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Steelers running out of time to win another title in Roethlisberger Era

Tom Brady denied the Steelers a trip to the Super Bowl for the third time in his career Sunday, leading the Patriots to a 36-17 win over the Steelers in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium.

This loss didn’t come with the immediate heartbreak of last year’s playoff loss or some other Steelers’ playoff losses in the last decade. There was no Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble. There was no “What just happened” overtime touchdown pass from Tim Tebow. There was no 32-yard scramble on fourth-and-2 by David Garrard.

After their playoff loss at Denver last year, when Toussaint’s fumble set up the winning drive, Mike Tomlin talked about how he was looking forward to scouting for the draft. The Steelers were three minutes away from beating the eventual Super Bowl champions without Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. There was a sense that the Steelers, if they could stay healthy, had a legitimate shot to win their seventh Super Bowl in 2016.

All that optimism seemed laughable when the Steelers were 4-5 at midseason, but then they won nine straight. It was their longest winning streak since 2004, but the Patriots terminated both of those streaks in conference title games. They beat the Steelers 41-27 at Pittsburgh in 2004, ending their 15-game run.

Even in that game, the Steelers rallied. They fell behind by 21 and pulled to within 11.

On Sunday, there was no such tease.

This was the Steelers’ biggest margin of defeat in a playoff game since they lost 28-3 to the Drew Bledsoe-led Patriots at New England in the 1996 divisional round. Unlike last season in Denver, there will be no specific plays that haunt Steelers fans for the next eight months.

Instead of a “What if?” hanging over the offseason, there’s a sense of “Now what?”

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Steelers still can catch Patriots in Team of the Century race

Perhaps you’ve heard once, twice or 100 times this week that the Steelers have never beaten a Tom Brady-led Patriots team at Gillette Stadium.

That’s just what they’ll have to do to win the AFC championship game Sunday and advance to Super Bowl LI.

Steelers wins over the Patriots in any circumstance have been rare since Brady took Drew Bledsoe‘s job in 2001. Steelers fans remember those wins so fondly that they seem more frequent than they really are.

Since Bill Belichick resigned as HC of the NYJ, the Steelers are 3-9 against the Patriots. That’s right, to paraphrase Bob Uecker in “Major League,” just three, um, gosh darn wins.

If there’s any rivalry at all between the Steelers and Patriots, the Patriots own the scoreboard when it comes to regular-season wins, playoff wins and championships.

Let’s just say the last 16 years are a metaphor for a football game. We could call it the Team of the Century Bowl, and the Patriots’ four championships during that time represent a two-touchdown lead over the Steelers’ two championships.

When the Steelers took a historic 55-31 whoopin’ at Gillette Stadium in 2013, it said in this space that the Steelers could forget about ever calling the Patriots rivals in this era. And that was before the Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl in 2014.

The Steelers were two years removed from their last playoff berth, began that season 0-4 and dropped to 2-6 on that day in which Shamarko Thomas, yes Shamarko Thomas, actually tried to cover Rob Gronkowski. Brady was 36 at the time. The Steelers seemed so far away from contending for a championship that if it did happen, it would be after Brady retired.

How nice it was of Brady to put off retirement long enough to meet the Steelers one more time in an AFC championship game.

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Steelers vs. Chiefs: 5 burning questions facing Pittsburgh

The Steelers are in a better situation this year than they were heading into their divisional round playoff game last year.

Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell both are healthy and ready to go for Sunday’s game at Kansas City. Ben Roethlisberger‘s arm is fully functional. Whatever damage was done to his foot in garbage time of the Steelers’ wild-card win over the Dolphins, it was nothing close to what Vontaze Burfict inflicted in last year’s wild-card game.

That said, for the third-seeded Steelers (11-5) to reach the AFC championship game for the first time in six years, they have to win a divisional-round game on the road, which they’ve done just three times in their history.

The most recent was their shocking 21-18 win at Indianapolis in 2005. Before that? You have to go back to 1984, when they beat John Elway and the Broncos 24-17 at Denver.

It wouldn’t take such a monumental upset for the Steelers to beat the second-seeded Chiefs (12-4). According to Sports Book Review, the Steelers are 1.5-point underdogs. All the home teams are favored this weekend, but Vegas gives the Steelers the best chance to win among the underdogs in a game that has been moved from 1 p.m. to 8:20 p.m. because of ice storms in Kansas City.

There’s a certain dynamic in the divisional playoffs where teams coming off wild-card wins face teams that are out-of-sight, out-of-mind because they’ve had a first-round bye. This often inflates the visiting team’s stock.

