Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Payback Is a Mother

If you take nothing else from this blog, you should understand one very simple lesson: the playoffs are a completely different world than the regular season. Last season the Steelers went 15-1 and dominated the Patriots in their meeting on Halloween, but got their asses handed to them in the AFC Championship by a New England team that just wanted it more. From the very first day of training camp this year, Bill Cowher has been telling his team that regular season records don’t mean shit in January. The Steelers finished the 2005 season 11-5, but anyone who watches the Steelers as religiously as I do realizes that they are a much better team than their 15-1 counterparts last season. Lessons in the playoffs cannot be learned in the regular season, which is one of the biggest reasons that teams making their first playoff appearances have fared relatively poorly the last two weekends. Last year the Steelers were the team with a rookie QB making his first post-season start, and the Steelers were clearly not where they needed to be. There were no excuses offered for the embarrassing loss to the Pats in last year’s AFC Championship, and the Steelers knew that if they wanted to get to the Super Bowl this season they would have to get better, not in terms of improving their record, but rather in having what it takes to stand toe-to-toe with the best the NFL has to offer and being able to come out on top.

Every year the Colts enter the tournament with the national media praising their unstoppable offense, and every year they exit after another emasculating loss. Each time, without failure, newspapers and websites are flooded with commentary expressing shock that someone could possibly slow down, let alone shut down, the Colts (and mark my words, in ten months the Colts will once again be the favorites to win Super Bowl XLI). Obviously the football press has very short memories. It wasn’t too long ago that Manning and the Colts had the notoriety of being unable to win a first round game. More recently, losses to the Patriots in snowy Foxborough the previous two years have been deemed to be the only stumbling blocks on their way to their alleged destiny. A variety of excuses have been offered for the Colts’ playoffs woes and their Achilles heels are well known: they have a shitty defense, they can’t play in cold weather, and they can’t beat the Patriots. But this season was supposed to be the season when the Colts would exorcise their demons of playoffs past. Over the last two years Tony Dungy has managed to couple Indy’s superb offense with a revamped defense, putting together a speedy unit, which, if it doesn’t necessarily blind you with brilliance, it at least baffles you with bullshit. A favorable schedule had led to speculation that this was the Colts’ year. The mantra around the NFL was heard all season long: if the Colts could just get home field advantage they would be unstoppable, literally. The sensationalist football media was so in love with Peyton Manning and the Colts that the level of discourse had sunk to talk of a perfect season and debating the Colts’ status amongst the greatest teams of all time. The Colts complied, and posted an impressive record, including starting the season 13-0, and locked up home field advantage throughout the playoffs by mid-November. After vanquishing the Patriots on a Monday night in November, and seeing them eliminated from the playoffs the previous night, it seemed that a Super Bowl championship was a foregone conclusion.

Standing in the Colts’ path to the promised land, however, was a little team known as the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lost in the hype surrounding the Colts is the fact that the Steelers had unfinished business of their own. After going 15-1 in 2004 only to lose to the Patriots in the AFC Championship, the Steelers were flying somewhat under the radar for much of the season. A few quality wins canceled out a few bad losses, and what was left was a team that finished 11-5, which was barely good enough for them to sneak into the AFC bracket as the sixth seed. Sure, the Steelers were riding a four game winning streak at the end of the season, and they had summarily dismissed Cincinnati in their house the week before, but the Colts had demolished them in front of a national audience in Week 12 in a game that was never really competitive. What were the poor Steelers to do? How could they possibly match up with the invincible Colts? Maybe if the game were being played in Pittsburgh the Steelers would have a chance, but barring divine intervention there was no way the Steelers could pull out a W in Indy. The pundits seemed to genuinely pity the Steelers. The Steelers players (all of them except Joey Porter, that is) played the part of sacrificial lamb by expressing their expectation of utter annihilation by Colts all week long. All were in agreement, the Steelers, a meager sixth seed, would surely be content with a playoff win and would gladly accept the consolation of being another victim of the unstoppable force that is the Indianapolis Colts.

