Sunday, January 30, 2011

Wait 'til next year ...
on dynasty talk

By Mike Batista

As the Steelers head down to the Big D for Super Bowl XLV, the "D" word is being thrown around.

A lot of yinzers and honorary yinzers are saying that if the Steelers beat the Packers in Dallas for their third championship in six years, they'll be a dynasty.

Would they currently be the model franchise in the NFL?


Would they make a case to become America's Team and rip that accolade from the Cowboys right in front of Jerry Jones' plasticized face?


Would they be a dynasty?


Hold the boos, please (but I'll gladly accept any booze).

I have to stand by my original theory on this one.

In the past I have written that a dynasty is not formed until a team wins three championships in four years or four in six years. That ensures back-to-back titles. If you can't repeat as champions at some point, you're not a dynasty.

This means the Steelers need to win this Super Bowl and the next to become a dynasty.

After winning Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers didn't even make the playoffs the following year, handling success like Gerald Ford handled the stairs coming out of an airplane.

And look at how long Ford was president. Nothing dynastic about him.

The Steelers of the 70s were a dynasty by virtue of their four championships in six years.

The Patriots, who won three out of four Super Bowls from 2001-2004, were the NFL's last dynasty. And that dynasty has fallen to ancient ruins.

There is currently no dynasty in place in the NFL. Who says there needs to be one?

Comedian Bill Maher said the NFL's socialist concept of trying to keep every team competitive is the reason the league is so wildly popular in capitalist America.

That's not really conducive to a dynasty.

Whether they win or lose Sunday, the Steelers are the only team to reach three Super Bowls in the past six years. The Colts are the only other team to reach two.

The Steelers are closer than any team to being a dynasty. All they have to do is win Sunday, and avoid any Ford-like pratfalls next season.
Super Bowl XLV: The real deal

By Mike Batista

So here we are again, in the midst of the two-week buildup to another Steelers Super Bowl. It's nice to be back after a long, barren January last year.

Life has been good for Steelers fans. The Steelers have a chance to win their third Super Bowl in six years. But for all this decorated franchise has accomplished, there is something the Steelers haven't done in 32 years.

With a win over the Packers next Sunday, the Steelers would beat a "real" team in the Super Bowl for the first time since they beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII.

The Cardinals played in Arizona but belong in St. Louis. The Seahawks played in the NFC but belong in the AFC.

Sure, the Cardinals gave the Steelers all they could handle two years ago. But Super Bowl XLIII matched a misplaced franchise with an organization that has been the model of stability.

Like Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett, they just didn't look right together. Wait a minute.

In Super Bowl XL, there was something not quite right about the Seahawks as a Super Bowl opponent because I grew up with the Seahawks as an AFC team and remember a lot of dull Steelers-Seahawks games during the dark days of the 80s.

Even the Rams seemed cartoonish in Super Bowl XIV after an era in which NFL behemoths such as the Steelers, Cowboys, Raiders and Vikings were Super Bowl regulars.

Like the Seahawks and Cardinals a generation later, the Rams made their first Super Bowl appearance when facing the Steelers

The Packers are no Super Bowl debutantes. They won the first two Super Bowls and dominated the 60s the way the Steelers dominated the 70s.

These franchises have national followings that are rooted in their respective decades of dominance. So many people outside of Wisconsin and Western Pennsylvania are fans of the Packers and Steelers today because of what happened in the 60s and 70s.

Fans from the Titletown and Steel Curtain eras had to stick with the Packers and Steelers through a lot of lean years, and they've been rewarded with modern-day championships.

Such loyal souls are a far cry from the crusty retirees of Arizona, the coffee snobs of Seattle and the actor wannabes waiting tables in LA.

Even the team nicknames have a historic value.

The Packers, who were founded in 1919, were sponsored by the Indian Packing Company and later the Acme Packing Company, both of which packaged meat.

After joining the NFL as the Pirates in 1933, the Steelers were renamed in 1940 as a nod to the city's steel industry.

It's fitting that Super Bowl XLV is being played in Dallas, the home of the last "real" team the Steelers beat in the Super Bowl. Even the Cowboys have a name that is easily linked to their home city.

The Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams are all named for animals.

C'mon. What are we, 8?

OK, OK, let me provide my official disclaimer that the opponent doesn't diminish the Steelers' championships. Those Lombardi Trophies on the South Side wouldn't shine any brighter if the Steelers had beaten the '85 Bears.

But this is a cool Super Bowl matchup. The first two dynasties of the Super Bowl era. This pairing looks right. It feels right.

The Steelers and Packers are like the guy and the girl whose mutual friends always thought they'd make a great couple. Finally, they get set up on a date.

Well, maybe that's not the best analogy because we have to figure out which team is the girl. Hopefully that will be resolved when the Steelers make the Packers their bitch.

What I'm trying to say is the Steelers and Packers go together a lot better than Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett.

Monday, January 24, 2011

At Irish Exit in Manhattan, Steelers fans in enemy territory celebrate their win over the Jets in the AFC title game.

The closers

AFC championship game:
Steelers 24, Jets 19

By Mike Batista

What the fuck was Antwaan Randle El doing in there?