While a Steelers win on Sunday is very realistic, there are plenty of reasons to beware the Chiefs.

Can the Steelers stop Tyreek Hill?

That’s the elephant-in-the-room question facing the Steelers in this game.

The Steelers allowed 24.7 yards per kickoff return this season, third-most in the league. They allowed allowed 9.6 yards per punt return, ninth-most in the league according to ESPN.com.

Rookie Tyreek Hill returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns this season. Hidden in the Steelers’ 43-14 win over the Chiefs at Pittsburgh in Week 4 were Hill’s two kickoff returns for a total of a 54 yards and two punt returns for 20 yards.

The Steelers were heavy favorites against the Patriots in the 2001 AFC championship game, but were burned on special teams. They lost 24-17 with the Patriots scoring touchdowns on a punt return and a blocked field goal.

The Steelers aren’t even favorites in this game, which gives them even less of a margin for error on special teams.

Can the Steelers beat Andy Reid following a bye?

Not only do the Steelers have to worry about a 5’10”, 185-pound missile on kickoff and punt returns, they also have to worry about that big tomato on the sideline.

Or at least that’s what Andy Reid looks like when he wears red.

The Chiefs earned a first-round bye with the No. 2 seed. Reid is 19-2 in his career coming off a bye week. That includes a 3-0 mark in the playoffs, although those three postseason wins came in another lifetime. He coached the Eagles to three straight divisional-round home wins from 2002-2004.

That much be ancient history, but Reid’s bye-week prowess is as evident as it’s ever been this season. The Chiefs had their bye after losing 43-14 at Pittsburgh, then in Week 6 went to Oakland and beat a 4-1 Raiders team 26-10. The Raiders won six straight after that, then went to Kansas City and lost 21-13.

The Chiefs won at Denver after last year’s bye week, beating the eventual Super Bowl champions 29-13. The Chiefs had won two straight before the bye week after a 1-5 start, but neither win was very convincing. They beat the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger and then beat the Lions at London.

But after the bye they showed they were for real by beating Denver, and ended up winning 11 in a row.

That’s what happens when Reid has two weeks to prepare.

Can Ben Roethlisberger take his show on the road?

Ben Roethlisberger’s road performance this season and the Chiefs’ penchant for takeaways are a bad combination for the Steelers.

Roethlisberger has thrown 20 touchdown passes and five interceptions at home this season. On the road, he’s thrown nine touchdown passes and eight interceptions. Roethlisberger has completed 70.8 percent of his passes at home and only 59.4 percent on the road.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, led the NFL with 33 takeaways and tied for the league lead with 18 interceptions.

Since the game-winning drive that brought the Steelers their sixth championship in 2008, Roethlisberger has thrown nine touchdown passes and nine interceptions in eight playoff games.

If Roethlisberger doesn’t take care of the ball Sunday, the Steelers will be lucky if they’re in position to win with a last-minute drive similar to Super Bowl XLIII.

Can the Steelers beat a legitimate starting quarterback?

Nobody puts Alex Smith on their list of the NFL’s top 10 quarterbacks. There’s no disputing that he’s a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL, but if he were a guy in the dating world he’d always be in the friend zone.

In the playoffs Smith has been a “friend” who can be trusted … with the football.

Smith has thrown 11 touchdown passes and one interception in five playoff games. He’s 2-3 in those games. He hasn’t brought the 49ers or the Chiefs to the Super Bowl, but he’s better than the last two quarterbacks the Steelers have beaten in playoff games. Last Sunday’s win came over backup Matt Moore and last year’s win at Cincinnati came against backup A.J. McCarron. In between, the Steelers lost to creaky-armed Peyton Manning.

The last time the Steelers faced a formidable starting quarterback in the playoffs, they lost to Joe Flacco and the Ravens in 2014.

But the Steelers did beat Andy Dalton on the road and Flacco at home in critical December games this year. It will take that kind of performance to keep Smith from busting out of the friend zone Sunday.

On the bright side, the Steelers are 5-2 against the Chiefs since Roethlisberger’s career started, and the Chiefs have never beaten the Steelers in a game that Roethlisberger has finished. Landry Jones started at Kansas City last season, a game the Chiefs won 23-13.

In 2009, the Chiefs beat the Steelers 27-24 in overtime. Roethlisberger left that game with a concussion.

How hard is it to win at Arrowhead Stadium?

The venue where the game will be played is one of the Steelers’ easier hurdles.

