretty huge game (5 catches for 113 yards and a score)

- Two sacks for Clay Matthews. Steelers only had one total.

- No Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith playing

- With nearly 900 total passing yards, you don't expect a ton of rushing. Accordingly, neither team had more than 65 yards total on the ground.

The health of Maurkice Pouncey is going to be a huge concern, no matter his level of confidence following Sunday's game. Even if he plays, it likely won't be at 100 percent. That's good in that there's a much less chance of the bobbled snaps we saw against the Jets, but it does mean bad things going against B.J. Raji. With two additional weeks, however, Bryant McFadden and Troy Polamalu will be that much closer to full strength. And Aaron Smith will likely get to pull a Rod Woodson and validate the Steelers' decision not to put him on IR back in October. Should he do so, one of the more interesting wrinkles will be how he is worked in with Ziggy Hood, given that the second-year player has more than come into his own as the season has worn on. Not the worst problem to have, I'd say.


Anybody, Especially Braying Jerseyites, Can Be Beat

There was once a time when the AFC championship game for Steelers fans would be a nerve-wracking affair on its face. Going into '05, the team had lost in three consecutive appearances since reaching Super Bowl XXX and seemed incapable of making the leap into another Super Bowl, no matter how good the season that proceeded it.

Five years on, we know that to no longer be the case. The Steelers have already won two conference championship games in that span and can add a third on Sunday. To do so, they'll have to deny a Jets team that has appeared in and lost all three conference championship games the team has appeared in since winning Super Bowl III. Of course, one of those was last season, so the Jets aren't much lacking compared to the Steelers in experience with this game.

All things being even, the Jets don't have enough offense to beat the Steelers. I doubt it will be a mistake free game on both sides, but the Jets will need either another kick return, a plethora of turnovers or a defensive score to pull another win at Heinz Field. Mark Sanchez can make a couple good throws, but for every good one he makes, there are three or four routine ones he misses badly. The Jets had a respectable rushing performance in the Week 15 meeting, but I have a feeling with even with Troy appearing slightly less than 100 percent, his presence can bolster an already incredibly strong rush D. Just remember that aside from Ray Rice's TD run last week, he barely registered another respectable carry the rest of the way.

Let's put it this way - the Jets managed not to turn the ball over, kind of had the run game going and still managed only 13 points on offense in Week 15 in Pittsburgh. Any slip-up by them could prove to be fatal.

Polamalu lined up more deep in coverage last week against Baltimore, though LeBeau did send him in blitzes late in the game, especially on the final drive. Remember, of course, that Troy was supposedly hobbled the week before the 2008 AFC title game and that game turned out all right for him. Some are freaking out over him missing Thursday's practice along with Wednesday, though that follows his schedule for nearly the last two months.

Both teams are going to want to ramp up the pass rush over what materialized in Week 15. For the Jets, the pass rush has been something of a weakness on their defense, though they were able to get a lot of pressure from Shaun Ellis on Tom Brady last week. The Steelers only sacked Mark Sanchez once in the December meeting, though narrowly missed him a few more times. The Jets will make it a priority to protect him and will likely use max protect on most long pass plays. Still, the Steelers will get their opportunities to get at him. Sanchez has elusiveness to escape sacks, so it's just a matter of being able to get him down when the chance is there. If James Harrison has anything like the performance he has last week, that won't be an issue. The Steelers game was the only game after Week 6 in the regular season where Sanchez didn't throw an interception. Get him rattled and the mistakes will come.

Drew Coleman had a huge game for the Jets in the last meeting, which shows that it's important for the offensive line to recognize when extra pressure is coming, because New York's front seven can't make much on its own. As I said then, except for a bad shotgun draw from the goal line that was broken up by Jason Taylor (hampered as well this week) Bruce Arians had a fairly good day with playcalling against the Jets. I don't doubt that Rex Ryan will make adjustments going into this game, but a team that can't get tons of pressure without sending a ton of rushers is going to have the Steelers move the ball on them. Incidentally, the last strong statistical performance by Mendenhall against the Jets (he may not have had a ton of yards, but he made several great runs last week against the Ravens, including a grueling effort to secure the winning touchdown). Get Mendy around 100 yards rushing again, and I don't see how the Steelers would lose without a host of huge mistakes.

