Division clinched, but Steelers still face important game Print
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Monday, 24 December 2007 20:31
NFL Headline News

 PITTSBURGH (AP) -The Pittsburgh Steelers' starters are taking Christmas off, as the holiday falls conveniently on the NFL players' weekly day off.
The rest of the week, including Sunday in Baltimore? Forget it, although the Steelers are AFC North champions for the first time since 2004 and are guaranteed a home playoff game Jan. 5 or 6.
With the playoffs less than two weeks away, Sunday's game at Baltimore is anything but unimportant for Pittsburgh. For two very good reasons.
1) Jacksonville. 2) New England.
The Steelers (10-5) won't know going into Sunday's late afternoon game against the Ravens (4-11) what their final playoff positioning will be, thanks in part to the San Diego Chargers' 23-3 victory over Denver on Monday night.
Even if the Steelers win, the Chargers' superior conference record would assure them of being the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs if they beat Oakland (4-11) on Sunday. But if the Chargers (10-5) lose to the Raiders and the Steelers win, Pittsburgh will be No. 3.
``We are going to play to win,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Monday. ``I'm sure they (his players) were hopeful that the division will be riding on this game, but it will not. But it will still be a hotly fought battle.''
Tomlin doesn't seem to care if the Steelers are No. 3 or No. 4 - after all, they were No. 6 two years ago and became the only last-seeded team to win three in a row on the road and the Super Bowl.
``In pursuit of the goals we aspire to, we've got to beat them all,'' Tomlin said. ``So I don't care who we play.''
Still, there could be a very big difference between being No. 3 and No. 4, and the Steelers know it.
If they're the No. 3 seed, they would play either Cleveland (9-6) or Tennessee (9-6) in the wild-card round, then travel to Indianapolis (13-2) a weekend later.
If they're No. 4, the road to the Super Bowl becomes much more difficult.
First up in the postseason would be Jacksonville (11-4), which won at Heinz Field 29-22 last week and might be playing as well as any team besides the Patriots. Jacksonville, as a wild-card team, can't be seeded higher than No. 5.
Then, even if the Steelers beat the Jaguars, they would travel to New England (15-0) the following weekend, unless a wild-card team upsets San Diego in the first round.
Cleveland/Tennessee, then Indianapolis? Jacksonville, then New England? The choice seems obvious.
``If we have an opportunity to get the 3 seed, we are going to do that,'' Tomlin said. ``It's significant between 3 and 4, saying that if you win your first game then it tells you where to go. So there is definitely at least some significance there.''
While Tomlin is promising that the Steelers will go all-out to win, he isn't guaranteeing that all of their banged-up starters will play. Among those being monitored in practice will be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (ankle) and safety Troy Polamalu (knee).
``We are in the tournament, bidding for the Lombardi (Trophy) like others, and if we have some injury issues and people are dealing with injuries then, yes, we will make sure they get healthy,'' Tomlin said.
Left tackle Marvel Smith's status remains uncertain and it seems likely he won't play Sunday. Smith has missed three of the past five games, creating the possibility Max Starks will start during the playoffs.
The Steelers also made certain that Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker won't play again this season by placing him on injured reserve. They re-signed Verron Haynes, primarily their third-down back from 2002-06 before he was cut during training camp.
Parker needed surgery to repair a broken right fibula, an injury that occurred during the Steelers' 41-24 win Thursday in St. Louis.
With Najeh Davenport now the starter, Gary Russell becomes the backup despite carrying only once previously for 1 yard. Carey Davis becomes the third-down back.
``We have a stable of guys we are going to move forward with,'' Tomlin said. ``It's going to be a running back by committee.''
Notes: Tomlin said of the AFC North title: ``It's just hardware you pick up along the way.'' Cleveland's 19-14 upset loss Sunday in Cincinnati assured Pittsburgh of the division title. ... The Steelers have lost their second game against Baltimore each of the past two seasons and three times in four years. ... The Steelers won their final regular-season game in each of the past three seasons and six of the past seven seasons. The last time they lost that game but won at least once in the playoffs was 1997. ... Sunday's game will start at 4:15 p.m., rather than the previously scheduled 1 p.m. ... Tyrone Carter will start again at safety in place of Anthony Smith, who Tomlin said, ``is letting the ball get behind him.''
 

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