The number 82 was the first thing I noticed in the Steelers' huddle when they came out of the two-minute warning.

The Steelers were clinging for dear life to a five-point lead. They faced a third-and-6 from the Jets' 40. All they had to do was run the ball again. Even if they didn't get the first down, they could run the clock down to about 1:15, then punt and try to pin the Jets deep. Sure, Mark Sanchez had a hell of a second half, but the Jets would have needed a touchdown with just over a minute left and no timeouts.

Randle El has done very little this season in his prodigal son return to the Steelers. So his presence in the game made it obvious the Steelers had a lot of receivers in there.

The Steelers weren't going to throw the ball, were they?

Sure enough, I see the Steelers go five-wide with Ben Roethlisberger in the shotgun. Yup. They were going there.

The Steelers were pretty much getting their asses kicked in the second half. Their 24-0 lead was down to a puny 24-19.

Now, the Steelers were going to put the ball in the air and risk an incompletion, which would stop the clock and give the Jets almost two minutes to score a touchdown. Or worse, there could have been an interception. Roethlisberger already had thrown two in the game.

I drank a few IC Lights at Irish Exit in Manhattan before the game, but I was too nervous to drink anything during the game, especially the second half. My tongue and throat were dryer than Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette's sense of humor.

I did not need this, Steelers. I did not need this.

So Roethlisberger gets flushed out of the pocket, looking for someone to throw to. He wasn't going to be able to scramble for a first down like he had a couple of times earlier in the game. Too many white jerseys between him and the big yellow first-down line.

Just before running out of bounds, Roethlisberger tossed the ball to Antonio Brown. After his high-wire, Tyree-like catch last week, the sixth-round pick cradled this one like a newborn for 14 yards. First down. Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl.

Jets coach Rex Ryan slammed down his headset as if he was told his favorite snack shack was out of chili dogs.

Unlike me, the Steelers weren't scared. Unlike me, they weren't wringing their hands wishing the seconds would tick off the clock faster.

That's not how you win championships.

You win championships by closing the deal sooner rather than later.

You win championships when your fourth receiver, who hasn't been called upon all night, gets the job done when he finally is needed. And let's not forget Brown's 27-yard kickoff return a minute earlier after a Jets' touchdown narrowed the Steelers' lead to 24-19. That put the ball on the Steelers' 41 and helped the Steelers, and me, breathe a little easier.

Something tells me Brown, who was inactive for seven games this season, will get a hat every Sunday from now on.

Nothing safe about a safety

It looked like the Steelers' defining moment as 2010 AFC champions came midway through the fourth quarter. Leading 24-10, the Steelers stopped the Jets on first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. On third down from the 1, LaMarr Woodley batted down a Sanchez pass. On fourth down, LaDainian Tomlinson took it up the middle and got stood up against a battery of black jerseys.

A goal-line stand. The most dramatic display of football toughness. Unfortunately, right after that the Steelers fell victim to one of football's most emasculating occurrences: a safety.

Roethlisberger fumbled the snap from Doug "The Big" Legursky, who replaced injured Maurkice Pouncey at center, and smartly seized the ball so the Jets would get two points and not six.

The Jets had a safety in their win over the Steelers at Heinz Field last month. The quirkiest of football scoring plays seems to be a running gag whenever these two teams meet. Sort of like Maverick buzzing the tower in "Top Gun." Really annoying.

The safety made the score 24-12. And no, it was no consolation to me that it set things up for my predicted score of 27-15. Fuck that. Now, if the Jets got the two touchdowns they needed, they wouldn't just tie. They would win.

They got the first of those touchdowns after taking the free kick at their 42. Sanchez, who outplayed Roethlisberger, moved the Jets 58 yards in 10 plays and threw a 4-yard TD pass to Jerricho Cotchery, making it 24-19 with 3:06 left.

Fortunately, the Jets didn't touch the ball again.

Cooking up a comeback

After falling behind 24-0, the Jets had all the necessary ingredients for concocting a comeback.

They got a field goal to get on the board before halftime.

They got a touchdown less than three minutes into the second half when Santonio Holmes caught a 45-yard pass from Sanchez.

They got a turnover on the Steelers' ensuing possession when Brodney Pool intercepted Roethlisberger.

Meanwhile, the Steelers got the yips.

Pool's interception came right after Roethlisberger fumbled and recovered a snap.

The Jets went three-and-out on that possession, but Randle El muffed the punt and watched it roll out of bounds.

And after letting Rashard Mendenhall run wild for 95 yards in the first half, the Jets held him to 26 yards in the second half. The Steelers' passing attack wasn't used that much in the game. Roethlisberger completed only 10 of 19 passes for 133 yards to go with the two picks.

On this frigid Pittsburgh night, you got the feeling if the Steelers really needed to throw the ball, their aerial game would have been like a beer that hasn't been out of the freezer long enough. Still some ice in there.


In the second half, the Jets looked like the team that beat the Patriots. But the simple reason they couldn't beat the Steelers is because the Steelers scored more points in the half that they dominated.

Run, Rashard, Run

Am I the only one who forgot what Rashard Mendenhall looks like?

