Sunday, January 2, 2011

Star power

Steelers 41, Browns 9

By Mike Batista

It was up to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin whether Troy Polamalu would play Sunday.

If he sat Polamalu, who had been sidelined with an Achilles injury, the hope would have been to give the defensive difference maker five full weeks of rest if the Steelers could beat the Browns without him and clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs.

If he played Polamalu, he would have risked a re-injury and losing him for the playoffs. What good would a first-round bye be in that case?

I don't think any of this had to factor into Tomlin's decision. He could have been swayed by astrology, because it seemed the stars were aligned for Polamalu to play in this game.

How else do you explain Polamalu, No. 43, intercepting a pass to set up a Steelers' touchdown 43 seconds into the game? Or that Mike Wallace, No. 17, scored that touchdown with 14:17 left in the first quarter after catching a Ben Roethlisberger pass?

Furthermore, the uniform numbers of Wallace and Polamalu add up to 60, as in "Steelers football is 60 minutes," which Tomlin gushed after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII (that's 43) two years ago. Or as in "60 Minutes," the show hosted by a Mike Wallace almost four times the age of the Steelers receiver.

The Steelers, who by the way allowed 43 rushing yards on 17 carries, didn't need 60 minutes to finish off the Browns and secure the AFC North title and a first-round bye. They scored touchdowns on their first four possessions and got tough in short-yardage situations for a change.

Rashard Mendenhall punched in the first of his two 1-yard touchdown runs to give the Steelers (12-4) a 14-0 lead with seven minutes left in the first quarter.

The Browns (5-11) seemed poised to make it a game on their next possession, moving the ball to the Steelers' 2. But on second down, Polamalu showed that he really is healthy again by dusting off one of his trademark spectacles: The Line of Scrimmage Leap.

On the first play of the second quarter, Polamalu timed the snap and vaulted the line of scrimmage like a missile. Browns' quarterback Colt McCoy rolled to his right, almost back to the 20, after getting out of Polamalu's flight path and threw an incomplete pass. After another incomplete pass, the Browns settled for a field goal.

Polamalu's work was pretty much done. The Steelers only needed him for a half, thanks in part to fellow defensive backs Ryan Clark and Anthony Madison, whose interceptions set up 10 points. Clark's pick led to a 4-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller to increase the Steelers' lead to 28-3. Madison set up Shaun Suisham's 41-yard field goal to make the Steelers' halftime lead 31-3.

And Polamalu could start washing his hair.

The offense didn't earn its rest until it put together a clock-churning drive to start the second half. The 13-play, 77-yard march ended with a little flair. Antwan Randle-El took a pitch from Roethlisberger and threw a 3-yard TD pass to Hines Ward. The play popped the cork on some vintage 2005, when Randle-El connected with Ward in the Super Bowl and the Steelers won big in Cleveland during the holiday season.

With the Steelers up 38-3, most of their key offensive players were done for the day. Unfortunately, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey wasn't one of them. He left the game with a neck stinger and is the only new health concern that came out of this game.

Speaking of Pouncey and the offensive line that the 21-year-old rookie pretty much runs, Roethlisberger was unsacked for the first time since the Steelers' first meeting against the Browns. Roethlisberger was sacked 32 times in 12 games this season. That's a pace of about 43 sacks over a full season. That would have been the fewest times he's been sacked since 2005.

It was oddly comical, then, when Byron Leftwich was sacked on his first play. Leftwich was brought down twice, but did a good job minding the store along with the likes of running back Jonathan Dwyer, linebackers Stevenson Sylvester, Keyaron Fox and Larry Foote and defensive backs Will Allen and Keenan Lewis.

The Steelers put three more points on the board to hang 40 on an opponent for the first time since 2007. This was after becoming the first team to score 30 on the improved Browns this season.

What the Steelers do to teams like the Browns and Panthers, however, won't matter a whole lot in two weeks.

As Tomlin would say, it's time for "January Football."

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