Wednesday, January 25, 2006

AFC in the Can: Pittsburgh being
disrespected like a true champion

Black and gold and red all over Even though I wasn't rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers to make the Super Bowl -- I was definitely not rooting for that -- there's a chance their victory in the AFC Championship Game will bring about something wonderful. It might finally muzzle the nitwits who neither understand nor appreciate the elegance of the NFL playoff system and would prefer it be replaced with a model more along the lines of, say, the everyone's-a-winner National Hockey League. You know their gripe: If Team A wins its division with a 10-6 record, it's guaranteed to play at least one home playoff game. Meanwhile, Team B could finish 12-4 but be forced to go on the road as a wildcard because it came in second in its division to a two-dicked gorilla that went 14-2. Team B, the thinking goes, has been screwed by the system and has no shot at the Super Bowl. This is a weak argument made by weak minds, and the Steelers just blew it away. Pittsburgh not only proved that a wilcard can win three straight road playoff games, it absolutely steamrolled the opposition in doing so.

Let me restate my policy on home playoff games: If you want to play at home, then win your division. Simple as that. Why'd the Steelers have to play three road games? Because they started the season with terrible backup quarterbacks, which cost them at least two games, which cost them the division title. Why'd the Jacksonville Jaguars have to pay on the road in New England, even though their record was better than the Patriots' by two games? Because the Patriots did what it took to win their division while the Jaguars couldn't take care of their own business. It doesn't matter one whit that the 12-4 Jags were stuck behind the 14-2 Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South. If Jacksonville had just beaten Indy in the regular season, then the Jaguars would have been home for the playoffs and the Colts would have been the ones getting their asses kicked in Foxboro, again. A wildcard spot, see, is a second chance for a team that couldn't get it done in Weeks 1 through 17. Any team getting a new lease on life has no business haggling over the terms.

What's funny, of course, is that while the pencilnecks were getting worked up over the injustice of it all, the Steelers just taped up their ankles and got ready to go out and kick ass. They knew that they had only themselves to blame for their playoff position. What's more, they understood that if a team isn't tough enough to win three straight on the road, then it doesn't deserve to go to the Super Bowl. That's the least-understood part of the playoff process: Any team that aspires to be called NFL champions should be capable of traveling the toughest road to that goal. The teams that post the best record in the regular season should be able to do it, too; they've just earned a head start with their performance. You didn't hear the Steelers complaining, did you? Well, actually you did, but it wasn't about having to go on the road. To the contrary, the Steelers have for years been such an embarrassment at home in the playoffs that this time around they were all but begging to be kept away from Heinz Field. And look how it worked out for them.

The Steelers haven't been complaining about road games. What they have been complaining about is the same thing every team has been conplaining about this year: Lack of respect. Or, rather, "lack" of "respect." Not satisfied with the praise they've received for making the Super Bowl, the Steelers -- and, of course, their fans -- are sore that people weren't praising them enough before the playoffs started. Here's Ben Roethlisberger, following up his three amazing playoff performances with a dismaying moment of de rigueur petulance:
"Everyone expected us to lose the third game, the second game and this game. No one believed in us but us."
I'm not disputing what Roethlisberger is saying, because for the most part he's right -- "everyone," in the wounded-athlete-ego sense, did expect them to lose at some point here. But holy hell, Big Ben, what have the Steelers done in the past decade to make people think otherwise? Bill Cowher is a fine coach and an impressive hominid, but his tenure in Pittsburgh had been one playoff disaster after another. Prior to 2005, the Steelers had made the playoffs in nine out of Cowher's 13 years and came out losers each time. Five times they had played for the AFC title, and they lost four of those games (and they nearly lost the fifth, too, to a 9-7 Colts team that was just happy to be there). Just last year Roethlisberger and the Steelers finished 15-1 yet were thoroughly demolished by the Patriots in the AFC title game. People tend to remember this stuff, Ben. This year, Pittsburgh opened the playoffs against Cincinnati, who had won the last meeting between the teams and taken the AFC North title. Was it unreasonable for people to think the Bengals might win? Then, having beaten a Bengals team playing without its Pro Bowl quarterback, the Steelers next traveled to Indianapolis, which also had won the last meeting between the teams. Was it preposterous to think the Colts might win that one, too? Then came the 14-3 Denver Broncos, who were unbeaten at home, yadda yadda yadda.