When he stood on the podium during the Steelers' celebration Sunday night, it was the most face time he's had since he got a call on his cell phone from the Steelers on draft day nearly three years ago.

Mendenhall's kind of been a man of mystery in his career. The Steelers' ability to move the ball through the air has at times made him an afterthought.

Jerome Bettis was The Bus. Willie Parker had the speed of a race car. What about Mendenhall? It hasn't been easy to identify him that way.

Sure, Mendenhall's had monster rushing numbers against porous run defenses like the Chargers last season and the Bills this season.

Mendenhall was seventh in the NFL this season with 1,273 rushing yards, just 25 less than Adrian Peterson. But he averaged only 3.9 yards per carry, and just hadn't passed the eye test that defines a top-notch running back like Peterson.

But he did on Sunday.

The Jets' first mistake came when they won the coin toss and deferred to the second half. While it worked out well for them in the second half, it kept dangerous Brad Smith, and the Jets' offense, off the field for the first nine minutes of the game.

Mendenhall carried eight times for 28 yards on the Steelers' opening drive. He scored on a 1-yard touchdown run in which he stuck his arm across the goal line with Bart Scott trying to take him down.

The touchdown gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead. It also softened any emotional blow from the loss of Maurkice Pouncey on the previous play. Pouncey left the game with a high-ankle sprain. Even though he's barely old enough to drink, the rookie center has been so good this year that many of his older teammates look up to him.

But The Big Legursky filled in admirably, and the Steelers' first-half fireworks had just begun.

The centerpiece of Mendenhall's performance was his 35-yard run in the second quarter, putting the ball on the Jets' 27. Isaac Redman gave Mendenhall a breather and got the Steelers deeper into field goal range with runs of eight and 13 yards. Shaun Suisham's 20-yard field goal made it 10-0.

Mendenhall found a couple of other ways to help on the Steelers' next possession. With the Steelers at the Jets' 16 and all the receivers covered downfield, Mendenhall got open in the flat, caught a pass and rambled to the 2. That set up Roethlisberger's 2-yard touchdown run. Jets' linebacker Bryan Thomas was too worried about Mendenhall, and that opened a lane the size of the Tuscarora Tunnel for Roethlisberger, who scored to make it 17-0.

Then came the grand finale of the Steelers' first-half spectacle. How many times over the years have we seen one Steeler mug an opposing quarterback and another Steeler pick up the free ball and take it the other way?

It's quite a sight to behold.

It happened again Sunday when Ike Taylor strip sacked Sanchez, and William Gay cleaned up. Gay didn't just fall on the ball. Oh no. He hovered over it and positioned himself to grab it and take it to the house. With his dreadlocks, Gay has a little (and I do mean a little) of the flair that Troy Polamalu has on his takeaways.

Gay ran it back 19 yards for a touchdown to increase the Steelers' lead to 24-0 with 1:23 left in the first half, and Heinz Field was awash in an ear-splitting, Terrible Towel-waving celebration of Steelerism.

Little did anyone know that the reaction to Gay's touchdown would serve as the Steelers' sendoff party as they were deployed to a treacherous second half.

It was time to hunker down.

But they survived. Next stop: Dallas.

I guess Randle El can come, too.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

We're going crazy here at Irish Exit. I think most Jets fans are home now. So New York City is ours!
Uh, Mike McCarthy's fat. Never too early to get started on the Packer hatin'
Umm. Let's just say the Steelers didn't make it easy. I've now followed the Steelers for 5 of their 8 Super Bowls. Column later. Here we go ...
Cmon Steelers. All you have to do is get a couplevof first downs
Safety? Really? Mewelde Moore swears he had nothing to do with it. 24-12 Steelers
Cmon Polamalu. Do something.
Starting to get too nervous to post. At least pick was deep, like a punt. 24-10 Steelers middle of third quarter.
Just the start the Jets needed in the second half. 24-10 Steelers. Offense need to come out attacking. No running the clock out. Need more points.
24-3 Steelers at halftime. OK guys, smart football in 2nd half. No penalties. Maybe grab another turnover, and it's Super Bowl.
Did Cotchery hurt his crotchery? 24-0 Steelers
Could have run it in from the 2. But ... 10-0 #Steelers
Thanks for the drops, Cotchery and Revis
Memo to Jets. If ur trying to get Ward, he's 86. Not 88
Pouncey getting carted off. So the O Line attrition begins. 7-0 Steelers
Big Ben first down run for #Steelers. Boy that thigh must be killing him.
Jets, I'd like to introduce you to Heath Miller.
McFadden active. Good news. Go #Steelers
OK #Steelers. Packers got rid of one non-elite QB. Your turn to get rid of the other one still playing.
Did yinz see Ward standing alone in that hallway? Alone with his thoughts of Jets destruction?
Here We Go
Prediction: Steelers 27-15
A little Manhattan sports bar humor: I wonder who they're rooting for today at The Hairy Monk. #Steelers or Jets?
Got my spot at the bar at Irish Exit. Time for the Jets to make an Irish Exit from the playoffs. Go #Steelers.
I don't care if he did drugs. Last thing I grabbed b4 leaving house was a Lance Armstrong bracelet so I'd have more #Steelers yellow.

