Sunday, December 27, 2009
Steelers have pulse, but is it enough?
By James Walker ESPN.com
Santonio Holmes and the Pittsburgh Steelers are now firmly in the wild-card race.
PITTSBURGH -- Two weeks ago, the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers were on their deathbed after a woeful loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers fell to 6-7 and players all but admitted their playoffs hopes probably had ended.
But Sunday, there was a much different mood in Pittsburgh's locker room.
The Steelers (8-7) are hopeful again after defeating the rival Baltimore Ravens 23-20 at Heinz Field. It was Pittsburgh’s second straight victory, and thanks to various circumstances the past two weeks, the Steelers are firmly in the wild-card race.
Despite the loss, Baltimore is in a much more favorable position. The Ravens need only a win over the Oakland Raiders to secure a wild-card berth.
The Steelers do not control their destiny heading into Week 17. Pittsburgh would need a road win over the Miami Dolphins (7-8) and additional help to extend its season.
But for Pittsburgh to still be alive after losing five straight in November and December counts as a minor miracle.
If the Steelers get into the playoffs, it would be nothing short of incredible.
"We’re not dead yet," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We still got a pulse in this thing, and we’ll continue to control the things that we can control."
As Tomlin explained, the Steelers made this bed. But the coach likes the way his players are laying in it.
Pittsburgh easily could have folded after falling below .500 earlier this month. Instead, the Steelers responded with wins at home against the Ravens and Green Bay Packers. Both games came down to the fourth quarter, an area in which Pittsburgh has not excelled.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh's offense put together another game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, capped by Jeff Reed's 39-yard field goal with 5:25 remaining. Pittsburgh has won its past two games by a total of four points.
"We’re fighting to the last minute, and we’re like the Cardiac Kids or something," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We’re out here barely winning these games, but a win is a win no matter how you get it."
Pittsburgh could be a threat if the team were to sneak into the postseason.
Pittsburgh's biggest problem this year has been fourth-quarter defense. But the unit answered some of those questions by holding Baltimore scoreless in the final period. The Steelers also have not completely ruled out the return of Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (knee), particularly if the team makes the playoffs next month.
The difference in this game was the pass rush and turnovers forced by Pittsburgh.
With Ravens starting left tackle Jared Gaither out with a foot injury, the Steelers were able to pressure Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw for 258 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Pittsburgh outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley took advantage with two of the team's four sacks, both coming in the crucial fourth quarter.
Woodley leads the team with 11.5 sacks, which also ties a career high from 2008.
"I'm just getting there a little bit faster," Woodley said. "Earlier in the year I did a great job of getting pressure on the quarterback, but maybe getting there a little bit slow as he was getting rid of the ball."
Like the Steelers, the Ravens also have quality wins but have been inconsistent all year. They entered Sunday playing some of their best football. But penalties and missed opportunities ended Baltimore's two-game winning streak.
Ravens receiver Derrick Mason dropped a potential touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and several big plays were negated by penalties. Baltimore had 11 penalties for 113 yards.
"I definitely feel like it was a missed opportunity," Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "On a scale of 1 to 10? I'm not sure. [But it’s] pretty high."
The AFC playoff picture is murky heading into the final week.
The AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals (10-5) are the only division team guaranteed to make the playoffs. Although the chances are not great, it is not inconceivable three AFC North teams could qualify with help and wins next week by the Ravens and Steelers.
"It’s going to be an exciting Sunday to figure out what happens with all the scenarios," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said.
Expect a lot of scoreboard watching from the AFC North.