Darrelle Revis is in better condition now than he was in early December, but has still been limited in practice with his hamstring injury. He won't shadow Mike Wallace all game, but Wallace will likely get a lot of his attention. Probably doesn't mean great things for deep bombs, but if Revis has a weakness, it's on inside and slant routes. As we saw in the Carolina game, Wallace can be equally deadly on those. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Steelers test that. On the other side, let's just hope Dwight Lowery and Antonio Cromartie aren't allowed to get away with holding this time.

A month ago, the Steelers were able to walk away knowing they nearly pulled out a last second win on an admirable effort playing shorthanded against a likely playoff team. No such consolation will be enough this time. The Steelers fought through an incredibly array of setbacks to secure another AFC title game in homefield. The team has been playing some of its most inspired football since it last faltered. The Steelers are too good to fall again to a run-first team that matches up poorly against them. Don't allow any cheap scores and Pittsburgh will be playing for the right to win its seventh title in a few weeks.


Having Trouble Hating The Jets? You Shouldn't

Even in caricature, Holmes is never without his pipe.

It wasn't quite a letdown that the Steelers didn't end up getting the Patriots in the AFC title game. It was more like a narrative shift. All season it seemed fated that, if the Steelers were going to make it to another Super Bowl, they'd be forced to knock off their non-divisional nemesis in New England.

Then Sunday happened. Now instead of a championship game loaded with the history of two playoff losses, the Steelers are trying to avenge what was ultimately a pretty meaningless late regular season loss.

That said, it's fitting in many ways that the Steelers would have to face Santonio Holmes, the specter of a nightmare Pittsburgh offseason, with a Super Bowl berth on the line. Yeah, the Steelers dealt Holmes for less than he was worth, but it's not as though they did terribly by him. The team could have dealt him to practically any team, even the Bills, yet they allowed him to go to the Jets, another contending team. Perhaps this was stupid on their end. Actually, it was. But Holmes doesn't need to play the victim the way he did before the regular season contest and again this week. 'Tone wasn't much of a factor in Week 15 with six catches for 40 yards, but as know, he's the Jets' greatest threat of producing a huge play outside of Brad Smith, who appears to be ready to play, after all.

Of course, the animosity doesn't begin and end with 'Tone. Braylon was on the losing end to the Steelers long enough to make himself an even bigger asshole now that he's with a contender. Jets fans are maybe only a step down from Philadelphia on the fan mouthbreathing toxicity scale. It was Jets fans, absent of any semblance of self-awareness, who chanted "No means no!" during the Steelers picks at last year's draft. Somehow they didn't pull the same stunt when their team drafted fellow alleged rapist Mark Sanchez in the first round the year before.

If you thought the Jets' gloating outlandish last week, just imagine if the team completed its run through the AFC playoffs. Granted, going through the Colts, Patriots and Steelers would be an impressive run through the top three seeds (and the standard bearers of the conference championship the past seven seasons), that's almost besides the point once one imagines how the New York media would instantly mythologize the feat and proceed to never shut up about it for the next decade and a half. Even if they fell apart in the Super Bowl, we'd never hear the end of it. Better to establish the reputation that, for the Jets, the conference championships are as good as it gets.


This Time, It Was The Other Safety

That headline might make it seem like Ed Reed finally came through with a huge play to key a Ravens victory over the Steelers, but once again we know that not to be the case. Of course, Troy was not one for heroics in this, the third Steelers playoff victory over the Ravens. Instead, it was Ryan Clark who made the two biggest splash plays on defense to get the Steelers back into the game after a first half riddled with huge mistakes.

As for the first fumble that led to a Ravens touchdown, I'm sure Ramon Foster has already gotten quite the talking-to about dropping on stray footballs, no matter how little it thinks it was a fumble. Sometimes you never know, and he certainly has to feel foolish now for having stared at the ball before it was run into the end one by Cory Redding.

