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Old 01-12-2009, 06:18 AM   #1
mesaSteeler
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Default Steeler Ball returns to Pittsburgh

Steeler Ball returns to Pittsburgh
by Don Banks
Sports Ilisurtrated

PITTSBURGH -- Well at least we can count on something in this one-of-a-kind, up-is-down 2008 NFL playoffs. The rest of the league went all topsy-turvy on us this weekend in the divisional round of the playoffs, but bless their status-quo-respecting souls, the Steelers are still the Steelers.

Wild-card weekend was supposedly last week, but Pittsburgh at least restored some sense of order to a wild NFL playoff landscape Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, quelling the San Diego Chargers 35-24 (Recap | Box) to become the only team to survive the supposed benefit of a first-round bye.

"We said that going into this one,'' Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "With every home team that had a bye losing, we said, 'Let's be the one that turns it around.'''

The AFC's No. 2 seed was indeed that team, thanks to a very familiar winning formula that has worked in Pittsburgh for about the last, oh, 40 years or so. The Steelers bludgeoned the Chargers with a power running game that has been in short supply for most of this season, beat them up physically on the line of scrimmage all day long, and won enough of the key third downs to comfortably put away No. 4-seeded San Diego, the last of the upset-minded divisional-round road teams.

This was a game that Pittsburgh seized control of late in the first half, and then made its own with a dominating third-quarter performance that may never be topped. The Chargers held the ball for all of 17 seconds in the third quarter, which was all the time it took for San Diego to run one play and have it result in a Larry Foote interception of a tipped Philip Rivers pass. All of that came amid a 28-3 Steelers run that took any remaining wind out of San Diego's sails and put Pittsburgh (13-4) in its third AFC Championship Game in five years, next week at home against division rival Baltimore (13-5).

"What else would you expect; us and the Ravens?'' Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "It would be a big game if it was a scrimmage. It just happens to be the AFC Championship Game.''

Some might have expected nothing less than a Baltimore-Pittsburgh AFC title game showdown, but who really knew what to expect this weekend when top-seeded Tennessee in the AFC and the No. 1 Giants and No. 2 Panthers all went down in flames before the Chargers-Steelers divisional-round finale even began? The upset trend gave even the keep-your-eyes-on-the-prize Tomlin kind of queasy.

"As the weekend went on, it became evident that it wasn't good to be the home team,'' Tomlin said. "I was probably more concerned than our players were, though. We were confident; not overly so, [but] grounded. They just went about doing what they came here to do today.''

Boy, did they. The Steelers ground out 165 yards rushing on a whopping 42 carries, with a healthy Willie Parker rebounding to account for 146 of those. They also completely stuffed San Diego's Darren Sproles-led running game (12 carries for 15 yards), and protected the recently concussed Roethlisberger as if he were a fragile heirloom (just one sack for minus-4 yards).

When you added it all up, and threw in a 67-yard Santonio Holmes first-quarter punt return touchdown for good measure, it was the kind of thorough, confidence-building performance by Pittsburgh that leaves the Steelers looking better positioned than any of the NFL's other final four qualifiers to make it to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII. The Steelers just put away a very hot (five wins in a row) and talented Chargers team, even after spotting them a breathtakingly quick 7-0 lead just 3:01 into the game.

And they did it while resoundingly answering any lingering questions about their once-dominant run game, the iffy health of their franchise quarterback, and whether or not they could raise the intensity of their league-leading defense to a playoff level.

"We put up 35 points tonight, so I think we showed people and shut the critics up that we can score points if we have to,'' said Roethlisberger, who was an effective 17 of 26 for 181 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions and a 98.4 passer rating. "That third quarter, it was good. It was fun. We think we can really take people's hearts if we can do that. When you can pound them and run the ball, the defense gets demoralized a little bit. It's one of those things that you just put it right down their throats.''

Pittsburgh was certainly both lucky and good in its dominant third quarter. The Steelers tipped that Rivers pass at the line of scrimmage before Foote picked it off to blunt the first San Diego possession of the period, and they later got the ball back after a Mitch Berger punt clanked off the back of Eric Weddle's helmet, when the unsuspecting Chargers safety was dropping into punt return blocking duty. That's how you build a 14:43 to :17 time of possession advantage in one quarter, grinding the San Diego defense into the ground while giving your top-ranked defense a ridiculous amount of rest.

"It was a great sign to see our offense control the clock and keep their offense off the field,'' Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "That just totally gave us all the confidence in the world. We just got the ball back in the third quarter and controlled the clock all the way down the field. I felt like that's when we took control of that game and took the air out of them a little bit.''

The return of Steeler Ball is eminently well-timed, because here come the red-hot Ravens, who have been taking the hearts out of a few opponents themselves this postseason with a blend of stout defense, a running game, and steady, turnover-free quarterbacking. Pittsburgh has already beaten Baltimore twice this season, but by narrow margins: 23-20 in overtime at home in Week 4, and 13-9 at Baltimore in Week 15, the game in which a late, disputed Holmes touchdown decided the outcome.

"It's going to be a battle to play a team three times in one year, especially a division opponent, with the rivalry we have,'' Roethlisberger said. "It's going to be one for the ages.''

One for the ages might be a mouthful, but I'm willing to forgive Big Ben for the hyperbole. After just taking part in an old-style Steelers win, he probably had a reservoir of respect built up for the way things have long been done in Pittsburgh. After all, the Steelers and their sense of playoff-winning tradition was the only thing we had to count on in this most unpredictable of NFL postseason weekends.


Find this article at:
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/200...ers/index.html
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Old 01-12-2009, 06:45 AM   #2
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Default Re: Steeler Ball returns to Pittsburgh

Looks like Pitt used the bye week to full advantage to make adjustments, add new wrinkles, etc.

Frankly-I was shocked how the other 3 bye teams just **** the bed this weekend. Nothing against the Ravens, Cards, and Eagles, but the Titans, Panthers, and Giants just looked very physically, mentally, and emotionally unprepared. What happened? Did their coaching staffs decide to go to Cabo for a week?
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