Friday, December 24, 2010

'Twas two nights
before Christmas ...

Steelers 27, Panthers 3

By Mike Batista

Whether it's last-minute shopping, wrapping presents or cooking, just about everyone is taking care of business in the final days before Christmas.

That's exactly what the Steelers did Thursday. The Carolina Panthers were nothing more than a tree to be watered, lights to be strung up or reindeer to be fed.

The Steelers (11-4) had a job to do. A win over the Panthers (2-13) wasn't going to make any pundit anoint the Steelers the Flavor of the Week in the NFL. But a loss would have expedited them to the top of Santa Claus' naughty list and a lump of coal would have gone straight from a western Pennsylvania mine to their stocking.

The Steelers ensured a Merry Christmas by doing what they were supposed to do, which is dominate the Panthers. They had a 20-0 lead at halftime, allowing Pittsburgh sports fans to get to the stores before they close or watch the Penguins beat the Capitals.

And so in the spirit of Christmas, everybody is happy and life is artificially great for the Steelers. Any cares and concerns are put aside for the time being while the
Steelers attempt to sing Christmas carols and Brett Keisel models his Santa-like beard for the NFL Network.

... And all through the house ...

The Steelers have to wait an extra day to open their presents this year. On the morning after Christmas, they'll be jumping out of bed, running down the stairs in their footed pajamas hoping to see a Browns win over the Ravens under their tree.

With a Browns win, the Steelers will clinch the AFC North and a first-round bye in the playoffs, which means their Christmas break from needing to win football games will extend to mid-January.

The Browns will be torn between two lovers, or at least two teams they love to hate. They could beat the Ravens and knock them out of the AFC North race, but that would give Troy Polamalu an extra week of rest (he won't play in Cleveland if the Steelers don't need that game) and help the Steelers in the playoffs.

Since the Browns still suck, however, it's probably not going to be up to them. The Ravens will probably beat them and the Steelers will be back to work the day after New Year's needing to beat the Browns. The Ravens host the Bengals Jan. 2, so let's just say the Steelers will need to beat the Browns if the Ravens win Sunday.

If that's the case, all this Christmas cheer will be a distant memory. With bare Christmas trees strewn all over sidewalks, the reality of the Steelers' ramshackle offensive line and red zone inefficiency, as well as Polamalu's health (whether it's his ankle, calf, nose hairs or toe nails), will once again be in the Steelers' face.

But let's not think about January drudgery right now. Let's just sit by the fireplace, admire the tree and look back on the Steelers' Christmas story that was on TV Thursday night.

... Not a Panther was stirring ...

The Steelers allowed just 119 yards of offense and gobbled up rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen as if he were Claussen pickle, sacking him four times and intercepting him once. Clausen completed just 10 of 23 passes for 72 yards. He didn't get off the hook like Colt McCoy did earlier this year (the Steelers have a chance to make up for that).

Meanwhile, the Steelers generated 408 yards of offense. Their ground game was productive with Rashard Mendenhall running for 65 yards and Isaac Redman adding 43. Ben Roethlisberger threw for a career-high 259 first-half yards.

This game wasn't without a few anxious early moments. The Steelers had a little trouble tackling Jonathan Stewart, who came into the game averaging 115 yards rushing over the past four weeks. But the Panthers handed the Steelers a few presents. They gave the gift of ineptitude.

Carolina reached the Steelers' 35 on the game's opening drive, but stalled with two straight false start penalties.

After a Steelers field goal, Carolina mounted another drive and got to the Steelers' 29. Then on third-and-2, they went to the wildcat. Panthers and wildcat added up to a feline failure. Mike Goodson lost three yards, then on fourth down Clausen got sacked to yank the Panthers out of field goal range.

A 43-yard hot-route pass to Mike Wallace gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter. A 12-yard pass to Heath Miller, who can enjoy some egg nog now that his noggin is healthy, got that drive going. He led the Steelers with five catches for 73 yards.

The Steelers' other two touchdowns came on 1-yard runs with Mendenhall scoring before halftime and Roethlisberger making it 27-0 in the third quarter. Big Ben's dive squashed the only second-half drama. The Steelers had a first-and-goal on the 1, and on third down the Panthers were halfway to what would have been an embarrassing goal-line stand.

... On Wallace, on Sanders, on Heath and Antonio

A 35-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders set up Mendenhall's touchdown. Sanders caught four balls for 54 yards. Am I the only one who thinks that it's Hines Ward catching the ball a lot of the time when Sanders catches the ball?

I know I'm opening up a can of worms here (anybody want that for Christmas?). Much of the reason for not being able to tell Sanders from Ward is their uniform numbers. The number "88" looks a lot like "86." There was a lot of Pittsburgh talk radio chatter about Ward, who had three catches for 38 yards, being done. I think the 13-year veteran is just gracefully passing the baton to a new generation of receivers.

Wallace is fifth in the league with 1,152 receiving yards and is averaging 20.2 yards per catch, second only to the Eagles' DeSean Jackson in that category among receivers with at least 15 catches. His emergence, as well as that of Antonio Brown, gives Roethlisberger a lot of toys at his disposal.

You might say Big Ben got his Christmas presents early when he returned to action in October. By that time, it wasn't hard to see a Christmas display somewhere or hear a Christmas carol.

Hang in there, Christmas is almost over. Then, as Mike Tomlin would say, it will be time for "January Football."

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