There is a certain mystique associated with the Chiefs’ home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium, but winning there isn’t as hard as it’s made out to be.

Since 2013, the Steelers and Chiefs both are 23-9 at home. They’re tied for the league’s seventh-best home record during that time. The Patriots’ 28-4 home record is the best. Arrowhead might have reclaimed the crowd-noise record from CenturyLink Field, but the Seahawks have a better home record (26-6) than the Chiefs since 2013. The Broncos are tied with the Seahawks for the second-best home record since 2013.

The Bengals are (23-7-2) are fourth in that category, the Packers and Cardinals (both 23-8-1) are tied for fifth and the Panthers join the Steelers and Chiefs in a tie for seventh.

The last four years are used as the time frame because the Chiefs hired Andy Reid as coach in 2013 and they’ve had a winning record every year since.

The Steelers are 10-7 all-time at Kansas City, but the last time they’ve beaten a Chiefs team that’s made the playoffs at Arrowhead was 1992.

The good news is that the two quarterbacks who have won at Arrowhead this year are the top two picks of the 2015 draft, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.

If they can do it, so can Roethlisberger.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

It’s OK for Steelers fans to hate the Dolphins

It’s hard for Steelers fans to hate the Dolphins as much as they hate the Bengals.

But they can try.

Sunday’s AFC wild card game at Heinz Field doesn’t come with the animosity of last year’s wild-card game. We don’t have the Twitter wars that we had last year between the Steelers and Bengals.

Part of that is because the Steelers don’t face the Dolphins twice a year. They lost to them 30-15 in Week 6 at Miami, but Ben Roethlisberger has faced them just seven times in his 13-year career. There isn’t enough familiarity to breed the contempt that exists between the Steelers and Bengals.

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Mike Tomlin can make Steelers great again

The Steelers have staged two of the greatest comebacks in recent franchise history this week.

First, they rallied from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Ravens 31-27 Sunday and clinch the AFC North.

Then on Tuesday, Mike Tomlin had a comeback for Terry Bradshaw‘s criticism of him last week.

The former Steelers quarterback said that Tomlin isn’t a great coach, that he’s more of a “cheerleader” guy. Tomlin acknowledged in his weekly news conference that he’s a long way from being a great coach, but also said that Bradshaw calling him a cheerleader was over the line.

“But what do I know?” Tomlin said via ESPN.com. “I grew up a Dallas fan. Particularly a (Thomas) ‘Hollywood’ Henderson fan.”

Henderson famously said that Bradshaw wouldn’t be able to spell “cat” if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a,’ and it seems as though Tomlin doesn’t disagree with that sentiment four decades later.

Bradshaw wouldn’t have come off as such a buffoon if he had said that Tomlin is only the third-best coach in Steelers history. In that case he would have been right, and there’s no shame in being the third-best coach in the history of a franchise that has won six Super Bowls.

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Le’Veon Bell driving Steelers offense like a Bus

Perhaps Dec. 11 should be a holiday in Pittsburgh.

Not only is it the day that Le’Veon Bell ran for a franchise-record 236 yards in the Steelers’ 27-20 win at Buffalo, it’s also the day of Jerome Bettis‘ last 100-yard rushing game.

Exactly 11 years before Bell’s performance for the ages on Sunday, Bettis ran for 101 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-9 win over the Bears at Heinz Field.

Both games were played in the snow, and while it’s hard to pick one run that defined Bell’s day on Sunday because there were so many of them, that 2005 game will forever be remembered for the Bus running over Brian Urlacher for a touchdown.

The Steelers had lost three in a row, and that Bettis-powered win over the Bears is what started their storied run to Super Bowl XL. The Steelers won four straight games to get into the playoffs and four more to become the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl.

That Urlacher pancaking is about all I’ve seen from that game, because I didn’t watch it. I was sort of disgusted with their three-game losing streak, so as Robin Williams put it in “Good Will Hunting,” I decided to “see about a girl” instead of watch the Steelers that day.

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LeSean McCoy will test Steelers’ improved run defense

Is anyone else nervous about the Steelers’ game Sunday at Buffalo?

The Steelers (7-5) have won three straight and they’re 12-2 in December (counting regular-season games in January) since 2013. Steelers wins have become almost as much a part of December as candy canes and carolers.

Throw in the fact that the Steelers are 5-0 against the Bills in this century, including three wins at Buffalo, and it’s easy to relax on this game.

Don’t do it.

It’s not that this is a trap game. The Bills (6-6) aren’t the kind of cupcake opponent the Steelers have had trouble with in recent years. Even if they were, the Steelers have been working hard to kick their habit of losing to bad teams, winning at Cleveland in Week 11 and at Indianapolis in Week 12.