Hey Steelers, in honor of Dandy Don Meredith, turn out these lights, and the Jets' party will be over

The Empire State Building gets the green light to honor the Jets.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hey Fireman Ed, put that hose away. Go #Steelers!
And here it comes

By Mike Batista

Considering the AFC championship game is being played at a field named for a ketchup company, it's not surprising that it took so long for the Jets' trash talk to come out this week.

The Jets were very civil in their comments to the press before Friday. I was almost expecting the teams to share a tea interval in lieu of halftime during Sunday's game.

We knew the trash talk was in there, but getting it out was like hitting the bottom of a Heinz ketchup bottle until the stuff finally oozes out.

Heinz is on the Jets' mind, but not the ketchup.

The Jets are saying Hines Ward is a dirty player, that most of his blocks come with no one looking.

Good. Let the Jets worry about Ward while Mike Wallace goes deep on them and Emmanuel Sanders catches those balls over the middle. And the Jets didn't even have to deal with Heath Miller when they came to Pittsburgh in December.

I also doubt that Rex Ryan is serious when he says that Darrelle Revis will cover Ward. No. 86 just isn't as much of a factor in the Steelers' offense anymore. I'd love to see the Jets waste their best cornerback on him.

I don't think Ryan is that stupid.

Why I'm worried

Immediately after the Jets upset the Patriots last Sunday, I thought about the 2005 Steelers, the first No. 6 seed to win the Super Bowl, and also the first team to win three playoff games on the road before winning the Super Bowl.

After stunning the Colts 21-18 in the 2005 AFC divisional playoffs, there was no way in hell the Steelers were going to lose in Denver the following week. They won easily 34-17 and went on to win the Super Bowl.

Will the Jets carry that same momentum into Pittsburgh?

With the Super Bowl in Jerome Bettis' hometown of Detroit that year, the 2005 Steelers wanted to get their future Hall of Famer home and have him ride into the sunset with a Super Bowl ring.

The Jets' 42-year Super Bowl drought is a driving force equal to that of The Bus.

It's just a little bit longer than the time the Steelers had to wait for their first championship.

Why I'm not worried

The buildup to the Steelers' playoff game against the Colts in 2005 wasn't nearly as vicious as the war of words between the Jets and Patriots this year.

the Colts were the favorites to reach the Super Bowl in 2005 and beat the Steelers 26-7 during the regular season, the Steelers didn't think about the Colts 24/7/365 the way the Jets did with the Patriots. The 2005 Steelers still had plenty left in the tank when they went to Denver.

Do the Jets have anything left?

Their Team of Destiny momentum will be running into a much thicker wall than the one the 2005 Steelers faced. They'll be going against Ben Roethlisberger, who is 9-2 in the playoffs, and a team with a core that has won two Super Bowls.

The 2005 Steelers went up against Jake Plummer, who was 2-4 in the playoffs, and a Broncos team that to this day has won just one playoff game since John Elway retired.

I think the Steelers need one more AFC championship game win at Heinz Field to fully wash away the stink of their four home losses in AFC title games between 1994 and 2004. Even in the most one-sided of those losses, a 41-27 decision against the Patriots in 2004, the Steelers put up a fight in the second half.

The Jets better be ready for a fight Sunday.

History lesson

Who says the Jets and Steelers don't have baggage?

Sure the Packers and Bears, who are playing for the NFC championship, are natural rivals and have played each other more than any other two teams in the NFL.

But the Jets and Steelers have a little bit of a past.

  • Let's start with the Jets' 22-17 win over the Steelers last month at Heinz Field. I know as Steelers fans we're hanging our hat on the fact that Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller didn't play in that game. But the fact is the Jets won, which gives them a mental edge heading into Sunday's game.
  • The Jets' previous trip to Heinz Field came in the 2004 AFC divisional playoffs, which the Steelers won 20-17 in overtime. Let's face it, the Steelers got lucky in that game. Doug Brien missed two field goals in the final two minutes of regulation before Jeff Reed won it with a field goal in overtime.
  • Hopefully the Steelers paid back all that karma three years later, when they were upset 19-16 in OT by the Jets at the Meadowlands. The Eric Mangini-led Jets, who were 1-8, tripped up the Steelers after their 7-2 start, and it was the beginning of the end for the '07 Steelers. They finished the season 3-4, and lost to the Jaguars at home in a wild-card playoff game.
  • Perhaps the biggest skeleton in the closet between these two teams is Joe Walton. After seven years as the Jets' head coach, Walton became the Steelers' offensive coordinator in 1990 and 1991, the last two years of Chuck Noll's tenure as head coach. The Steelers seemed to be an up-and-coming team in 1989. They went 9-7 but came within a point of the AFC championship game. Along comes Walton to run the offense, and the Steelers go 9-7 in 1990 and 7-9 in 1991, missing the playoffs both years. Walton made the Steelers more boring than "The Waltons" TV show. Then Bill Cowher and his staff take over, and the Steelers go 11-5 and make the playoffs. Since then the Steelers have missed the playoffs just six times. If Mike Tomlin needs ideas for a Saturday-night motivational video, he can show highlights of the 1990 and 1991 Steelers. If it doesn't put the current Steelers to sleep, it should motivate them to repay the Jets franchise for the mediocrity they sullied the Steelers with two decades ago.
  • Terry Bradshaw's last touchdown pass came against the Jets on Dec. 10, 1983. In the Jets' last game at Shea Stadium, Bradshaw threw an 18-yard TD pass to Calvin Sweeney to complete the scoring in a 34-7 win. Roethlisberger has a chance to come within one ring of Bradshaw.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The road goes through Pittsburgh

By Mike Batista

Don't put the cap on the Big Ketchup Bottle just yet.