The protection on the O-line during the Steelers first scoring drive was so good that I knew that it couldn't last. Lo and behold, it did not, as the Ravens proceeded to pound Roethlisberger for most of the next quarter and a half. That said, the unit played admirably when both Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott left the game for varying amounts of time in the second half. To put a finer point on it, the Steelers offense put up 31 on the Ravens' defense was two third-string tackles playing a significant amount of time. That's quite the indictment of now-departed defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

Not sure what it is about third quarters in the divisional round for the Steelers, but look at what happened in 2008 against the Chargers and on Saturday against the Ravens. Out of a possible 30 minutes in those two third quarters, the Steelers held the ball for 25:42 while forcing five turnovers and scoring 21 points, while being on the doorstep of 10 more.

Naturally, there's bellyaching over the officiating. Shannon Sharpe was bemoaning it in the postgame. True enough, it was pretty bad. And even though I've seen more than a few Ratbird fans whining that they got somehow "screwed" again, most of them for once realize that they were enough bad calls and bad non-calls both ways for it to essentially be a wash. As for the holding call on the Webb return, yeah, it was a hold. Smith is hanging onto Allen's jersey and his shoulder pad as Allen is trying to shift left to make a tackle. Allen exaggerates it, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he was actually held.

Of course, that didn't stop our good buddy from letting this Tweet slip when the Jets upset the Patriots.

Steelers back into another Super Bowl. Unreal.less than a minute ago via web

More predictable sniveling from Nestminder. Don't even bother trying to figure out how a team "backs into" a Super Bowl. You either beat the teams put in front of you or you don't. Of course, this is just a terribly worded way of saying the Steelers are lucky not to play the Patriots, as they did not in the playoffs in '05 and '08. Well, '05 is easy enough to counter - the Steelers beat the top three seeds in the conference that season (see, the Pats weren't even that good that year) all on the road. As for 2008, if the Ravens hadn't purposely injured Chris Johnson in the division round, the Steelers would have had to go to Tennessee instead of beating Baltimore in the postseason. As for this season - weren't Baltimore and New York the consensus favorites to win the AFC this year?

Since we're on the subject of Nest - let's revisit what is perhaps his whinest post ever, his reaction to the Steelers winning Super Bowl XLIII. Here's his reasoning for then saying that Steelers fans are scared and jealous of the Ravens:

Fear because the 2% of Steeler fans who know even a lick about football see that Flacco is “Ben” 2.0. All the size, with a better arm, and without the holding the ball for 8 seconds too long and throwing silly interceptions like clockwork.

Woof. Guess he called that one. Flacco got two costly drops, but he also didn't do enough to win and failed to nurse a commanding halftime lead. Sure, Ben wasn't perfect, but, as always, he made the critical play when it mattered most and Flacco did not. No better proof than the final 2:07. Facing a 3rd and 19, Roethlisberger hits Antonio Brown, who torches Lardarius Webb, in stride, on the biggest play of the game.

Because the Chris Kemoeatu got a personal foul penalty on the ensuing touchdown and the Steelers squibbed the kickoff, the Ravens took over past midfield with a minute and a half remaining. More than enough time, given Flacco's "miracle" drive in Week 4 took less time. Two plays later, Flacco had Derrick Mason in single coverage with William Gay. What does he do?

Yep, he woefully underthrows Mason to the point that Mason is considerably lucky that he is able to prevent Gay from intercepting the pass.

Not that it was a matter needing much settling, but Flacco is at least one tier below Roethlisberger in the hierarchy of quarterbacks.

But enough about the Ravens, who once again, as Hines said postgame, have been knocked out of the tournament by the Steelers. While many of us are thankful to get another home playoff game, it's a little bittersweet, as I had mentally got myself whipped into wanting the Steelers to get another shot at New England, no matter what the odds or recent history had to say about it.

The Jets are certainly no cakewalk. Some have tried to denigrate their regular season victory over the Steelers by saying Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller didn't play, but the Jets had some injury issues of their own. Darrelle Revis wasn't 100 percent, leaving the outmatched Antonio Cromartie responsible for covering Mike Wallace. That Cromartie didn't get burned in that game has more to do with him getting away with a lot more contact downfield than he should have.

