|Steelers' tough road to Super Bowl: Jaguars, Patriots, Colts?|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 31 December 2007 11:09|
Steelers linebacker Larry Foote is convinced this is the toughest field in AFC playoff history, and he makes a convincing argument. Some evidence: Indianapolis followed up its Super Bowl championship season by going 13-3, yet is only second-seeded to New England (16-0).
``All six teams are tough,'' Foote said.
The only AFC team not playing like it belongs is ... Pittsburgh (10-6), losers of three of four and four of seven going into Saturday night's wild-card home game against Jacksonville. The Steelers have won only six of 11 since they were 4-1 and, in a very bad combination with the playoffs now here, are giving up big yardage rushing and passing.
This isn't a three-pack many teams would order to reach the Super Bowl: the Jaguars (11-5), Patriots (16-0) and Colts in succession. Yet that's the probable route the Steelers must travel to play for a second NFL title in three years.
``We've got to be razor sharp,'' coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Steelers are hurting, too, with star running back Willie Parker (broken leg) and defensive end Aaron Smith (torn triceps) out the rest of the way and left tackle Marvel Smith (back) probably done, too. Troy Polamalu (sore knee) is limping and backup tackle Max Starks (sprained left knee) was pulled during a dismal 27-21 loss in Baltimore on Sunday.
Two years ago, the Steelers were peaking as the postseason arrived, winning four in a row before beating Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver on the road and Seattle in the Super Bowl.
These Steelers limp into a playoff home game against a better-record team by virtue of a division championship that, in reality, was won weeks and weeks ago. They haven't looked playoff-worthy since beating Baltimore 37-7 on Nov. 5, falling since in upsets to the Jets (4-12) and Ravens (5-11), losing badly to New England 34-13 and narrowly beating one-win Miami 3-0.
All this isn't preventing the Steelers from finding their inspiration in that unexpected postseason dash of two years ago. As linebacker Clark Haggans said, all the Steelers got from going 15-1 in 2004 was an AFC North championship T-shirt; a year later, they took home Super Bowl rings despite having a much worse record (11-5).
``Everybody's 0-0 right now,'' linebacker James Farrior said.
The Steelers' biggest challenge during a short work week will be finding a way to slow the run.
Since Aaron Smith was hurt Dec. 9 against New England, the Steelers have allowed 494 yards rushing to Jacksonville (224), St. Louis (90) and Baltimore (180). The Rams were forced to throw for much of their 41-24 loss on Dec. 20, yet Steven Jackson still ran for 85 yards.
Cory Ross, who had never carried the ball in an NFL game, ran for 72 yards Sunday and backup Musa Smith ran for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Jacksonville's Fred Taylor (147 yards) and Maurice Jones-Drew (69 yards) combined for 216 yards against them Dec. 16 as the Jaguars outgained Pittsburgh 421-217 during their 29-22 victory.
``I don't see Fred Taylor doing that to our defense twice in a row,'' Hines Ward said.
What about three times in a row? Taylor has 381 yards in his last two games in Pittsburgh, including a Steelers opponent-record 234 yards in 2000.
``We didn't like our performance against them the last time we played these guys, taking nothing away from them,'' Tomlin said. ``We know what kind of team they are. We've got a lot of work to do.''
So much for statistics - the Steelers still rank first overall in the NFL in defense and third against the run, yet they have allowed 1,492 yards - an average of 373 - in their last four games. New England all but abandoned the run, yet Tom Brady threw for 399 yards against them.
``We need to get back to smashing the run,'' defensive end Brett Keisel said. ``Teams are going to keep attacking us like that until we do. We have to find a way right now, or we'll be watching (the rest of the playoffs).''