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Old 01-22-2011, 09:11 PM   #1
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Default Steelers: NFL's best franchise?

Steelers: NFL's best franchise?

A column by Reggie Hayes
of The News-Sentinel

Despite sabotaging the Indianapolis Colts' playoff dreams twice – thwarting Jim “Captain Comeback” Harbaugh in 1995 and tripping Nick “It's just a flesh wound” Harper 10 years later – it's time to give the Pittsburgh Steelers their due.

As soon as they escort New York Jets coach Rex Ryan's ego off center stage, the Steelers will be back in the Super Bowl and proving again what ought to be obvious: They're the NFL's best franchise.

You can rehash the recent Patriots vs. Colts debate over their flashy won-lost records and their model-marrying, commercial pitchmen quarterbacks. Fact is they're sitting at home this weekend.

The Steelers are in the AFC Championship game against the Jets on Sunday, their 15th conference title game since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. They're looking at the possibility of an eighth Super Bowl appearance, which would tie the record of the Dallas Cowboys, who haven't done squat lately. (That last note was added to appease Steelers fans appalled at the idea of sharing anything with the Cowboys.)

The Steelers already own the ultimate NFL record: six Super Bowl wins.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't do well with his free time but he could win his third Super Bowl title, which would bring him even with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

All the Steelers have to do is beat the Jets. That's no easy task, as Brady and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning can attest. But I wouldn't bet against them.

The Jets beat the Steelers 22-15 in Week 15. You would think that would have led Ryan to spend this week boasting about his team's inevitable repeat win, perhaps making it “personal” against James Harrison. Instead, Ryan apparently took a vow of silence, interrupted only by genuflecting on the awesomeness of the Steelers. Curious. Was he trying to throw the Steelers off, since they were bracing for a trash-talk marathon? Was he listening to Roger Goodell, who told all teams to turn down the yapping? Who knows?

It doesn't really matter. The Steelers almost always do their talking on the field, with their play.

I'm sure Pittsburgh looked at the first Jets game, played without safety Troy Polamalu and tight end Heath Miller, with a critical eye. The Steelers were one Roethlisberger completion from winning at the end. Maybe Miller makes the difference.

Polamalu, who made little to no impact in the Steelers' win over the Ravens last week, will undoubtedly raise his play because of two motivational factors: He's faced some criticism for his invisibility last week, and he's heard others consider the Jets' Darrelle Revis the best defensive back in the game.

Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez dealt well with the Steelers' pressure in the first game, completing 19-of-29 passes for 170 yards and running for a touchdown. That's tough to do twice.

Here's where I like the Steelers most in this game: They're the toughest team in the NFL against the run, and everything the Jets do is set up by the run. If the Steelers slow LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, it'll free various attacks designed by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to rattle Sanchez. I cannot believe they showed him everything last time, especially with Polamalu out of the game.

I also like Roethlisberger in this environment. Off the field, he's the poster child for perceived entitlement and frat-boy excess. On the field, he's as close to Joe Montana cool as Brady, maybe more so, considering Brady's meltdown against the Jets. Roethlisberger is 9-2 in playoff games. While too many factors enter the mix to rest everything on a quarterback's playoff won-lost record, it's hard to argue against 9-2.

Roethlisberger's first big playoff clutch moment came against the Colts, when his shoestring tackle of Harper (stabbed in the leg by his wife the night before) saved a potential game-winning touchdown in their playoff win in 2005.

No current quarterback is stronger and calmer under pressure than Roethlisberger. He keeps plays alive and he has the arm for critical escapes. His five interceptions this season marked his career best, although he did miss four games because of his disciplinary suspension. Still, his previous low was nine in 14 games.

If this game comes down to its expected physical nature, the Steelers have the edge. Their defense has been more physical and more successful longer than the Jets. The big concern about hitting defenseless receivers or going helmet-to-helmet has turned into a “see no evil” approach. It's as if Harrison's 27 fines never happened now. That favors the Steelers and their ability to intimidate and annihilate.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin set a tone with this team in September when he didn't flinch while Roethlisberger was suspended.

He coached the Steeler Way. It works, better than most anyone else's.
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