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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Who to root for, against

It has been a constant conundrum for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the past couple of weeks as the team has climbed back from a 2-6 start to jump back into the playoff race: Who do I root for.

I thought I might be able to spell that out a little more for you this week heading into Week 16 of the NFL schedule – so long as I don’t confuse myself in the process.

First and foremost, the Steelers need a victory over the Baltimore Ravens this week at Heinz Field. That certainly is not a given, but considering the Ravens will likely be without Jonathan Ogden, by far their best offensive lineman, that task isn’t quite as daunting as it once seemed.

If, and only if, that happens, do the Steelers playoff hopes stay alive.

The second thing that needs to happen – and probably the most important of any scenarios – the Jaguars have to lose to New England in Jacksonville. Again, it’s not a given, but considering the Patriots still haven’t locked up their division and still have the possibility of nailing down one of the top two seeds in the AFC playoffs, New England has plenty of incentive to beat the Jags.

That game will be played at the same time the Steelers are taking on Baltimore, so a little scoreboard watching is allowed.

Of equal importance is the Jets' game at Miami Monday night. Considering the Jets finish up the season with Oakland at home – a game they could likely start their backups in and win – a loss by New York this week in Miami is very important. Miami should get running back Ronnie Brown back this week, so the Steelers have that going for them, which is nice.

Saturday night, Kansas City is at Oakland, which should be a lay-up for the Chiefs. But as we saw when the Steelers lost at Oakland, the Raiders defense can be dangerous and should be up to play a game against a division rival. Still Kansas City should win there, which would mean the best scenario for the Steelers would be for Denver to hold serve against Cincinnati at home at 4:15 Sunday.

The Steelers are actually OK from either standpoint if Denver or Cincinnati wins – so long as Kansas City does as well on Saturday. If Kansas City somehow loses to Oakland, the Steelers’ situation becomes a little more tenuous since a 9-7 Kansas City team eliminates a 9-7 Denver team in a multi-team tie in which the Steelers are involved. The Steelers would also like the Chiefs to have something to play for when they host Jacksonville in Week 17, so Kansas City staying alive in the hunt is something of a necessity.

Finally, since Tennessee is at Buffalo, one of those two teams will be eliminated this weekend. A tie would eliminate both, so you could always root for that. But barring a tie, both teams have difficult season enders, with Buffalo traveling to Baltimore and Tennessee hosting New England. Of the two games, Tennessee’s would seem to be a little easier. New England will be making its second consecutive road trip.

And just think, all that does is get you through another week. Ah, the wacky playoff chase in the AFC.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

It's all about Chidi

At the beginning of this season, the Steelers’ coaching staff made a choice of keeping tight end Tim Euhus over cornerback Chidi Iwuoma, one of their best special teams players.

Iwuoma was brought back last week because of injuries in the secondary. Euhus was released back in September.

All Iwuoma did Sunday was make a great open-field tackle on Carolina’s first punt return Sunday and finished the game with two special teams tackles. Couldn’t have used that all season, huh?

Then again, Iwuoma did injure his arm during the game and had it in a sling in the locker room. He’s not the biggest guy and had gotten banged up in the past few seasons.

But he sure does give his all on special teams.

© Speaking of special teams, James Harrison said his punt block Sunday came from film study.

“He did what I saw him do on film, which was try to just give me a one-handed block before releasing,” said Harrison, giving me a shove with his arm to demonstrate how Kortez Hankton liked to block. “I knew I’d have an opportunity to block one today.”

I was just glad Harrison was in a good mood.

Shame on Carolina, however, for trying to block Harrison with Hankton, a wide receiver.

© Anthony Smith’s one-handed interception in the fourth quarter was a thing of beauty. His high-stepping to the sidelines during a live play was not and drew the ire of both head coach Bill Cowher and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who I’ve never seen that angry.

“I didn’t appreciate his gesture,” Cowher said. “We don’t do that around here. He understood that. You won’t ever see that again.”

Smith is a keeper and also had some big hits in the game. He also learned an important rookie lesson early in the third quarter when he got run over by running back DeShaun Foster when Foster caught Smith flat-footed.

© Chad Brown’s season – and career – are likely over. Brown suffered a serious knee injury Sunday. It’s too bad a classy vet like Brown has to have his career end that way.

© Was it just me or did Cedrick Wilson look like a shortstop firing the ball to first base from deep in the hole on his end around pass?

Wilson threw the pass so hard he knocked Hines Ward over with it.