If we want to go simply on what happened in Week 15, we can feel pretty confident that the Steelers can beat the Jets, especially with Brad Smith likely to be out Sunday, thus lessening the chance of another kick return for a touchdown (which ultimately proved to be the difference). Then again, if Rex Ryan was able to put together a magisterial defensive plan capable of slowing the Patriots' offense, it's certainly within his abilities to do the same against the Steelers. Not that he will absolutely come through in this regard, but I wouldn't imagine that the Pittsburgh offense will have quite as easy a time moving the ball that they did in the last meeting, in which they might have only put up 17 on the scoreboard, but did compile nearly 400 yards of offense.

The Jets put up 13 points of offense with Troy Polamalu sidelined. Mark Sanchez made a couple throws against the Patriots, but missed more than a few routine ones that even a competent passer would have made. The Jets had a reasonably good running game going in Week 15, posting 106 total yards on the ground, which is about as good as it's going to get against the Steelers. Even replicating that feat will be difficult. Save for his touchdown run, Ray Rice was held to almost nothing. Another showing like that out of the Pittsburgh run defense and there won't be any ridiculous Jets arm-wing celebrations in these playoffs.

And, yeah, LaMarr Woodley only had one sack against Baltimore. So there goes that streak. Guess we'll just have to settle for the three that Silverback had.


It's In Dallas This Year, And Ray Lewis Won't Be There

I'll have a more comprehensive reaction once my head stops spinning. For now, I'll just say that was one of the more thrilling Steelers victories I've ever seen. Obviously, nothing less than thorough domination of the second half was needed after the various mistakes made in the first half. I don't know if Tomlin's halftime speech is posted or transcribed online, but I'd sure as shit like to hear it.

The tide of recent history against Baltimore only flows stronger now. The playoff win in the 2008 AFC champsionship game came in Flacco's rookie season. There are no such excuses now. At this point in Roethlisberger's career, he had won a Super Bowl. The Ravens stocked their roster for a Super Bowl run this season. Derrick Mason said it was a title or bust. Everyone kept reminding us how Ray Lewis said "it's in Dallas this year" the first time he called Anquan Boldin after the Ravens traded for him. I'd love to hear the first thing he said to him after Boldin had a go-ahead TD clang off his chest.

In all likelihood, the Steelers are headed to Foxborough next week. The Pats have the Steelers number much like the Steelers do with the Ravens. The Ravens were in position to reverse that yesterday, but ultimately folded. Blowing leads in the second half was Baltimore's M.O. this season. Give the Steelers a 21-7 halftime lead next week, and I'd like their chances. Either way, it's great for the team to extend its dominance over Bawlmer and get another shot at Brady.


Surviving Armageddon Once Again

As playoff games go, you can't get matchups more emotionally fraught for Steelers fans than the Ravens and, potentially, the Patriots. Dealing another fatal blow to the Ravens would not only be joyous because it would advance the Steelers to their eighth conference championship game in the last 17 seasons, but the win would be a triumph in itself to be cherished for years to come. A win over the Ravens in the postseason is one of those things that finds its way onto best win lists at the end of the decade, regardless of what happens in the following weeks.

While Roethlisberger has won six in a row against Baltimore, only the first in that streak could be considered an easy win. You can be certainly be confident that the Steelers were come away with another devastating win over Baltimore, but it'll have to be hard earned as always.

The Ravens got a decisive victory last week in Kansas City, but the Chiefs had one of the worse approaches to playing the Baltimore offense I've seen this season. Todd Haley committed all his attention to taking away the Ravens' deep passing game while leaving Ray Rice uncovered out of the backfield, while committing little attention to Todd Heap as well. Not that Joe Flacco can't hit a deep ball, but c'mon. Unibrow is more than content to be the checkdown king and dump the ball off to the Ravens' best offensive player. All things considered, you'd always want Flacco to try to beat you deep.