As the clock struck one o’clock on the east coast, the respective teams had assembled on the fast track in the RCA Dome, with the aural manifestation of over 57,000 sad and unfulfilled Hoosiers' lives raining down on them. The stage was set for the first act of the Colts’ Super Bowl show; the first taste of a month-long festival commemorating the single greatest team ever assembled in any sport. If the Steelers were to have a chance to win the game they would have to withstand the initial onslaught and establish themselves as a threat early. In the Monday night game, the Colts jumped out to an early lead after Manning hit Marvin Harrison on an 80-yard TD on the Colts’ first play from scrimmage and it never really felt like the Steelers were in the game after that point. From the moment Mike Vanderjagt set foot to ball, however, the Steelers came out on the offensive, taking advantage of their underrated passing attack to drive the length of the field culminating in a TD pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antwaan Randle-El. Although certainly an eye-opener, the Steelers’ offensive showing was perhaps not too surprising to those in the know, as the presence of a relatively healthy Big Ben and offensive line promised at least marginally better results than were seen in the game in November. The thing that nobody expected, however, and the thing that really gave the Steelers momentum early, was the way the defense utterly stopped the Colts offense in their tracks, stifling the prolific offense into three-and-outs on their first two possessions. At the end of the first quarter the Colts had only managed one first down. After increasing their lead to 14-0, it was obvious that the Steelers had played an impeccable first quarter on both sides of the ball. I think specific mention is warranted for the great job Bill Cowher did in preparing the team for the game this week. Cowher gets a lot of criticism from Steelers fans and otherwise for various reasons (especially for losing four AFC Championships at home), but he has been around so long and his teams are so consistently good that people don’t appreciate what a great coach he is. Credit for this must also be shared by the players, who, in terms of quality and intensity, performed at a championship caliber. Not to be left out are offensive and defensive coordinators Ken Wisenhunt and Dick LeBeau, the gurus who crafted the perfect strategy for backing the Colts into a corner early. It was essential that the Steelers took advantage of any rustiness that the Colts might show initially, and after 15 minutes of football it was clear that the Colts were in significant trouble. It wasn’t the stats that so much told the story (although they were quite impressive), as it was the Colts’ body language and the atmosphere of the dome, which indicated a team that was psychologically defeated. The problem with blowing a team out once and having to play them again in the same season is that if the second game isn’t as lopsided as the first, it is inevitably deflating. In this case, not only were the Colts not kicking the shit out of the Steelers, the Steelers were actually kicking the shit out of the Colts.

As the second half began, any true Steelers fan had the exact same thought running through their head: I really hope we don’t blow this fucking thing. Sitting on a 14-3 lead, everyone and their mothers knew that Bill Cowher was going to run the shit out of the football in the second half. However, to Cowher’s credit, he realized that 14 points were not going to be enough to beat the Colts, and after stopping the Colts on their first possession, the Steelers offense came out with the same dynamic attack that worked so well in the first half, and while their first drive of the second half did not result in any points, it drained five and a half minutes off the clock. Following a three-and-out by the Colts and a punt return to the Indy 30 yard line, the Steelers' next drive featured six straight running plays that ultimately led to a TD dive by the Bus, putting the Steelers in a commanding 21-3 lead with only a minute and a half left in the third quarter. It’s easy to blame Cowher for being too conservative on offense after this point in the game, but running out the clock is what the Steelers do best, and with an 18 point lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter I don’t have a problem with utilizing the strength of the team to attempt to win a game that no one thought they could win. My main gripe with the Steelers strategy during the second half was the prevent defense. I realize that the worst thing that could have happened would be to have given up a big play, but after handling the Indy attack the entire first half, I don’t see why they would have done anything different in the second half. Nevertheless, the Steelers allowed the Colts to throw the ball underneath, resulting in an easy TD on the second play of the fourth quarter to bring the score to 21-10. The Colts still needed two scores, and the Steelers would be getting the ball back. If they could run the ball down the throats of the Colts and even manage a field goal, the game would be virtually out of hand. The Steelers didn’t have quite the success running the ball they are accustomed to, but still managed to eat up eight minutes of the clock with the help of two gutsy fourth-and-one conversions. The Steelers were forced to punt the ball away, and gave the Colts six minutes to score 11 points.

What transpired next will go down in sports lore as one of the most improbable and memorable series of events to finish a game in NFL history, with each twist of fate shifting the game’s momentum and likely outcome 180 degrees. The moods of Steelers and Colts fans vacillated between fits of jubilation and utter despair in the blink of an eye during the final six minutes of the contest. It was the type of game that leaves permanent emtional scars on the fans of the losing team. The first incident occurred on the Colts' next drive, when Troy Polamalu clearly intercepted a Peyton Manning pass near mid-field - a play that, barring a miracle, seemed to extinguish any hope of a Colts comeback. Going into the commercial, most people watching the game, and certainly most Steelers fans, had to feel that the game was all but over. But after a suspiciously long time at the replay booth, that piece of fucking shit Pete Morelli called the pass incomplete. I won’t go as far as Joey Porter in saying it was a conspiracy by the NFL to give the Colts the game, but I think there is some validity to the point that that fucking douche bag might have been a little intimidated by the prospect of announcing to the Indianapolis crowd, and the millions watching at home that had been drooling over them all season, that their pride and joy had choked away the best shot of getting to the Super Bowl that they will ever have. Regardless, it was an atrocious call, and he definitely deserved to have his house vandalized. The audacious reversal infused the Colts and the Indianapolis crowd with new life, and four plays later the Colts promptly scored a TD and successful two-point conversion, bringing the Colts to within a field goal of the Steelers.