There's going to be one more football game at Heinz Field.

The Steelers' fourth AFC championship game in seven years, their fifth in 10 years and their eighth in 17 years will be in Pittsburgh against the Jets, who stunned the Patriots 28-21 Sunday.

When I watched the game, I was thinking back to 1986, when as a Celtics fan I was rooting like crazy for the Rockets to beat the Lakers in the Western Conference final so the Celtics wouldn't have to face the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

I couldn't sleep the night the Rockets won the series because it suddenly hit me that the Celtics weren't going to get a chance to beat their biggest rivals to win another championship.

That's actually not the case in this situation, because I honestly didn't know who to root for when watching the Jets and Patriots.

On one hand, I would have liked to have seen the Steelers get another shot at Tom Brady, their biggest tormentor of the past decade. If they win another championship, a win over the Patriots in Foxborough would have been a nice jewel in the crown.

But the Patriots, who have lost their last three postseason games, including the last two at home, have gone from Team of the Decade to a franchise that can't get the job done in the playoffs.

To reach the eighth Super Bowl in franchise history, the Steelers were going to have to beat a team that has won at Heinz Field in the last nine weeks, no matter how Sunday's game unfolded.

The Steelers were without Troy Polamalu when they lost to the Jets 22-17 on Dec. 19. They had Polamalu, although he was mired in a mid-season funk, when they lost 39-26 to the Patriots on Nov. 14 in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicates.

So getting to the Super Bowl should be easier for the Steelers with the Patriots out of the way.

Theoretically, anyway.

At least it might make my decision about where to watch the game easier. It's either going to be Bob Hyland's Sports Page in White Plains, NY or Irish Exit, a Steelers bar in Manhattan.

Since it's going to be the Jets, I'm leaning toward the big city.

Sports Page will be filled with Jets fans. This is the place where Jets fans cheered when Brady tore up his knee in the 2008 season opener.

People are much nicer on the 4 train in the Bronx, although I might have to cloak my Steelers gear with my coat until I'm safely in the Steelers enclave.

It'll be a fun week behind enemy lines.

Got anything to say, Rex?
Brown bags Ravens

AFC divisional playoffs:
Steelers 31, Ravens 24

By Mike Batista

The Baltimore Ravens looked scary during the offseason, having acquired wide receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. This gave them some pop in their offense to go with their always stellar defense.

The Steelers, however, trumped the addition of those two stars with a sixth-round draft pick.

With the score tied 24-24, the Steelers faced a third-and-19 from their own 38 with 2:07 left in the game. The first playoff overtime under the new rules loomed -- until Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown.

The rookie from Central Michigan caught the ball on a fly pattern, then went all David Tyree and used his helmet to secure the ball before going out of bounds at the Ravens' 4.

Since returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown in the Steelers' 19-11 win at Tennessee in Week 2, Brown has been overshadowed by draftmate Emmanuel Sanders, who was chosen in the third round.

Sanders had 28 catches this season. Brown had 16. Sanders dressed for 13 games this season. Brown dressed for nine.

But on Saturday, Brown did what Boldin and Houshmandzadah couldn't. He held on to the ball when it mattered most.

The Ravens could have gone ahead 28-24 with four minutes left, but Boldin dropped a 6-yard Joe Flacco pass at the goal line, so they settled for a game-tying field goal.

After Rashard Mendenhall's 2-yard touchdown run gave the Steelers a 31-24 lead, the Ravens' last chance came on fourth-and-18 from their own 44. Flacco threw what would have been a first-down pass right into Houshmandzadeh's chest, but proving you can take the player out of Cincinnati, but you can't take the Cincinnati out of the player, Houshmandzadeh let it bounce to the ground.

Game over. Steelers back in the AFC championship game.

The Steelers, however, dropped the ball their fair share of times on Saturday. In fact, infamy beckoned as they faced a 14-point deficit.

An immeasurable comeback

This was one of those games that gets me in a ranking mood.

The Steelers' dramatic win, in which they came back from a 21-7 halftime hole, got me going through the file cabinet of my mind, trying to think of other Steelers playoff comebacks and where this ranks.

I've been watching the Steelers since 1979, but I must admit I needed the Internet the morning after to jog my memory and dust off the Steelers' 36-33 win over the Browns in a 2002 AFC wild-card game. Maybe it's because it was pre-Roethlisberger and pre-Polamalu, but I kind of forgot about that game.

Mathematically, that was a bigger comeback. They trailed 24-7 in the third quarter and 33-21 with less than five minutes left in that one.