Heap had himself quite the game against the Chiefs, and Baltimore certainly missed him in the last meeting, as the Steelers missed Heath Miller in the second half after Jameel McClain got away with an incredibly dirty helmet hit to knock Miller out of the game. Heap makes Baltimore's offense more difficult to defend, but he was there for the first meeting in Pittsburgh and managed only three catches for 35 yards. Not exactly game changer-type stuff. In general, both teams are about as healthy as they can reasonably get right now. The Ratbirds get Le'Ron McClain back. Roethlisberger took a little while to get going in the December game in Baltimore trying to adjust to his injured foot and, of course, trying to focus after the Ravens were basically allowed to break his nose without consequence.

Getting Aaron Smith in any capacity for this game would have been tremendous, but it doesn't look like it's going to shake out that way. Not that he could have started at this point, but getting him in the mix gives better depth once Ziggy Hood gets off the field.

The offensive line played well toward the end of the season, but I'm not going to entertain any delusions that Terrell Suggs won't make his presence known, in ways besides generally being a braying jackass. The Ravens know the Steelers try to run right as often as possible, knowing there's no much stock in placed in Jonathan Scott's run blocking, so expect more unbalanced defensive fronts out of them that place Ngata closer to the right side. Were Arians ever to consider running a screen, you could probably easily exploit the lack of attention played to the left side.

Because I feel like being discursive, a few assorted notes:

- LaMarr Woodley has two sacks in each of the four playoff games he's appeared in in his NFL career. Woodley had none in the two games against Baltimore in the regular season, but did generate a ton of pressure in the second game in Baltimore. Getting two on Saturday would undoubtedly be huge.

- Manny Sanders has become more and more a part of the offense as the season has gone on, but Hines came through with a big production day every so often. He finished with only 755 receiving yards on the season, but still posted four 100-yard receiving games. So it's feast of fame this year with Hines. Against the Ravens, though, it was the former - only three catches for 27 yards. Whatever gets the job done of offense is fine with me, but nothing gets Rattard fans rankled like Hines smiling, so let's hope he gets a little more work in tomorrow.

- Mike Wallace, meanwhile, was absolutely on fire toward the end of the season, posting three-straight 100-yard performances. He hasn't had fewer than 76 yards receiving in a game since the start of December. It really speaks to how the guy has arrived as a complete receiver. Teams gameplan to take him away and the Steelers find a way to keep him involved. The Ravens can't simply sit back and hope to take away the huge bomb. Wallace can kill them in other ways.

The showdown of superstar safeties has favored Polamalu head-to-head as much as it has the Steelers themselves.

I respect Ed Reed as player and it sucks what he's had to go through with his brother, but Reed has been invisible as far as impact plays against the Steelers. The last turnover he forced against the Steelers was during garbage time in a blowout loss in 2007. Since then, Polamalu has put together quite the string of highlights when he's been available against the Ravens. If there's another one on Saturday, there's more than a good chance it means the Steelers are moving on yet again.


P-Drizzle Needs Better Hate

Terrell Suggs, as is his wont, as been flapping his constantly exposed gums all week about Saturday's upcoming playoff game, terming it both "Armageddon" and what amounts to the de facto AFC championship game. As much as I dislike the Patriots, I can't even begin to get at how stupid the latter statement is. He does realize both teams lost to New England this season, and probably would again in a rematch? Then again, when does the truth or a history of ineptitude get in the way of Ravens players talking shit?

What offends me most about this latest example of T-shirt-as-trash-talk from Suggs (the first came in the preseason the year after the Ravens were on the business end of a three-game sweep) is that he's using the most easily obtained and ubiquitous Steeler hate shirt among Ratbird fans. Every single street vendor outside that purple-seated, taxpayer-funded pile of shit in the Inner Harbor hawks these things. If you've ever attended a Steelers-Ravens game in Bawlmer, you've seen tens of thousands of angry mouthbreathers wearing one of these. So what's one more? The effect has kind of waned by this point. At least the last shirt was halfway novel. This is just lazy and forced. At least carrying a bottle of bleach might have been funny.

