Friday, September 10, 2010

Dirty birds

By Mike Batista

Pittsburgh opens its 2010 NFL season Sunday against its biggest nemesis.

Say what?

The Falcons are the Steelers' biggest nemesis? Really?

What about the Patriots? The Ravens? Hell, even the Browns?

Sure, when the schedule came out in April, at home against Atlanta might have seemed like a blah opener. It's tough to get charged up about an interconference opponent who the Steelers play once every presidential term. One who has beaten the Steelers just twice in their 14 meetings.

But over the past 20 years, Atlanta has been Pittsburgh's biggest foil when it comes to sports in general.

No one needs to be reminded of Francisco Cabrera and Sid Bream in 1992. Or of the Braves' victory over the Pirates in the National League Championship Series the previous year. The Pirates were so close to the cushy executive suite that is the World Series, only to be turned away and sent to baseball's basement for the last 17 years like Milton in "Office Space."

It's a good thing for Pittsburgh that Bill Cowher came around at about that time.

Atlanta's torment of Pittsburgh isn't limited to baseball. Although the Steelers are 11-2-1 against the Falcons all-time, they haven't beaten them since 1999. Since then there's been a 34-34 tie in Pittsburgh in 2002 and a 41-38 overtime loss at Atlanta in 2006.

In the 2002 game, the Steelers blew a 34-17 lead in the fourth quarter. Michael Vick tied it with an 11-yard touchdown run with 51 seconds left (any chance Dennis Dixon can use his legs to pay back that karma Sunday?). The Steelers finished 10-5-1 that season and infamously lost to the Titans in overtime in the AFC divisional playoffs.

Even if the Steelers had beaten the Falcons, it wouldn't have improved their playoff seeding. Nonetheless, playing an extra quarter of football couldn't have helped a week later when they lost 31-23 at Tennessee.

The 2006 loss came during the Steelers' maddening 2-6 start that year. OK, so one more win wouldn't have been enough to get the Steelers into the playoffs that year, either. But Ben Roethlisberger did get a concussion in that game and played the following week, not knowing whether he was in Oakland or Oahu when he threw four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) in a 20-13 loss to the Raiders.

The Steelers haven't lost a season opener since 2002, when they lost to the Patriots on a Monday night. This isn't a cupcake opener like the Browns in 2007 or the Texans in 2008. This one makes me nervous.

Speaking of season openers, here's an observation from Thursday night's Vikings-Saints game. If you're a man in your 60s, you are too old to be wearing an NFL game jersey ... oh wait, that was Brett Favre.

Prediction

Expect the Steelers to go 9-7 this season. Instead of committing a W or an L to each individual game, I'm going to break the season into parts. I've already predicted a 1-3 start pre-Roethlisberger. I hate to say this, but I see a 2-6 start in the first half. In Roethlisberger's first four games back, they host the Browns, play at Miami, at New Orleans and at Cincinnati on Monday night. I see only one win in those games. You probably can guess which one.

The second half of the season begins against the Patriots at home. I actually can see the Steelers winning that game as well as the rest of their games. But no way are they going to win eight in a row. They're going to slip up somewhere and get that seventh loss.

With the Ravens in the division, 9-7 isn't going to be enough to win the AFC North. Maybe a wild card.

Thanks, Roethlisberger.

Around the division

Yes, the Ravens concern me. But let's not make them out to be the '85 Bears just yet. One of these years, Ray Lewis is going to start getting old (he HAS to, doesn't he?), and injuries to Domonique Foxworth and Ed Reed weaken an already suspect secondary.

As far as the Bengals go, with Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens both on the team, I wonder what the organization's policy is on dating in the workplace.

Now for the Browns. They don't worry me so much this year, but let's keep an eye on what's going on up there. I swear Mike Holmgren took the job as team president of an AFC North franchise because he has a vendetta against the Steelers stemming from the officiating in Super Bowl XL. Christ, I think Holmgren felt worse about the Steelers winning Super Bowl XLIII than Ken Whisenhunt did.

Holmgren's walrus-like mug should be on the Steelers Nation Watch List.

16 is enough

I love how the NFL labels the potential 18-game regular-season schedule as an "enhanced season." It makes it sound like there's some kind of product tie-in with Cialis.

I am against an 18-game season. I already have 16 days on the calendar in which I hope no one schedules a birthday party or calls me into work. I normally have Sundays off, but my job is not a 9-5, Monday-Friday job, and my place of business is not closed on Sundays.

Because there are only 16 games a year, if you're really a fan of an NFL team, you don't want to miss a game. There will be a lot more urgency to the Steelers' game at Tampa Bay on Sept. 26 than there is to, say, a Red Sox game against the Pirates in June.

Steelers Sundays usually involve going to a sports bar, drinking beer, eating pizza and chicken wings. Then, of course, I write a column on the game for this blog. Being a Catholic who doesn't attend church regularly, that is my church (a black sedan just pulled up in front of my house. God's getting out. St. Peter's with him and he's wearing a black leather jacket and holding a baseball bat).

For that reason, my mentality about Sundays is much different during the fall and early winter than it is the rest of the year. There's something to be said for Sundays during the spring or summer where I can enjoy the outdoors, take a nap, maybe go on a date or watch a baseball game if I want.

I don't like the idea of that way of life ending before Labor Day.

For four decades, the NFL has been a cultural phenomenon that changed the way many families plan their Sunday afternoons in the fall. They should leave the summer alone.

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