|The race is on: Two games to go, and Steelers haven't clinched|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 18 December 2007 01:07|
They're beaten up physically, they've played poorly in successive games and they've got only a couple of days to rest before they play again.
Despite all that, coach Mike Tomlin isn't interested in hearing excuses about how the Steelers (9-5) have gone this deep into December without assuring themselves of playing in January.
``Do we feel good about where we are right now? Absolutely not,'' Tomlin said Monday, a day after a 29-22 home loss to Jacksonville. ``Would we feel better if we had started the season 1-4 instead of 4-1? We probably would have. That's the mental toughness of this game - you have to stay singularly focused and in the tunnel. Every team faces trials and tribulations.''
A few weeks ago, when the Steelers had the look of an upper-echelon AFC team rather than a middle-of-the pack one, they figured to have long since clinched a playoff appearance by now. They led the AFC North by two games and owned the tiebreaker after beating Cleveland 31-28 on Nov. 11.
An out-of-nowhere overtime loss to the New York Jets set them back, and a week later they nearly became the first team to lose to Miami before winning 3-0 in the closing seconds. In their past two games, the Steelers were manhandled by New England 34-13 and clearly outplayed by Jacksonville in their first loss at home all season.
The Patriots (399 yards passing, four TD passes) and the Jaguars (224 yards rushing, 1 TD run) relied on totally opposite but equally successful schemes against what is still the NFL's top-ranked defense.
``Defensively, we can't play no worse than we are now,'' nose tackle Casey Hampton said.
A typically physical game against the Jaguars also left the Steelers beaten up, with little time to heal before Thursday night's game in St. Louis. They need to win, too - a Steelers upset loss to the Rams (3-11) and a Cleveland win Sunday at Cincinnati puts the Browns in the division lead.
Even if the Browns win, the Steelers will make the playoffs - although not necessarily as the division champion - if they beat St. Louis and Tennessee (8-6) loses or ties against the Jets (3-11). Regardless of what happens Thursday, winning at Baltimore on Dec. 30 will put the Steelers in the playoffs.
``We don't have time to think about all of that,'' linebacker Larry Foote said. ``We just have to win Thursday, get in the tournament. Who cares about momentum or whatever? You just have to get in the tournament.''
Another worry for the Steelers: They've beaten only two teams with winning records, the Browns (9-5) and Seahawks (9-5), not exactly the way to prepare for the postseason. They've lost to three losing-record teams in Arizona, Denver and the New York Jets.
The short week could leave the Steelers short-handed at several positions against the Rams, who, despite their record, pose a challenge to Pittsburgh's defense.
Outside linebacker Clark Haggans (sprained left knee) and left tackle Marvel Smith (back inflammation) aren't expected to play, and defensive end Travis Kirschke (rib cartilage) also may be out. Kirschke is filling in for Aaron Smith (biceps), who will miss the rest of the season.
All those injured run defenders could prove troublesome in defending against St. Louis running back Steven Jackson, who has 862 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Marc Bulger (seven TD passes) also remains a downfield threat despite a recent concussion that caused him to miss two games and most of a third.
``We have a myriad of concerns,'' Tomlin said.
Even if the schedule appears to be giving the Steelers a break, with St. Louis and Baltimore (4-10) in succession. The Rams have lost three of four and the Ravens their past eight.
``We've stumbled of late,'' Tomlin said. ``So be it. We've got to go to St. Louis and seek our 10th win.''
Notes: Willie Parker remains the NFL's rushing leader, with 1,317 yards, despite getting only 14 carries (for 100 yards) against Jacksonville. ... CB Ike Taylor's left knee injury, which forced him to miss some of the second half Sunday, is ``really minor,'' Tomlin said. .. Tomlin said QB Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) and S Troy Polamalu (knee) came out of Sunday's game fine. However, Roethlisberger was sacked five times, giving him 43 sacks for the season. Only Detroit's Jon Kitna (49 sacks) has more sacks.