So yes, Ben, coming into the 2005 playoffs, "everyone" expected the Steelers to lose. To expect otherwise would have been to give you and your team credit for something you hadn't done -- to give you respect that you hadn't yet earned. Now we know just how good your team is, being favored to win the Super Bowl and all. Wouldn't you prefer it that way? Wouldn't you rather prove yourself on the field than just be anointed the favorite like a certain team in Indianapolis?

Oh yeah, that team in Indianapolis ...

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is the most polarizing player in the NFL: Many people just love him, but even greater numbers appear to despise him -- often for utterly irrational reasons. Those who hate Manning, in fact, hate him so much that they're willing to denigrate their own teams in their zeal to drag him down. After the Steelers beat the Colts a week ago Sunday, Pittsburgh fans rejoiced not just because their team was still alive in the hunt, but also because Manning had been put in his place. Just like New England fans in 2003 and 2004, Steeler Nation could not bring itself to say: "Manning is a great quarterback, and we absolutely shut him down! We're awesome!" Instead, they declared: "Manning sucks!" Which leads to the obvious question: If he sucks, what does beating him prove?

Anyway, the anti-Peyton crowd has been feasting for more than a week on what Manning said to the media after the heavily favored Colts (listening, Ben?) lost to the Steelers:
"I'm trying to be a good teammate here. Let's just say we had some problems in protection. I'll give Pittsburgh credit for the blitzes and their rush. Those guys rushed. But we did have some protection problems."
If you've spent the past year arguing that Manning is not such a bad guy, as Down and Distance has, this is enough to make you throw up your hands. It's not that he criticized his blockers for letting him get knocked around like David Gest back there. Players commonly lash out in frustration after emotionally draining games. What pushed Manning's comment over the line into toxic territory was the first sentence: "I'm trying to be a good teammate here." With those eight words, Manning signaled that he wasn't just speaking from frustration, that he had thought about what he was going to say, and that he wanted the people watching to know that he was about to shove his offensive line under the team bus.

The bitch of it is, Manning's statement about his lack of protection is as accurate at Roethlisberger's comments on the Steelers' lack of, uh, respect. The Indianapolis line did indeed have trouble protecting Manning. But like Roethlisberger, Manning was coming at his point from the entirely wrong direction. Take away the opening line about trying to be a good teammate, and the spin on his comments would be "Look at how frustrated Peyton is" rather than "Look at what a bad teammate Peyton is." Nothing Manning says is ever going to get the haters into his fan club, but a calculated head shot like that will knock some of the fence-sitters over to the other side. And it won't matter how many aw-shucks MasterCard commercials he makes; once someone turns to the anti-Manning side of the Force, there's no coming back.

But to talk about the Colts at all this week is to play right into the little world of disrespect that Roethlisberger and his teammates have dreamed up, so instead let's direct our full energy to the AFC Championship Game. Final score: Steelers 34, Broncos 17. Let's see how we did on the prop bets we set up last week:

Interceptions thrown by Roethlisberger
Our prediction: 0. Actual outcome: 0.
Passing yards for Roethlisberger
Our prediction: Over 300. Actual outcome: 275.
Passing TDs for Roethlisberger
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 2.
Receptions by Hines Ward
Our prediction: 4. Actual outcome: 5.