Even though he couldn't complete the sack that might have won his team the game in December, Suggs, to his credit, had a hell of a game in the loss in Baltimore, completely dominating Jonathan Scott in the process. I hardly expect Scott to shut down Suggs on Saturday, but any improvement would be a huge break for the Steelers. And while I'm giving Suggs credit for possibly the first time ever, I will say though he never shuts up, at least he doesn't completely vanish after a Ravens loss the way Ray Lewis does. Ray-Ray has built a reputation among the Baltimore media for never being around and never responding when the Ravens lose. But when they win, there he is beating his chest and being the gloryhog he usually is. Just what you want to see out of the supposed veteran leader of your team.


Ravens: Still Dicks

John Harbaugh on Monday boasted that he was happy that defensive tackle Haloti Ngata broke Ben Roethlisberger's nose on an uncalled cheap shot in the Ravens loss in Baltimore in December. Shock of shocks considering how much Ray Lewis bragged when Rashard Mendenhall got hurt in 2008.

Harbaugh at least qualified his statement by saying he was impressed that Roethlisberger played through the pain. That's nice and all, but it still doesn't take away from the fact that Harbaugh is praising an injury.

I get that the underlying message is that Harbaugh is pleased that his team was able to rough up the opposing quarterback, something any coach wants, but you don't cheer for injuries, even if the player is able to compete through them. And wasn't Harbaugh getting on his high horse just a few months back about how his players hit "the right way." That's far worse than the James Harrison comment earlier in the season that he tries to hurt people, but not injure them. Of course, the media leapt all over Harrison's statement since he was the new villain in the head shots freakout. Harbaugh's careless words will probably be mostly ignored.

When Willis McGahee got knocked out by Ryan Clark in the 2008 AFC Championship, did Clark dance around and brag to the media about the hit? Nope. Has Hines ever crowed publicly about doing the same to Ed Reed? Not so much. But the always posturing Ravens will never stop pathetically trying to prove to everyone how tough they are. Too bad it always seems to come in losing efforts.


And Again It Comes To This

Everyone on three: HURRRRRRRRRRR

For the third time in a decade, the Ratbirds will visit Heinz Field in the playoffs. The Ravens lost the first two postseason meetings. The first ended Baltimore's only reign as champions. The second denied them a trip to the Super Bowl. A third defeat might signal an ignominious end to the careers of possibly Derrick Mason and Ed Reed, if not others.

Of course, the Ravens won their game in Pittsburgh in the regular season, albeit with the significant caveat that the Steelers were without the quarterback who has not lost to the Ravens since 2006. But of course, these things always have a way of ending close. After weeks of mostly uninspired play, the Ravens looked good in Kansas City and didn't appear to sustain any injuries that might constrain them the following week.

It'll be a nerve-racking week in advance of next Saturday afternoon, but improving to 3-0 over the Ravens in the playoffs would be a glorious triumph. It might be the highest tension of the opponents the Steelers could have gotten out of the first round, but I think we all knew it was coming. Then again, it also has the highest ceiling of satisfaction with a win. And as we've seen, the Steelers have found ways to do just that against Bawlmer.


Playoff Jagoff Pickoff: Wild Card Edition

Click grid for pop out. Or don't.

I took a swipe at Mike Florio the other day, tweeting "I'd sooner believe my cat with a Ouija Board as a credible source of information." It was a moment of inspiration. What could make for a better playoff prediction post? I relied on some internet friends to round out the field and feign credibility to the following exercise:

This is what happens when I have a week off until classes start. Now, I cannot pretend to know, nor do I possess the mental faculties necessary to fathom the manner in which "The Oracle" arrived at her respective prognostications. But, here's what I think about what I think:

Ravens @ Chiefs
The Chiefs have the best running offense in football. Sure, some of that is product of them playing close games, having an INSANELY easy schedule, relying on Jamaal Charles and having Matt Cassel under center. It's been their bread and butter all year. The Ravens, on the other hand have had a resurgence on the other side of the ball. Having given up plenty on the ground early on (four 100+ yds rushing opponents out of first 5) this season, they've righted the ship. Some will point to Ed Reed as the key cog, but it's really their defensive front that has been penetrating. Additionally, it has been Joe Flacco who is more to be begrudgingly commended for their +4 give/take ratio. He only threw 9 picks this year. But, oh you remember that one fumble, don't you Unibrow...

