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Old 12-04-2011, 07:56 AM   #1
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Default As season hits final stretch, Steelers have little margin for error

As season hits final stretch, Steelers have little margin for error

By Ralph N. Paulk
Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Steelers, like most perennial playoff contenders, understand the 16-game NFL regular season is a marathon instead of a sprint.

In reality, they have been forced to pace themselves mostly because of a rash of early-season injuries. At times, the Steelers are slow-starters, which partly accounts for a humbling 35-7 season-opening defeat in Baltimore.

With five games remaining including today's rematch at Heinz Field with Cincinnati in a key AFC North matchup the Steelers are confident they have a strong enough kick to overtake the rival Ravens down the stretch.

"Obviously, we've been in these situations before," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "It's about playing good ball at the right time."

The Steelers, too, are nearly at full strength for the first time this season save another head injury to strong safety Troy Polamalu and a still-questionable hamstring for linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who this week practiced for the first time in more than a month.

"We know what it takes to make a run to the Super Bowl," Woodley said. "It seems that things are coming together at the right time."

However, the Steelers might have spotted the Ravens enough of a cushion that the odds are stacked against them in securing one of the top two AFC playoff seeds. Baltimore swept the season series to claim the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Ravens only potential roadblock toward the division title is a rematch with the Bengals in the regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

At least, that's the way it looks on paper. The Ravens' next four opponents all have losing records. They play today in Cleveland where they have won four of the past five games.

The Ravens, though, are the league's version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They pounced on playoff contenders Pittsburgh, Houston and New York Jets. Then dropped their hands in getting sucker punched by Seattle and Jacksonville, teams with a combined 7-15 record.

"To say that we have had an up-and-down season, I don't think it's correct," Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's just we haven't played well against some teams that people would expect us to beat."

The Steelers play a slightly more challenging schedule, which includes a Monday night game in San Francisco (9-2) in two weeks. They can't afford to slip up against St. Louis (9-2) and Cleveland (4-7), which they play Thursday night and in Week 17 on New Year's Day.

"You can't worry about your schedule," wide receiver Antonio Brown said. "Baltimore lost two games to teams they probably should have beaten, but they've won games they should have lost."

The Steelers should have won a game they lost a disheartening 23-20 setback to visiting Baltimore on Nov. 6. They surrendered the game-winning score with eight seconds to go. The Steelers practically gift-wrapped Baltimore's victory when a Flacco-Torrey Smith connection silenced a once-jubilant crowd.

The seemingly rusty Steelers, with their wheels squeaking and their motor sputtering following a bye week, nearly tripped up in Kansas City last Sunday.

"We were playing a team in Kansas City that was fighting for their lives," said nose tackle Chris Hoke. "The Bengals and Browns are hungry to beat us, so we have to be careful and even more prepared."

"The thing is we just didn't have a really good game," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "It had nothing to do with the bye week. The best thing we can do is not let it happen this week."

The Steelers can't have a lapse in concentration, especially if any of the other division leaders New England, Oakland and Houston stumble to give them an opening to secure at least one home playoff game if Baltimore cannot win the division.

"We're not looking at having to win out as a bad thing," free safety Ryan Clark said. "It's helped push us into playoff mode already."

The Steelers have thrived in these situations many times before. Only this time, the Ravens and the Bengals appear to be tougher nuts to crack in perhaps the league's most competitive division.

"I don't know if our prior success gives us an advantage, but it does give us confidence," Keisel said. "A certain part of you goes back to that knowledge of winning."

The Steelers and Ravens have far more playoff cache than Cincinnati. The Bengals, with only two playoff appearances the past two decades, can realistically envision their playoff aspirations today by avenging a 24-17 loss to the Steelers three weeks ago.

"It's a big one for us," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "(Cincinnati) will come out fired up."

What the Bengals lack most is playoff experience. They have boldly moved all in with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton while two of the league's most-experienced teams hedge every bet with incalculable scrutiny in an effort to strengthen their hand when it's time to ante up down the stretch.

"I think (Dalton) has the ability to withstand the fires very well," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said.

But Dalton imploded under pressure with a chance to hold serve at home against the Steelers. He threw two fourth-quarter interceptions, then followed up with an inconsistent performance in a 31-24 loss at Baltimore.

Roethlisberger and Flacco have been shaky, at times, too. But their experience provides the Steelers and Ravens with a decisive advantage with the postseason on the horizon.

"As an organization, we've been in a lot of these runs," Clark said. "It's a plus having the same group of guys, some of whom have played in three Super Bowls in five years. We can use that to our advantage, but it's not our sole motivation.

"For us, it's not about getting the 1 or 2 seed. It's about winning every game. We want to finish this thing out, but we're singularly focused on beating Cincinnati."

It's conceivable that despite 13 wins the Steelers could be on the road for all three conference playoffs games including a scenario that sends them out west to face either Oakland or Denver in a wildcard matchup.

"We have to finish strong, because we control our own destiny," Woodley said.

Not really. Actually, the Steelers are in the unenviable position of scoreboard watching as they pursue a pass into the divisional playoff round.

"The only thing we can control is what we do," linebacker James Harrison said. "We don't need to scoreboard watch."

Yet, human nature suggests the Steelers will have one eye on the scoreboard and the other on the Browns if the No.1 or No.2 playoff seed is up for the grabs on New Year's Day.

"It's going to come down to the end," linebacker James Farrior said. "It's going to be a dogfight. It'll be in the back of our minds, but we've got to stay focus to stay in the hunt for the No.1 seed."

Ralph N. Paulk can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923 .

Read more: As season hits final stretch, Steelers have little margin for error - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsbur...#ixzz1fZehooXH
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