It seemed obvious that Denver was going to follow the same game plan that teams have been using against Pittsburgh all year: Stack up against the run and make Roethlisberger beat you. As we saw in Indianapolis in the divisional round, that game plan is a recipe for disaster, as No. 7 is quite capable of tearing you a new one if you bend over for him. I knew Roethlisberger was going to have a big day; what I didn't count on was the Steelers working on a short field most of the afternoon because of Denver turnovers. That's the only reason he didn't top 300 yards. It was also clear that the Steelers were going to spread the ball around, which explains the low catch count for Ward.

Total rushing yards for Pittsburgh
Our prediction: Less than 150. Actual outcome: 90.
Rushing TDs for Jerome Bettis
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 1.
Sacks by Pittsburgh defense
Our prediction: 4. Actual outcome: 3.

With the Denver defense playing run, it naturally follows that Pittsburgh wasn't going to move the ball much on the ground, and they didn't. Of course, they didn't have to, because they were getting all they needed through the air. As it did in Indianapolis, the Steeler defense appeared to spend much of the game in the Denver backfield. Jake Plummer went down only three times, but that was because he was able to repeatedly scramble out of harm's way rather than just bounce up and down like Slinky Legs Manning until someone came to take his head off.

Interceptions thrown by Jake Plummer
Our prediction: 2. Actual outcome: 2.
Passing yards for Plummer
Our prediction: Under 300. Actual outcome: 223.
Passing TDs for Plummer
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 1.
Touchdowns by Jeb Putzier
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 0.
Total Denver rushing yards
Our prediction: Over 150. Actual outcome: 97.
Rushing TDs for Ron Dayne
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 0.
Sacks by Denver defense
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 2.

The predictions for Plummer turned out to be dead-on. The others ... not so much. Thanks in large measure to Plummer turnovers, the Steelers were ahead by three TDs by halftime, so the Broncos were pretty much forced to pack up their running game until September. Forty-one of Denver's 97 rushing yards came on the final drive, when the Steelers were content to let them run all over the field so long as they stayed inbounds. Because the game became a blowout, we never got to see whether Mike Shanahan would try to cross up the Steelers by throwing to Putzier in the red zone for the first time all year. Seeing as how the name Putzier has become synonymous with "benched inside the 20" in football commentary, I was convinced Plummer would be throwing TDs to his big lovable lump of a tight end, provided he got the chance. He didn't get the chance. Dayne didn't, either.

Coin flip winner
Our prediction: Pittsburgh. Actual outcome: Denver.
First points scored
Our prediction: Antwaan Randle El. Actual outcome: Jeff Reed.
False start penalties on Pittburgh
Our prediction: 3. Actual outcome: 1.
Personal fouls on Denver
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 0.
Total points scored by defense/special teams (excluding kicks)
Our prediction: 6. Actual outcome: 0.

One could certainly argue that the Pittsburgh defense was directly responsible for 10 points, but we're being strict constructionists here, so no dice.

On the radio Monday morning, I heard someone say: "Pittsburgh won the game, but Denver made it a rout." I don't know who said it, but it's the most accurate overall summary of the AFC title game. Just as they did against the Colts, the Steelers came out throwing against a defense that was daring them to throw. Just as they did against the Colts, the Steelers took a big early lead. This week, however, the Steelers also refused to let the opponent get close enough to sniff victory. That was obvious when the Broncos all but quit with three minutes to go.

Despite all the talk about Jake The Mistake, Plummer didn't play a horrible game. Yes, he turned the ball over three times (the fumble while being sacked on fourth-and-10 doesn't count), but he kept coming back and trying to make plays. It isn't Plummer's fault that the Broncos defense couldnt stop short passes, intermediate passes or long passes. Plummer wasn't the one playing eight yards off the receiver on third-and-2. Plummer didn't lose it for the Broncos, but he didn't play the game he needed to in order to win. In the end, it doesn't matter. The fact is, the Steelers rolled into Denver and wiped their feet on the home team. The Broncos were both outplayed and outcoached. (Note to Tiki Barber: That's how you're supposed to phrase it.) And the Steelers are going to win the Super Bowl. Happy now, Ben?

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