Tuesday, January 03, 2006

It's Go Time

Huh. What a difference four weeks can make. A month a go the Steelers were 7-5, coming off their third straight loss, and now, at the end of the regular season, Pittsburgh's 11-5 and headed to Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs. Not too bad.

In looking back at Pittsburgh's last loss, these were the big concerns: special teams, turnovers, and the disappearance of the running game. At the end of Week 17: Check, check, and check. Yeah, Sunday's finale against the Lions was pretty sloppy, but like my buddy Andy said late in the fourth quarter, "Look at it this way: the Lions have played as well as they can possibly play, the Steelers look like they celebrated New Year's literally right before the game, and Pittsburgh's still up by 14." And I guess that's the thing. Pittsburgh needed to win, and they were able to hold off a decidedly crappy team playing maybe one of it's best halves of football all season. It wasn't pretty, but it's a hell of a lot better than the "not pretty" games played by the Bengals and the Pats.

And next Sunday at 4:30 PM EST, it'll be Game 3 in a best of three series. And unlike the December 4 get together, special teams, turnovers, and the running game are arguably the best they've been all season (Well, at least special teams and the running game -- arguably refers to the turnovers. I don't really think they are a problem -- Ben's two picks Sunday were due to a tipped pass and a pretty good play by a defensive back, but that's not going to make anyone feel better if it happens again next week.)

And other than the obvious fact that Pittsburgh won, the Heinz Field reaction to the Bus coming out of the tunnel for maybe the last time, as well as the "One More Year" chants, were all well deserved. As much as I like to make fun of people, Jerome Bettis might be one of the classiest guys in professional sports and I know he's done a lot for the city of Pittsburgh, and most of that has been off the field. My only request is that if Jerome ends up on one of the network pre-game shows, please, please (PLEASE!) don't turn into Boomer (Esiason or Berman), Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders or any of the other numbnuts I've forgotten. Just be the Bus.

... After the first Lions three-and-out, promptly followed by a Randle El (only one cut after the catch!) 81-yard punt return for a touchdown, I was pretty sure the game was over. Apparently, Joey Harrington, for maybe the first time in a long time, had other ideas. He looked like a Hall of Famer in the first half. The guy was threading passes into tight spaces, making good decisions, and using his feet to avoid the pass rush. The Pittsburgh defense was on it's heels for most of the first thirty minutes and a lot of that had to do with Harrington playing like I'm guessing the Lions hoped he would've played starting in 2002 or so.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous watching the guy Detroit has benched twice in his four-year career throw the ball up and down the field for three touchdowns, but Pittsburgh's defense was able to sort things out during halftime, made some adjustments, and played the second half like they weren't actually hungover (or maybe the Lions were so happy to still be in the game at the half that they actually started drinking during the break):
                PASSING    ATT    CMP   YDS   SK/YD    TD
(1st Half) J.Harrington 21 13 175 1/9 2
(2nd Half) J.Harrington 12 4 37 0/0 1
(Total) J.Harrington 33 17 212 1/9 3
... Was anybody else happy for Ricardo Colclough? He's had a pretty tough season. Not a bad one, but not a great one, either. After a good preseason, and some good games early in the regular season, he seemed to be a little tentative returning kicks and on defense. Whatever, I hope his kickoff return gives him some confidence, because he's going to need it heading into Cincy.

... Speaking of confidence, I'm sure people were a little concerned about Pittsburgh's first half effort against Detroit, but hey, at least they didn't get smoked during their last two regular season games. Yeah, I know, the Bengals really didn't have anything to play for in Week 17 while the Chiefs were fighting for a playoff spot, but that's the same scenario the Steelers faced last year during Week 17, and they trotted Tommy Maddox out there as the starter ... and still won convincingly. And oh yeah, the Bengals also got housed by a Bills team in Week 16 while they were still in the running for a bye.

What's interesting is that for the past few month (well until they ran into Larry Johnson, anyway) the Bengals had been pretty good against the run, but atrocious against the pass. In the first half of the season it was exactly the opposite problem. So it looks like it's one or the other with that unit. Personally -- and I know this will come as a big surprise -- but I hope they're decidedly abysmal against the run this Sunday. I'm all for letting whoever's healthy run roughshod over this team and keeping their offense (Chad Johnson's gold fronts and all) off the field. You know, kinda like the first meeting.

... In addition to all the dropped passes, here's another reason I think the Steelers were celebrating the New Year right up until game time.

(And, much to the concern of Israel, more dropped interceptions -- seriously, this has got to stop. Both Larry Foote and Potsie both dropped passes that hit them right in the face mask, and I won't even bring up Troy and Ike. I mean, the linebackers both looked just like Hines on that "it's gotta be a touchdown pass ... oh wait, that ball bounced right off his hands, hit him in the face mask and almost went through the uprights" incompletion during the first half that left me shaking my head. That might have been the most incredible thing I'd seen all season. Well, except for James Harrison suplexing the guy with the sweatpants and leg warmers.)

Yeah, this is kinda funny in a weird way, but when you remember that Ben's 23, it actually makes perfect sense. And hey, at least he ain't robbing people. But here's my question: Is Max Starks actually hanging with Roethlisberger because their boys, or is he Ben's bodyguard? If it's the latter, somebody might want to show Ben some game tape and let him in on the little secret that it doesn't take much to get around Max. OK, I'm kidding. I like Starks, he's young too, and he's getting better (I think hope).

... There were more a couple of times during the first half that I said to no one in particular, "Thanks for crapping the bed San Diego." Of course, I also said last week that if the Steelers lost to the Lions they should be the new expansion Reading Steelers of NFL Europe, but that didn't really matter when Joey "I'm Back!" Harrington was looking like Charlie Batch of the mid-1990's. Anyway, I had a thought while waiting for the Chargers - Broncos game to start on Saturday. You know how there were some doofuses complaining that San Diego was making a mistake by not playing Philip Rivers in the game, and instead going with Drew Brees? I remember thinking this: "Let's see, as it stands you can probably get a first round pick for Rivers because all teams' have to go on is the same college tape that was out there when he was selected third overall in 2004. If San Diego trots him out there and he stinks, I'm guessing his trade value will be bupkus.

Yeah, explain to me again how that worked out for the Chargers? I know the circumstances were such that Rivers had to come in for an injured Brees, but if Brees had been healthy for the entire game, there's no way you bring him in. As it stands, only a Millen-led Lions organization would be willing to part with a high first round pick for Rivers. Everybody else will probably be a little hesitant to pull the trigger on that deal. What can I say, my hindsight's 20/20.

... Okey doke. Things worked out about as well as they could've to finish the season and now the Steelers get to play the Bengals. In all honesty, I woulda been just as happy if they were going to New England. The important thing is that they're playing maybe their best football, and they don't have to play at home. I don't know if playing at home is really an issue, or just something people bring up after the Steelers lose, but whatever, I'm tired of (a) Pittsburgh losing home playoff games, and (b) hearing about Pittsburgh losing home playoff games after the fact. I say let them go on the road and not worry about all the ancillary stuff.