Saints @ Seahawks
<----Click for the cat pick.
There's just no way. I DO think the fact that the line will likely reach 13 or so is interesting. Qwest Field is one of the few measurable home field advantages in the NFL. And I suppose Hasselbeck returning to call signals does mean they have a punchers chance as he's actually one of the more proficient QBs at identifying and eluding the blitz. But, he'll be relying on a pass offense that looked completely inept last week and a ground attack that is even worse. Turnovers and special teams don't really paint a prettier picture, either. This upset would certainly be Buster Douglas-esque.

Jets @ Colts <----Click for the cat pick.
Probably the closest game, when all is said and done. The sloppiest, too. I think the Jets' defense is overrated and will have to hit a few home runs (INTs & sacks) to keep them afloat. And Sanchez is the embodiment of a fatally flawed QB. But, I also think the Colts have to be relatively content with their simply having made the playoffs. Complacency kills in the playoffs. Don't get me wrong, Manning can certainly audible and hand signal his way to a win. And The Colts still have one of the better receiving corps in the playoffs. But, I wouldn't put my paycheck on them rolling, here, not with their battered, untested squad up against a younger, hungrier (literally) team.

Packers @Eagles <----Click for the cat pick.
Why are people taking the Pack in this one? Philly has better players at EVERY talent position. It's as simple as that. McCoy > Kuhn. DeSean Jackson > Greg Jennings. Vick > Rodgers. I think people need to back up off Aaron Rodger's jock. I was watching Mike & Mike and they BOTH picked him as number one in their BS "Confidence Picks," whatever that means. You guys remember they lost to the Redskins and Dolphins, right? Point to their schedule and show me the part where they dominated in any way. Hell, their most "impressive" win was last week where they edged out the Bears 10-3. In fact, the only other playoff teams they beat were the Eagles (week 1 w/ Kevin Kolb) and Jets (in a putrid 9-0 snooze-fest where Rodgers was 15/34 passing). Also, this game is IN PHILLY. Sorry, not buying the Green Bay.

Obviously, the satirical nature of my friggin' cat picking winners underscores the crap-shoot nature of Wild Card Weekend. As a Steeler fan, maybe I'm too wrapped up in rooting for Baltimore to lose. And as for the other AFC tilt, there's no sense trying to figure out which is better when they are literally about to determine that for us, in theory. Sure, I hate Manning, so I'd probably prefer the Jets win, even though they came in to Heinz and beat us.

Much thanks to the following for their input. If you don't have their sites in your reader you're life is clearly in shambles:

Sarah @ Black & Gold Tchotchkes
Cotter @ One For The Other Thumb
Tecmo @ Pittsburgh Sports And Mini Ponies
Cory @ Three Rivers Burgh Blog
Pat @ Where Have You Gone Andy Van Slyke?
Super Fans Josh and Bryan


With All Due Respect To Bob Costas, STFU

Not sure if you all caught Costas halftime monologue during the Rams-Seahawks game on Sunday night, but it was quite the heroic piece of Colts knob slobbing seen since, well, probably Peter King's last column.

He starts us off with the obvious: that the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through New England and that, in case you hadn't been paying attention for months, they've been really good this year. Thanks for keeping us up to speed. Costas then segues into a wanton fit of Indy fluffing, the lust contained within possibly unfit for network broadcast.

Somehow, other than the Pats, the Colts are somehow the team to beat in the conference. Spouting apology after excuse, he then waves off the Steelers as though they were the Seahawks, a team that only made it to their position by sheer technicality. The Colts, Costas tell us, have overcome injury and fought through adversity, something the Steelers certainly have not. After all, the Steelers lost both starting offensive tackles, their best defensive end (who's also one of the best 3-4 DEs in the game and a key member of their defense) not to mention of host of other players throughout the season. Oh, and the adversity of their starting quarterback being suspended the first month of the season? Nothing compared to Austin Collie sustained multiple concussions, apparently.