But Saturday's comeback can't be measured with a calculator, a slide rule or an abacus. The Steelers not only needed to come back on the scoreboard, they needed to come back emotionally.

In a play that would have been talked about for decades had the Steelers lost, the Ravens' Cory Redding picked up a fumble at the Steelers' 13 and ran it in for a touchdown late in the first quarter.

Terrell Suggs hit Roethlisberger and forced the fumble, although the ball was fumbled forward, making it look like an incomplete pass. Even though there was no whistle, everyone on both teams stood around thinking the play was over.

Except Redding.

The Steelers' flub gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead and was reminiscent of blooper clips from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first year as an expansion team. Or maybe the Steelers of the 1930s and 1940s.

Bucco Bruce would have been proud.

They once were lost

The Steelers and Ravens entered this game so closely matched that their previous four games all were decided by three points. The Steelers had won nine of their 17 meetings since 2003, and in those games both teams had scored 302 points.

So in a game where just a blink or a twitch could have been the difference, here was this big, fat gaffe that gave the Ravens seven points.

It was like a guy being on a date and getting caught looking at the women's breasts right after they sit down at the table. Makes it awfully hard to get a second date. The guy's probably one and done.

So it seemed with the Steelers. But their first-half ineptitude didn't end with that play. In the second quarter, Rashard Mendenhall, playing in his first playoff game, fumbled at the Steelers' 16. That led to a 4-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Todd Heap and a 21-7 Ravens lead.

Even on the fumble, there didn't seem to be much awareness that there was a fumble. It seemed odd that the pile of bodies wasn't untangling like it usually does after an ordinary play. It turns out it was no ordinary play, and the Steelers were again asleep at the switch.

After the play, Mike Tomlin stared wide-eyed at the scoreboard. His mouth opened briefly, revealing the green gum he chewed throughout the game. But no words came out. He was out of challenges, although that didn't matter because Mendenhall clearly fumbled the ball.

Tomlin, as well as his team, seemed lost.

Now there's a turnabout

The second half didn't start out much better. The Steelers didn't do much with their opening possession and had to punt.

Then, CBS showed its little graphic saying the Ravens had seven road playoff wins, tied for third most in the NFL all-time.

It's funny how having your ass kissed by CBS often turns into the kiss of death in the NFL.

Right after that, James Harrison sacked Flacco. Two plays after that, Ryan Clark forced a Ray Rice fumble, and LaMarr Woodley recovered at the Baltimore 23.

I watched the game at Bob Hyland's Sports Page in White Plains, which is not far from Rice's hometown of New Rochelle. The fumble quieted Rice's homies, who weren't wearing Ravens gear, but to that point had a lot more to cheer about than the dozen or so of us wearing black and gold.

It also led to a 9-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller, cutting the Ravens' lead to 21-14.

Late in the third quarter, Clark intercepted Flacco at the Ravens' 42. The pick, along with the forced fumble, absolved Clark for his role in the Steelers' first-half follies, when he tried to help out Ike Taylor covering Derrick Mason and hit Taylor instead, nearly taking him out of the game.

This turnover set up an 8-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward, tying score at 21.

Flacco, clearly shaken by the events of the third quarter, fumbled a snap at his own 23 two plays into the Ravens' next possession. Brett Keisel recovered, and it turned into Shaun Suisham's 35-yard field goal, which gave the Steelers a 24-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

After the Steelers held the Ravens to the field goal thanks to Boldin's drop, Mendenhall provided the winning points on his 2-yard run.

Bang for the buck

Mendenhall had only 46 yards on 20 carries, but most of those yards came at crucial times. His winning TD was his second short-yardage score. He opened the scoring with a 1-yard run on a second effort in the first quarter.

More than half of Mendenhall's yards came on two carries that sparked the Steelers' touchdown drives in the third quarter.

Immediately after Rice's fumble, Mendenhall ran 14 yards to the 9. Then came the 9-yard pass to Miller that made it 21-14.

On the first play after Clark's interception, Mendenhall went 13 yards to the Ravens' 12. Three plays later, Ward tied it with his touchdown.

It was the first time the Steelers came back from 14 points down in any game since their last playoff loss, in 2007 at home to Jacksonville. They trailed 28-10 in that game and took a 29-28 lead before losing 31-29.

But that Steelers team was decimated by injuries and not expected to go very far in the playoffs.