Panic was starting to grip the Steelers. If they were not able to hold onto the ball and score some points on the next drive, their seemingly insurmountable lead was going to be in serious jeopardy. But the Steelers only managed one first down on the next drive and were forced to give the ball up to the Colts at the Indy 18. It appeared that the momentum was clearly with the Colts, and one of the greatest comebacks in football history seemed like a very realistic possibility. At this crucial moment, however, the Steelers defense, led by two sacks from Joey Porter, stepped it up a notch, and drove the Colts back to their own two-yard line where the Colts turned the ball over on downs. With the Steelers having the ball on the Indianapolis two with a three point lead and only a minute and twenty seconds left, it seemed as if all that was left before the final nail would be officially driven into the Colts’ coffin was a celebratory Bettis TD plunge. Within seconds I felt as if I had been kicked in the nuts. The ball popped out of the Bus’ usually reliable hands and right into the arms of Colts safety Nick Harper, who had been freshly stabbed by his wife the night before. As Harper began racing towards the Steelers end zone and the go-ahead TD it appeared as if one of the most infamous plays in the history of sports was unfolding until, seemingly out of nowhere, Ben Roethlisberger makes what, in spite of its ugliness, will likely be referred to in Pittsburgh for years to come as the Tackle. Ironically, at the moment it served as little consolation to Steelers fans, as the prospect of the Colts taking over on their own 42-yard line, with over a minute left and down by only three, seemed merely a prelude to the inevitable. Any Steelers fan with a brain was just hoping to have a chance to win the game in overtime. The Colts found early success, but after an ill-advised shot at the end zone on third and short from the Pittsburgh 28, the Colts brought on Mike Vanderjagt to attempt to kick a 46-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Whether Bill Cowher’s decision to ice the kicker played a role is something that will never be known, but Vanderjagt kicked the worst excuse for a field goal that has been seen in the NFL in years (it was even worse than those field goals that day with all the wind in Chicago when Nathan Vasher returned the ball 109 yards for a TD). The only thing left to do for the Steelers was to line up in victory formation as the Colts futilely called timeouts in a sad attempt to extend their hopeless season.

Of course, the aftermath of such a shocking game is almost as interesting as the game itself. It was one of those rare games that entertains football and non-football fans alike and seeps into the realm of pop culture. David Letterman has spent time every night this week moaning about the Colts loss, and on Thursday night he actually had Mike Vanderjagt on to kick a 46-yard field goal on 53rd Street (which he made). Peyton Manning’s reputation as a choker and a sore loser was enhanced by his post-game press conference where he threw his offensive line under the proverbial bus (as opposed to the Bus). Obviously it is more interesting for people to talk about Peyton Manning losing the game than the Steelers winning the game, but everyone would have to concede that the Steelers were the better team on the field that day and definitely deserved to win the game. Nonetheless, I think that if anyone deserves the bulk of the blame on Indianapolis, it is Peyton Manning. He can’t have it both ways. If he thinks that he is coaching the team (which he apparently does after canceling Dungy’s punt), then he can’t blame his teammates for his shitty performance. Plus, Manning has a long history of choking in big games that extends all the way back to his days at Tennessee. Manning simply lacks the mental toughness to win in the playoffs, and as long as the Colts keep making up excuses for their losses, he will never develop into a championship level quarterback. The other main topic of controversy has been the blown call on the Polamalu interception. Among the highlights of the week were Joey Porter's statement that the call was intentional and meant to give the Colts the game, and the NFL's official ruling that the Morelli's call was wrong. Best of all, though, was the story of a brick being thrown through the window of Morelli’s home. That son of a bitch will think twice before fucking with the Pittsburgh Steelers again.

That brings us to Championship Sunday, when the Steelers will travel to Denver to take on the number two seed. Part of me would rather play the Patriots, not because of any petty desire to knock them off personally, but because I would feel slightly more comfortable playing in Foxborough than in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains. The Steelers have not played the Broncos in Denver recently, and the mile high advantage is significant enough that it could affect the outcome of the game. The Broncos and Steelers are remarkably similar teams. Both teams like to run the ball on offense and blitz on defense, but I think the Steelers will have more success, especially running the ball. I’m not that impressed by Denver’s defensive line, featuring former Browns Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren, because the Steelers routinely ran rough shod over the unit when it used to play in Cleveland. Secondly, this is the third AFC Championship for the Steelers in the last five years, while the Broncos have not played this deep in the playoffs since the days of John Elway. The whole world watches the conference championships, and the intensity level is even higher than the previous rounds of the playoffs. If I were a Broncos fan I would be a little concerned about Jake Plummer, who, although he has been remarkably efficient this season, has a history of bad decision making. If the game is close late, I could see Plummer reverting to his gun-slinging interception prone form that everyone remembers from previous years. Aditionally, there is something symbolic about the Steelers playing their first AFC Championship on the road. It is something akin to a clean slate, or, at the very least, the bad karma that permeates AFC Championships in Pittsburgh shouldn't be a factor. Finally, over the past six weeks the Steelers have played as well as any squad has under the Cowher regime. The post-season is not about who is the best football team, it is about who is playing the best football. After knocking off the Colts, there is little doubt that the Steelers are playing better than anyone else. I am by no means looking past the Broncos, but I like the Steelers' chances of making it to Super Bowl XL.


Blogger Greg said...

This isn't meant to be the latest installment of shit-talking in the comments section, but I couldn't help being struck by how fat that man is! I mean, Good Christ!

7:39 PM  

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