AFC North: Cowboys-Steelers

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

 
 AP Photo/Rob Carr
 Pittsburgh cornerback Deshea Townsend scores on an interception return Sunday.

PITTSBURGH -- Although the Steelers didn't officially clinch a postseason berth Sunday, it is safe to punch their playoff ticket following a 20-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

The Steelers improved to 16-5 in December games since 2004, which is the time of year the elite NFL teams position themselves for the final push.

The AFC North-leading Steelers (10-3) have mastered the art of winning ugly.

With three games remaining, the Steelers (10-3) are one game up on next week's division opponent, the Baltimore Ravens (9-4), and hold a two-game lead on the division-leading New York Jets (8-5) and Denver Broncos (8-5) for the No. 2 seed in the conference. Still at stake is an important first-round bye and home-field advantage up until to the AFC title.

With the exception of the turnover battle, the Steelers were outplayed throughout the game. Dallas finished with more passing yards (194-168), rushing yards (95-70) and first downs (15-13). But after trailing 13-3 midway through the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh tightened up and ran off 17 unanswered points in the final seven minutes, 15 seconds of the game.

"People get too preoccupied with style points," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "That was a beautiful football game because we displayed mettle and we hung together."

Tomlin is right. At this point, style points are pointless. The Steelers will go back to work and try to correct their mistakes and they feel a lot better about doing so with another victory in hand.

Here is what else we learned about Pittsburgh in its win over Dallas:

Big-play Deshea

Part of Pittsburgh's theme this year has been a different hero stepping up every week, and against the Cowboys, it was Deshea Townsend's turn.

The veteran cornerback is in his 11th season and one of the oldest players (33) on the defense. But Townsend made a huge 25-yard interception return for a touchdown that produced the game-winning score for Pittsburgh with 1:40 remaining.

Deep in its own territory, Dallas took a chance late by throwing against the Steelers on second down, and Townsend picked off a pass intended for Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (six catches, 62 yards).

"It was a great pass -- right at eye level," Townsend said smiling. "I saw the tight end and nothing else was there."

Townsend's teammates were genuinely elated for him making the big play against Dallas.

He's had an up-and-down season. Townsend began the season as the starter, suffered an injury and and returned to the lineup as a backup.

But Townsend never complained and took advantage for one of the biggest plays of his career.

"He is a team guy," Tomlin said. "He doesn't care about anything but winning. ... It is great that he had an opportunity to make a significant play like that for us, because he is as deserving as anyone."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- In a game full of Pro Bowl talent, an unlikely hero emerged in the final two minutes of Sunday's 20-13 Steelers' win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Call him "Big-play Deshea."

Pittsburgh cornerback Deshea Townsend returned a Tony Romo interception 25 yards late for the go-ahead touchdown to improve the Steelers to 10-3 on the season. The Steelers showed grit by overcoming a 13-3 fourth-quarter deficit to score 17 unanswered points in the final 7:15 of the game.

The win helps Pittsburgh tremendously in terms of securing the coveted No. 2 seed in the AFC. The New York Jets (8-5) lost Sunday to the San Francisco 49ers to put Pittsburgh two games up on the Jets with three games remaining. The Denver Broncos (8-5) also are in the running but are a long shot to catch Pittsburgh.

The Steelers also survived with a split in their series with the NFC East in four games. The Steelers have an important AFC North contest next week against the Baltimore Ravens.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' biggest weakness is coming back to haunt them in the third quarter.

Trailing 10-3, Pittsburgh is trying to jump-start its offense by passing the football more and the Dallas Cowboys are starting to bring the heat.

As a result, the Cowboys have sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on back-to-back drives in the third quarter to stall Pittsburgh. One sack was by cornerback Orlando Scandrick and the other was from linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

[Update: Dallas just recorded a field goal to take a 13-3 lead late in the third quarter.]

Steelers-Cowboys halftime notes

December, 7, 2008
12/07/08
5:54
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH--The Steelers and Dallas Cowboys are tied 3-3 at halftime of this defensive struggle at Heinz Field.

Here are some first-half observations:

  • For two teams expected to contend for a Super Bowl, this has been a very sloppy game through two quarters. Both sides have combined for six turnovers, which include a pair of fumbles from quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo. Neither signal caller is playing particularly well, but you also have to give both defenses credit.
  • Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor is doing a tremendous job of containing Dallas receiver Terrell Owens in the first half. Owens has zero catches thus far and Taylor had an interception in the second quarter that set up Pittsburgh's only field goal. The Steelers are also helping over the top and keeping defenders around Owens when playing zone.
  • Pittsburgh outside linebacker James Harrison earned a key third-down sack and tied Pittsburgh's single-season record for 15 in a season. Former Steelers Mike Merriweather also recorded 15 sacks in 1984, but Harrison likely will break that mark with three games remaining.
  • Pittsburgh's punting woes continue. Mitch Berger, who is in his second stint with the Steelers this season, hit just one good punt in the entire first half and is costing Pittsburgh field position with nearly every attempt.

Good start for Polamalu

December, 7, 2008
12/07/08
4:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- The first series of Sunday's game couldn't have gone any better for the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense and safety Troy Polamalu.

Pittsburgh forced a three-and-out on the opening drive against the Dallas Cowboys, and Polamalu recorded a tackle and an interception during the three plays.

Polamalu's turnover upped his total to an NFL-best seven picks and also made for a career-best four consecutive games in which Polamalu has an interception.

The turnover led to a missed 45-yard field goal by Steelers kicker Jeff Reed.

Video: Cowboys-Steelers preview

December, 5, 2008
12/05/08
10:04
PM ET

ESPN analysts break down all aspects of the Cowboys-Steelers game.

Video: Steelers prepare for Cowboys

December, 3, 2008
12/03/08
3:49
PM ET

The Pittsbrugh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette discusses the Pittsburgh Steelers' plans for Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys.

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