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Old 12-07-2010, 06:11 AM   #1
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Default On The Steelers: History says title well within reach

On The Steelers: History says title well within reach
Sunday night aftermath
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers now occupy the driver's seat in the AFC North and they are a team that feels more comfortable in that spot than NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson.

Give the Steelers a division lead this late in the season and they pull on the red Nike shirts and make like Tiger Woods used to on a Sunday. They have, in fact, blown fewer leads this late in the season than anyone -- not one since Bill Cowher took over as their coach in 1992 and Mike Tomlin followed in 2007.

The Steelers have come from behind to win division titles and they've followed an unprecedented path to win a Super Bowl, but when they've taken a lead this late in the season, they've never lost a division title, whether they competed in the six-team AFC Central or the current four-team AFC North over the past 18 seasons.

Their comeback 13-10 victory Sunday night in Baltimore thrust the Steelers into a one-game lead with a 9-3 record to the Ravens' 8-4. They also hold the tiebreaker leads with a better record in the division at 3-1 to 2-2, and a better record within the conference at 7-2 to 6-3.

The Steelers' next three games are at home before they finish Jan. 2 at Cleveland. Three of those teams have losing records including Sunday's foe, 2-10 Cincinnati.

The Steelers are in a favorable position both currently and historically for them.

"Basically, we're in control of our own destiny," linebacker James Harrison said. "As long as we do what we got to do, everything will be OK."

They have two division games left and as long as they win those games they would virtually lock up the division title and one of the two seeds in the AFC. With those seeds comes a first-week bye in the playoffs and then a home game. Also on the home schedule is 2-10 Carolina and the New York Jets.

"Four games left, it's in our control and we don't need any help," proclaimed Hines Ward. "We can't ask for anything better than that.

"We like where we're at."

Ward has experienced many of the lock-downs the Steelers put on division titles once they had the lead this late in the season. They did so in 2008, '07, '04, '02, '01, 1997, '96, '95, '94 and '92.

The only time the Steelers have blown a late lead in the division race since Chuck Noll took over as coach in 1969 occurred during the '90 season. Entering the final game, the Steelers were 9-6 and had a game lead over Cincinnati and Houston, tied for second at 8-7. The Steelers lost at Houston in the final game, 34-14, and missed the playoffs. The Oilers went as the division champs and Bengals as wild cards.

Sunday, the Bengals have a chance to return a favor to the Steelers, who knocked them out of the playoffs in 2006 with an overtime victory at Cincinnati. It's not likely the Bengals will knock the Steelers out of the playoffs but an upset victory would deliver a severe blow to their division title chances. The Bengals lost Sunday to the reigning Super Bowl champion Saints, 34-30, on a last-minute touchdown.

"Cincinnati's coming in, they're 2-10 but they still play tough football," Ward said. "We control our own destiny and that's all we can ask for."

It's not as if the Steelers have not experienced collapses through the years; their most notable occurred last season when they began 6-2 and lost five in a row to take themselves right out of the division race. However, once they have grabbed a lead this late, they almost always deliver a division championship.

"We're in a good spot right now but we just have to stay focused," said linebacker James Farrior, who has sacks in three consecutive games for the first time in his career. "There's a lot of football left, a long way to go.

"We have what, four games left? There's no time to relax. It's crunch time right now. We definitely can't rest on our laurels. We have to enjoy this victory for a night or two and get back to work."
Superman is back

A popular refrain on radio talk shows and in e-mails to newspapers through the first half of the season: What's wrong with Troy Polamalu?

The perennial Pro Bowl strong safety was playing like a Pro Bowler but he had set the bar so high, it wasn't enough. Perhaps the past two games might change that perception because Superman is back.

"He came through again!" Ward exclaimed. "That's two weeks in a row."

It was Polamalu's diving interception -- his fourth, twice as many as any other Steelers player -- at the 2 in Buffalo that may have saved the Steelers from losing in regulation Nov. 28. Sunday, the Steelers were losing when Polamalu blitzed and hit Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco from his blind side, karate-chopping the ball out of his hands as he ****ed to throw a pass.

The wisdom of throwing that pass while holding a four-point lead on second-and-5 at the 43 with the clock running down is something Ravens coach John Harbaugh will have to address -- not to mention Flacco apparently not seeing Polamalu lining up on the outside with no one to block him if he blitzed.

"I was pretty shocked to see it myself," Flacco said. "But that guy's made that play in his career."

Said Harbaugh: "We tried to stay aggressive. We called it because we thought it would get us a completion."

The Steelers, though, have come to expect such plays from Polamalu.

"He came up with a huge play, like Troy always does," Ward said. "Every game, I always say 'You're going to be special, there's going to be a point in this game where you're going to make a play,' and he came through."
Replacement for Sepulveda

Free-agent punter Ricky Schmitt, who worked out briefly with the Steelers in 2008, will be at the team's South Side facility today and could be signed as a replacement for Daniel Sepulveda.

Schmitt, who has been in various training camps with four other NFL teams, has kicked in just one regular-season game. He was one of the leading punters in college football when he attended NCAA Division II Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

The Steelers brought in Schmitt in October 2008 when they were looking for a replacement for Mitch Berger. That was the year Sepulveda missed the entire season with a torn ACL.

But they signed former Cleveland Browns punter Paul Ernster instead, only to later release Ernster and re-sign Berger, who punted for them in Super Bowl XLIII.

Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette contributed to this report. For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10341...#ixzz17QXynFPa
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