Expectations are much higher for this team, a team that on Saturday not only escaped the Ravens, but also infamy.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

At some point in the next 24 hours, I will find the words to describe this win and write a column. Tonight I drink #Steelers 31 Ravens 24
WTF on the squib kick?
Get ready Suisham. It's almost showtime. #Steelers 24 Ravens 24
Too early to be going into a shell like that. Just what #Steelers did in first game vs Ravens
Good. We don't have to put Suisham out of his misery. #Steelers 24 Ravens 21
Repeated replay closeups of Flacco's ass a small price to pay for that #Steelers fumble recovery
No way Kapinos was going to pin them on two straight punts. Penalties killing #Steelers
Aw, poor wittle Way Wice dwopping the ball. Ravens 21 #Steelers 14
It's the playoffs. Time for Suisham to remind us why no one wanted him. Halftime: Ravens 21, #Steelers 7
Tomlin looks catatonic. Mendenhall's 1st playoff game. I was afraid of him fumbling. Ravens 21, #Steelers 7
Another penalty on a return. Guess what K Lewis? #Steelers lose, and ur unemployed
I still can't believe it. #Steelers on that fumble looked like '76 Buccaneers
WTF?!?!? This TD will be talked about for decades if #Steelers lose. Unforgivable. 14-7 Ravens
Is Ryan Clark color blind?
Finally! Proof that Mendenhall's tough #Steelers 7-0
Flacco can't even match #Roethlisberger's playoff beard
So sick of Ray Lewis psyching up his teammates thinking he's a preacher.
Blind eye

By Mike Batista

CBS missed a major opportunity here.

The Ravens and Steelers kick off the divisional round of the NFL playoffs today at 4:30 in Pittsburgh. Tomorrow, the Jets play the Patriots in the late game on CBS.

If I'm CBS, I'm putting the Steelers game at 4:30 on Sunday in case Steelers receiver Mike Wallace has a big game. What better way to lead into "60 Minutes?"

Unfortunately, the network symbolized by the eye logo didn't have that kind of vision. This kind of puts a different spin on my favorite sports weekend of the year.

With four games, two on Saturday and two on Sunday, it's the last NFL weekend of wall-to-wall football. Every team playing is Super Bowl-caliber. With the notable exception of the Seahawks this season, the riff-raff is usually weeded out on wild-card weekend. That makes for four intriguing matchups.

Two years ago, before they drafted the younger, faster version of the "60 Minutes" anchor, the Steelers played the late Sunday game. So the first three games of divisional playoff weekend served as a dramatic buildup to the Steelers game.

This year, the tone of the weekend will depend on the outcome of the Ravens-Steelers game.

If the Steelers win, I'll watch tonight's Packers-Falcons game if I'm not too drunk. Then tomorrow, I'll watch Seahawks-Bears only because it's such a snoozer it seems like a good game to watch hung over. Then I'll meticulously scout the Jets-Patriots game and have a report on Mike Tomlin's desk Monday morning.

If the Steelers lose, however, the person below is going to be me

I won't be ignored.

Go Steelers!
Sign of the times

By Mike Batista

Baltimore and Pittsburgh were nice little sports rivals in the 1970s. They met in the World Series in 1971 and 1979, with the Pirates winning both times, I might add.

Friendly mascots ran around and umpires wore burgundy blazers. The Orioles sported their flaming orange shirts with the cartoonish Oriole logo on their caps, while the Pirates donned their bright yellow jerseys.

Such was life in the flamboyant 70s.

This is a little different.

The Steelers and Ravens wear the foreboding colors of black and purple, which will form a nice ensemble with the black and blue that is sure to develop.

Bad things happen when the Steelers and Ravens play. Ray Lewis broke Rashard Mendenhall's shoulder in 2008, costing him his rookie season. In the AFC championship game that year, Willis McGahee was carried off on a stretcher. Last month, Ben Roethlisberger's nose was mashed up and Heath Miller got a concussion.

For all the talk about Roethlisberger's escapades last March in Milledgeville, let's not forget Ray Lewis' exploits 11 years ago in Atlanta. There are going to be some bad boys battling on that field today.

It will be cold and there will be snow. Or maybe those flakes will be nuclear fallout.

This ain't "We Are Family." This is Armageddon.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

No dirty birds

By Mike Batista

Get your popcorn and butter ready. Part III of the latest Ravens-Steelers trilogy is coming to a theater near you. This time, the Ravens won't be doing the Steelers' dirty work. This movie will contain graphic violence.

But we'll get to all that later.

The Steelers enter the playoffs with a 12-4 record and a No. 2 seed in the AFC.

Sound familiar?

It's the same record and seed the Steelers had in 2008.

The parallels between the 2008 and 2010 Steelers don't end there, however.

  • In both seasons, the Steelers finished with convincing wins over the Browns. They closed 2008 with a 31-0 win and beat them 41-9 last Sunday.
  • In both seasons, all four of the Steelers' losses came to playoff teams. They lost to the Eagles, Giants, Colts and Titans in 2008 and the Ravens, Saints, Patriots and Jets in 2010.
  • In both seasons, the Steelers lost their last game in October to the defending Super Bowl champion. They lost to the Giants on Oct. 26, 2008 and to the Saints on Halloween this season.
  • In both seasons, the Steelers lost at home to a New York team.
  • In both seasons, one of the Steelers' losses ended with an incomplete pass into the end zone that could have won the game. In 2008, a Hail Mary fell short against the Colts. This season, they attempted a game-winning pass from the Jets' 10-yard line as time ran out.
  • In both seasons, the Steelers not only went 6-2 in the first and second half of the season, they went 3-1 in each quarter of the season.
  • In both seasons, they allowed the fewest points in the NFL, 223 in 2008 and 232 this season.
  • In both seasons, they won a game by one point. They beat the Chargers 11-10 in 2008 and the Dolphins 23-22 this season.
  • In both seasons, they essentially won the AFC North by winning in Baltimore in December, 13-9 in 2008 and 13-10 this season.
  • In both seasons, they lost convincingly to the top-seeded team in the AFC. They lost 31-14 to the Titans in 2008 and 39-26 to the Patriots this season.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, this Congruence at the Confluence won't extend into the playoffs.