© Speaking of Wilson, he's officially lost his starting job to Santonio Holmes. Holmes played an inspired game and was about six inches from scoring three touchdowns Sunday.

He also made a twisting conversion of a third-down pass to get to pick up a first down. This kid's a keeper.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Browns out

You knew that pass interference in the first quarter had to be on Sean Morey before it was announced. How else could Morey have gotten that much separation?

Then again, that was Walter Young and Morey converting long third downs on the Steelers’ third drive, so what do I know?

© Who would win a race between Joe Jurevicius and Deshea Townsend? Just asking.

© Wow has Ike Taylor’s star fallen. He’s gone from shut-down cornerback to now being the guy who holds the ball when placekicker Jeff Reed needs somebody on kickoffs.

© From the sublime category: One colleague mentioned that it was quite appropriate that a guy named Droughns would be playing in a game in which Bryant Gumbel was the announcer.

© Anthony Smith played an inspired game in his first career start, breaking up two passes with big hits and intercepting another. But his youth was displayed on the long touchdown catch-and-run by Braylon Edwards when Smith missed a tackle attempt on the mouth from Michigan to allow Cleveland’s only score.

© Not only did the Browns give up 303 yards rushing, they didn’t lay a hand on Ben Roethlisberger all night long. Good thing they scored, though. We wouldn’t want them using this game as a reason to fire themselves up when they face the Steelers next season.

If the Browns were embarrassed in this game, it should be because they tackled like a midget football team.

© OK, the Steelers are now 6-7, one game out of a playoff spot heading into this weekend’s games. There’s a good chance they could head to Carolina next week to face a Panthers squad led by Chris Weinke.

Boy, that loss at Oakland sure looks big now. So does Bill Cowher’s boneheaded decision to send Ricardo Colclough out to field a punt against Cincinnati. Win one of those games and the Steelers are right in the middle of the playoff hunt. Win them both and they would be a favorite to not only be a wildcard, but to possibly win the division.

As it is now, they are more than likely a team that will have to settle for playing a spoiler role – first knocking Carolina out of the playoffs; then keeping Baltimore from having a first-round bye; and finally, by ending Cincinnati’s playoff hopes.

© During the broadcast, color commentator Chris Collinsworth said that Cowher told him, “If I go to Carolina, I’m going to get away. I’m not going there to be Mr. Football. If I do that I want to be with the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

When asked about that after the game, Cowher said that Collinsworth was interpreting what he told him.

When asked if he had made up his mind about whether he wants to coach next season or not, he simply replied, “No.”

Take the little victories when you can get them.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Mediocrity rewarded

© Tampa Bay had no respect whatsoever for the Steelers’ receivers and looked to have eight or sometimes even nine men up at the line of scrimmage at times.

Get used to that as long as Hines Ward isn’t around to occupy opposing defenders.

© Sean Morey did his best Cedrick Wilson impersonation on the only pass thrown his way, calling for a pass interference penalty before the ball had even hit the ground. The only difference was that Morey did, indeed, get mugged.

Then again, the officials probably figured that the receiver has to get some kind of separation before they’ll call pass interference. Morey got none.

Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t especially sharp against the Bucs, but he didn’t have much to work with, either. And that was before Wilson limped off the field following his second catch.

© Speaking of Wilson, what was with that celebration for after his first reception?

Coaches used to tell players to act like you’ve been there before after scoring a touchdown. Has the time come for them to now remind players to act like they’ve caught a 13-yard pass before?

© Was there anybody in the stadium who didn’t know the Bucs were going to try a fade pass to Maurice Stovall when they brought him into the game in the third quarter?

Bryant McFadden certainly knew it was coming.

A good pass may have beaten McFadden. The one Bruce Gradkowski threw was not a good one as it was thrown more to the inside than the outside.

Still, McFadden did what you are supposed to do and played the football.

© Porter has begun his late-season Pro Bowl push. I’m sure he’ll follow up Sunday’s two-sack performance with a couple more Thursday night at Cleveland and suddenly he’ll have nine sacks. Happens every year.

© How about that dive Gradkowski took when Deshea Townsend came in unblocked?

Gradkowski hasn’t gone down that easily since Washington High School beat his Seton-LaSalle team by 60 points.

He must have thought Casey Hampton was storming through that hole instead of Townsend.

© I overheard Ryan Clark telling Anthony Smith to be ready to play Thursday against the Browns. His reasoning?

Clark was told that head coach Bill Cowher said during his post-game press conference that his groin injury was serious. That’s all Clark knew about it. Apparently, nobody told Clark it was serious.