The motivation behind this is just as likely business-oriented as it is a desperate attempt to puff up Peyton Manning, a perennial media darling if ever there was one. NBC, of course, is carrying the Jets-Colts Wild Card game on Saturday, and it makes sense for them to push Indy as the other legit team in the conference, seeing as how NBC won't get to broadcast any postseason games featuring either the Steelers or the Patriots. It's a cynical commercial for the network's programming masquerading as analysis.

Just something to keep in mind the next time Costas wants to pipe up about ethics.


Locked Up And Looking Ahead

If you're among the dozen people who read my preview for the Browns game, you know I definitely didn't think it would be quite that easy for the Steelers in Cleveland, but then I didn't think Polamalu was going to play, either, so me knowing fuck all about everything should be well established by now.

You can definitely decry the constant home run approach of the Steelers offense, but it was certainly working out for the team on Sunday. Right after an interception finds its way off Benjamin Watson's hands into the diving grasp of Troy Polamalu, the Steelers went right for the throat, connecting on a 56-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace. That the pass protection was pretty good in this game - Roethlisberger wasn't sacked for once - helps with that approach. In a way, I can applaud the team for not playing scared facing what could have been a critical trap game. The team seized the lead in a hurry and kept piling it on once it was in place. Then again, something tells me that wouldn't be quite as effective against a lot of teams the Steelers might see in the playoffs.

Wallace's third straight 100-yard game put him at 1,257 receiving yards for the season, which is a shade higher than Santonio's highest single-season yardage total with the team. I'm glad (at least so far as I know) no one has tried to make the argument that that justifies the idiotic Santonio trade in the offseason, because it doesn't. Wallace has developed into more of a well-rounded threat than he was at the beginning of the season. The astounding aspect of it is that he will only continue to improve. That said, the receiving corps would be that much better if 'Tone were still around. But Wallace's emergence, coupled with a nice rookie season from Manny Sanders, has made the loss far less conspicuous.

The bye is especially welcome with Maurkice Pouncey suffering a minor injury on Sunday. Obviously Ben, Troy and others will get themselves back or as close to fully healthy as they can with the week off and we'll see how it goes with Aaron Smith. At this point, it still sounds iffy based on what various reporters are saying, but it's a huge bonus if he can make it back. If not, Ziggy Hood has played more than capably this season. I don't think he's gotten quite the credit he deserves for his first regular stint as a starter. Still, Smith is able to create more pressure on pass rush than Ziggy can at this point and that would be a huge difference playing a team like New England, against whom the Steelers rely on four-man rushes (to their detriment, sometimes) to generate pressure.

The defense is playing just about as any in recent history and can carry the team to victories over anyone remaining, even if the Patriots and Mike Vick have historically given them more problems than most. Incredible that three of the four starting linebackers finished with at least 100 tackles. This unit is one of the best all-time in stopping the run. The secondary certainly isn't up to that level, but for the exception of the Monday night game with Terrell Owens and the Patriots meltdown, it hasn't been getting torched either. Put Aaron Smith back in the equation and there's more than a fighting chance of taking down even New England.

The true measure of replacing Santonio, of course, comes in the postseason. Holmes only really had one statistically impressive regular season with the Steelers (his year with the Jets is about on par with his other years in Pittsburgh), but he'll be remembered forever for his heroics in the '08 postseason. The offense has looked good the last three weeks, but if they're going to get a shot at a seventh title, someone is going to have to emerge with the big plays in the coming weeks. As much as I liked sticking Mike Holmgren with another Randle El to Hines touchdown pass, it was hardly the cleanest executed play. The Pats might not have a juggernaut defense, but I doubt their promising young secondary would be so easily confused by that play.

As for who's coming to Heinz out of the Wild Card round, not sure I really have a preference either way. The Ravens want to pretend that they're the team no one wants to face, but they're not exactly playing well enough the last few weeks to be especially intimidating. Everyone seems to be assuming that the Colts will beat the Jets, but Indy supposedly rediscovering its A-game has come in narrow wins against mostly middling or plain terrible teams. Hell, they should have lost against the Titans at home. And the way the Ravens defense is playing, especially late in games, there's no reason to rule out the Chiefs getting their first playoff win in 17 years.

[Video via OFTOT]