Those victories over the winless Browns and the Scott Tolzien-led Colts weren’t enough to convince most people that the Steelers had fully recovered from their four-game losing streak. The Steelers might have sold a few more people with last Sunday’s win over the Giants at Heinz Field, but for us to really believe in the Steelers they need to beat a team on the road that’s fighting for its playoff life. A win over the Bills would restore that Week 1 swagger they had at Washington.

But it won’t be easy, because while the Steelers’ run defense has improved vastly since Ezekiel Elliott broke Pittsburgh’s heart in Week 10, none of the running backs they’ve faced over the last three weeks come close to LeSean McCoy.

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Le’Veon Bell’s best milestone would be playoff game

If Le’Veon Bell runs for 100 or more yards Sunday against the Giants at Heinz Field, it will be the first time in his career that he’s done it in three straight games.

He’ll have his work cut out for him. The Giants haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season and are third in the league with 3.5 yards allowed per rush attempt.

Even if Bell falls short of the century mark, all he needs is 74 yards to pass Rashard Mendenhall for ninth place on the Steelers’ all-time rushing list.

Bell broke into the top 10 on that list last week at Indianapolis, passing Walter Abercrombie. The 24-year-old Bell, who has run for 3,476 yards, is already racking up the career milestones, but before he leaves Mendenhall in his dust it should be noted that Mendenhall did some things that Bell hasn’t done. He appeared in playoff games and helped the Steelers get to a Super Bowl.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Week 13 Matchup preview

Entering their inter-conference home matchup against the New York Giants on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers look to accomplish something they haven’t done all season long, which is to win three games in a row. Two previous back-to-back victories resulted in losses in their next contest.

Avoiding that situation again will involve trying to defeat one of the NFL’s hottest teams, with the Giants looking for their seventh consecutive win. In contrast, the Steelers’ last two victories have come against the winless Cleveland Browns and an Indianapolis Colts team that was missing quarterback Andrew Luck.

One of the chief reasons that New York has been able to run off their string of wins can be directly tied to the play of their defense. The Giants are tied with their division rival, the Dallas Cowboys, in sixth place among all 32 teams when it comes to points allowed at 213 in 11 games.

New York’s opponents have attempted to beat them by going through the air, with the Giants having the third-highest number of passes thrown against them. One of the reasons that hasn’t worked is that not only are they tied for the second-fewest touchdown passes allowed with 10, but their ability to pick off passes to stop drives matches that number. On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers obviously have to gameplan against Eli Manning’s number one target Odell Beckham, who is coming off a two-touchdown game against the Browns.

That means that the combination of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown will be challenged to find a way to break through that roadblock. Brown has found the end zone 10 times this season, so whether he manages to score on Sunday may serve as a window into the final result.

Another person that will be the object of New York’s focus will be Le’Veon Bell, who’s dangerous on the ground and through the air. His rushing totals may suffer if the Giants maintain their 2016 success, since they’re tied for third-best in the NFL by allowing only 3.5 yards per carry and sixth-best in fewest yards allowed.

The defender that Roethlisberger needs to be worried about is Jason Pierre-Paul, who has seven sacks this season. That’s somewhat misleading since Pierre-Paul also has 20 hurries. On Sunday, he was even adept enough to return a fumble from Cleveland’s Josh McCown for a touchdown. That means the onus is on the Pittsburgh offensive line to keep Pierre-Paul in check.

The Steelers have struggled when it comes to hosting NFC teams, holding a 3-4 record since 2013, including a last-second loss to the Dallas Cowboys on November 13th. Their nine days of rest will be an asset, since that’s something that’s agreed with them in home games after a win, with an 8-1 record over the last 25 years in that category.

 

Steelers finally feast on Thanksgiving, rout Colts

The Steelers broke a Thanksgiving tradition Thursday by actually winning on Thanksgiving.

Except maybe for Antonio Brown‘s first career game with three touchdown catches, nothing happened in the Steelers’ 28-7 win at Indianapolis that will be talked about a decade or two from now.

Pat McAfee‘s successful fake punt is just the kind of thing that tends to happen to the Steelers on Thanksgiving, but it ultimately will be washed away from memory because it had little to do with the game’s outcome.

From the standpoint of the national TV audience, it was a pretty boring game.

But for the Steelers on Thanksgiving, boring is good. They’ll take boring, because this uneventful game will not add to their archive of infamous Thanksgiving moments.

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