Even without them actually playing, the 2010 playoffs haven't gone quite as well for the Steelers as they did two years ago.

In the 2008 wild-card round, the Chargers beat the Colts, one of the teams that beat the Steelers, then lost to the Steelers in the divisional playoffs.

The Ravens earned a date with the Steelers in the AFC championship game by upsetting the Titans, another team that beat the Steelers in 2008.

The Cardinals reached Super Bowl XLIII by beating the Eagles in the NFC championship game.

So on their way to winning Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers were one round away from facing three teams they lost to in the regular season.

The Chargers, Ravens and Cardinals did the Steelers' dirty work for them in the 2008 playoffs, and the Steelers thanked them all by beating them.

No such luck this time.

If the Steelers want to get to Super Bowl XLV, they'll not only need to handle the Ravens again Saturday at 4:30 at Heinz Field, they'll have to find a way to beat the Jets or Patriots in the AFC championship game.

The Ravens gave the Patriots a better game than the Steelers this season, taking them to overtime before losing in New England. There was a lot of talk about the Ravens hopefully offing the Patriots so the Steelers wouldn't have to face them.

But the Ravens don't want to be the Steelers' errand boys again. When the Jets' win locked them into a matchup against the Patriots next week, all the Ravens had to do was beat the Chiefs Sunday to earn a ticket to Pittsburgh. The Ravens want another shot at the Patriots just as much as the Steelers. Only one of them will get that shot.

The Steelers better be ready.

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."

Steelers play Jan. 15

Don't make plans for 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 15. The Steelers will host the Colts, Ravens or Chiefs in the AFC divisional playoffs, whichever team is the highest remaining seed.

The Steelers clinched a first-round bye with Sunday's 41-(3) 9 win over the Browns. Troy Polamalu only had to play a half. The only injury concern is a "stinger" suffered my Maurkice Pouncey.

Working on the column now. Talk to ya soon.
Nothing personal, Mundy, but we don't get quite as nervous when you limp around as we do when Troy limps around. Steelers 41-9
That's right Cribbs. You fall on that kickoff at your own 12 and take your whuppin'! No big returns for you
Timeout? Whaddaya doin Tomlin? Trying to freeze your own kicker before an FG attempt when you're up 35? Steelers 41-3
I hope someone got Byron Leftwich a health club membership for Christmas. Lookin' awful pudgy
Good call getting Polamalu out. He needs to start washing his hair now or he'll miss the flight home and will have to take a cab from Cleveland
Ahhh! Randle El to Ward. Memories of Christmas Eve 2005. Steelers 38-3
Steelers 31-3 at halftime. No need to see Polamalu again until he lines up in the back of the victory formation.
Nice pick by Ryan Clark, but man he needs a haircut. He's got the Barry Sanders 'fro goin' on.
There ya go, Mendenhall. Way to toughen up at the goal line. Steelers 21-3
I mean on 2nd down. Oops
Polamalu blew up play on 3rd down with leap over line of scrimmage. Basically took 4 points away from Browns. 14-3 Steelers.
Big Ben with some Manning-like gyrations before his sneak. 14-0 Steelers
See? I told you Polamalu should play ; ) OK maybe I didn't. 7-0 Steelers
Bob Hyland's Sports Page in White Plains. Where is everybody?
Polamalu will start. Figures I find out just after I shut off my computer.
Will He or Won't He?

By Mike Batista

It will be a game-time decision whether or not Troy Polamalu plays today.

If his Achilles injury is lagging at all, Polamalu should wear a hoodie and headphones today instead of a helmet and pads.

Yes, the Steelers have a lot at stake today. If they win, they're the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and get a first-round bye. If they lose, they're probably the No. 6 seed and face a much tougher road to the Super Bowl.

That said, if the Steelers can't beat the crappy Browns, with or without Polamalu, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs.

Oh, the Browns are dangerous. They had only one win last year, and they beat the Steelers in Cleveland.

Listen, the Steelers' loss in Cleveland last season came four days after their loss at home to the Raiders. They were still shell-shocked. The Steelers enter Cleveland this year in a much better frame of mind.

Polamalu's play before his injury might make this hard to remember, but the Steelers have won games without Polamalu being a major factor. He didn't do a hell of a lot when the Steelers beat the Browns in Pittsburgh 28-10 on Oct. 17.

Polamalu last played Dec. 12 against Cincinnati. If he sits today and the Steelers win, he'll have five weeks of rest before the divisional round of the playoffs. The Steelers will get a fresh Polamalu, like the one who blazed all over the field for a quarter and a half in the 2009 season opener. Like the one who had an interception in each of the first two games this season as well as a sideline-hurdling tackle at the 1-yard line late in a Week 2 win over the Titans.

That's the Polamalu the Steelers will need in the playoffs.

Ryan Mundy, get your helmet.