NFL Nation: Bryant McFadden

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced four key players will be out for Friday's preseason opener. Steelers guard Chris Kemoeatu, cornerback Bryant McFadden, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Cortez Allen will not play against the Washington Redskins.

Veteran receiver Hines Ward was not ruled out by Tomlin. Ward practiced in training camp for the first time on Monday following thumb surgery.

Tomlin added that it's possible Ward and other players could be ruled out closer to game time if needed.
LATROBE, Pa. -- At his best, cornerback Keenan Lewis says he can be a "miniature-Ike Taylor" for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season.

If that is the case, Pittsburgh's cornerback position isn't as thin as people think.

[+] EnlargeKeenan Lewis
AP Photo/John RussellCornerback Keenan Lewis has a chance to earn more playing time this season.
Opposite fellow corner Bryant McFadden, Lewis opened the first two days of Steelers training camp with the No. 1 defense. Lewis is gaining valuable experience this weekend, while holding the seat warm for Taylor, who signed a four-year contract but cannot practice until next week.

Still, this is a good opportunity for Lewis to prove his worth to the coaching staff and potentially earn a role as a nickel corner after two rocky seasons in Pittsburgh. Lewis is getting the first shot in what should be a deep competition with young teammates Crezdon Butler and rookies Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.

"It feels good and it shows that I've learned my playbook now," Lewis said after practice Saturday. "I feel more experienced. It's my third year, and I'm just trying to do the best that I can to show all these fans who I really am."

Lewis has always been a natural athlete. The former third-round pick has good size and feet -- two things the Steelers covet -- but he hasn't been able to put it together.

Last year Lewis spent the season in coach Mike Tomlin's doghouse after a poor preseason game against the Denver Broncos. After the game, Lewis showed immaturity in the locker room by punching and shattering glass with is hand, which upset the organization.

Lewis said he's watch the tape of that Denver game plenty of times to learn from those mistakes. He also admits one of the biggest keys this season is to get tougher mentally.

"Last year taught me how to keep a cool head when facing adversity," Lewis said. "When people feel down on you, you can't get down on yourself. You have to keep going. No matter what the situation is, you have to keep getting better everyday."

Here are some additional notes from Steelers camp:

  • In addition to Plaxico Burress, the Steelers also met with free-agent tight end Daniel Graham on Saturday. Former backup tight end Matt Spaeth signed with the Chicago Bears, which leaves a spot open as the No. 2 tight end. Tomlin described both as "great meetings."
  • Despite the lockout, Pittsburgh's passing offense looks sharp early. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and the rest of the receiving corps made several nice catches. Even running back Rashard Mendenhall got into the act with a couple nice grabs out of the backfield.
  • Free-agent running back John Clay has really good size, but it's hard to evaluate him without contact. I'm looking forward to seeing him run in pads.
  • Speaking of which, Sunday will be the first full-contract practice of training camp, which Tomlin was very excited about. "It's football," Tomlin said. "We're going to come out with pads on and we're going to play football."
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. provided his final mock draft Insider with plenty of interesting selections.

Here is how Kiper views Thursday night's NFL draft in the AFC North:

Cincinnati Bengals (No. 4)

Kiper's pick: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia

Analysis: Everyone knows that I'm against taking receivers this high in the draft. But I do like Green's talent, and I think he could be a good NFL receiver. If the Bengals take Green at No. 4, the next challenge would be finding a quarterback to throw him the football. Unless Cincinnati knows for sure it can land a quality veteran, the team should not leave this draft without a highly rated rookie to compete with Jordan Palmer.

Cleveland Browns (No. 6)

Kiper's pick: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama

Analysis: Kiper pegged Jones to Cleveland in his last two mock drafts, but I have my doubts about this pick. Yes, the Browns need receivers. But this is a reach to take the second-rated player at the position with the No. 6 overall pick. If the Browns cannot trade down, getting help on the defensive line would make more sense here. If Cleveland drafts a receiver at six, it should be Green. Otherwise, the Browns could help their front seven on defense, which is very thin.

Baltimore Ravens (No. 26)

Kiper's pick: Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA

Analysis: For months, Kiper had the Ravens drafting a cornerback in this slot but changed his mind at the last minute. I think it's a wise move. Baltimore's biggest needs all along have been at right tackle and getting someone to rush the passer. Ayers can help with the latter. I think there are better pass-rushers available in the first round, but Ayers is both versatile and well-rounded.

Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 31)

Kiper's pick: Aaron Williams, CB, Texas

Analysis: Williams has been a Pittsburgh favorite in mock drafts for quite some time. The Steelers are short on cornerbacks, and Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said Monday he's operating as though none of his free agents will return. That means Colbert is drafting under the assumption top corner Ike Taylor will not re-sign. Top reserve William Gay also is a free agent, leaving Bryant McFadden as the only experienced corner on the roster. Williams would fill Pittsburgh's biggest need.

Leading Questions: AFC North

February, 23, 2011
With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each AFC North team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:


Should the Cincinnati Bengals give into Carson Palmer’s trade demands?

After eight underachieving seasons in Cincinnati, Palmer wants out and everyone from his agent to teammates to his realtor believe Palmer is absolutely serious. So how should the Bengals handle this situation?

Cincinnati is consistently one of the NFL's more downtrodden franchises and has been through this before. In the past, players such as Takeo Spikes, Corey Dillon and Chad Ochocinco have expressed the desire to get out of Cincinnati and couldn't leave on their terms.

But Palmer's situation is different for two reasons. First, he's the franchise quarterback, the most important player on the team. Second, he's threatened to retire if he's not traded, which is something Spikes, Dillon and Ochocinco never did. These two factors up the ante tremendously in terms of putting pressure on the Bengals.

If Palmer, 31, holds firm on his demands, that leaves Dan LeFevour and Jordan Palmer as the other quarterbacks on Cincinnati's roster. The Bengals cannot start the 2011 season with either of those players under center. As more time goes by with uncertainty, it becomes more likely the Bengals must do something to get quarterback help in the draft or free agency.

In my opinion, the Bengals should trade Palmer while they can still get decent value for him. Cincinnati will be rebuilding for the next two years anyway -- with or without Palmer -- and there are plenty of teams in need of a good quarterback.

But the Bengals are standing their ground, hoping Palmer will have a change of heart. That's a dangerous assumption with free agency potentially starting next month and the NFL draft coming in April.


Are concerns about Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco legit?

As we continue the subject of quarterbacks, we move over to Baltimore. Flacco is getting drilled this offseason by media and fans for not leading the Ravens past the divisional round. Baltimore entered last season as a Super Bowl favorite and by those standards the team -- and particularly the offense -- underachieved.

Now people are starting to doubt Flacco. He has struggled in the playoffs, recording just one passer rating above 90.0 in seven career postseason games. It's no secret an organization is tied into the success and development of its quarterback. But are the expectations of Flacco, in his third season, too high too soon? The answer is, yes.

Flacco has become a victim of his own early success. He advanced to the AFC title game as a rookie and has had expectations of getting to the Super Bowl thrust upon him since.

Last season, Flacco set career-highs in passing yards (3,622), touchdowns (25) and passer rating (93.6) for the Ravens (12-4). But it's the second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that stands out in most people's mind.

Flacco likely must get past rival quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh for the Ravens to take that next step. But there is no shame in losing to the eventual AFC champions in the postseason.

Young quarterbacks such as Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman are viewed in a much more favorable light in their cities. Flacco has had as much career success and put up equal or better numbers than all of them. He deserves a break.


What will the Steelers do at cornerback?

As their Super Bowl XLV loss to the Green Bay Packers proved, the Steelers must add quality depth in the secondary. The Packers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints provide the blueprint of how to beat Pittsburgh's vaunted defense: spread the Steelers out with multiple receivers.

The Steelers simply don't have enough good cornerbacks to defend three- and four-receiver sets. This also takes Pittsburgh's strongest players-- its linebackers -- off the field in favor of players such as William Gay and Anthony Madison.

Now that linebacker LaMarr Woodley received the franchise tag, veteran cornerback and pending free agent Ike Taylor is Pittsburgh's No. 1 priority. Taylor is Pittsburgh's best corner, but he's also 31 and the Steelers must gauge how much money and how many years to give to him.

The draft will also be important. Previous draft picks at corner such as Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett and Crezdon Butler have not panned out for the Steelers, who typically address this position in the middle rounds. It's time Pittsburgh invests a high draft pick at this position to increase the probability of finding a future starter.

Do not be surprised if Pittsburgh retains Taylor in free agency and spends its first- or second-round pick on a cornerback in April to fix this issue.


Are the Cleveland Browns fine without an offensive coordinator?

Pat Shurmur of the Browns has a lot on his plate this year. Not only is he a first-time head coach, but Shurmur is also taking over the role as offensive coordinator in his first season with Cleveland.

Is this a good idea?

After a brief search, the Browns decided to leave the position vacant. Shurmur is a former offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams and didn't want to give up those responsibilities after becoming a head coach.

A head coach's first responsibility is to manage all 53 players. But Shurmur clearly will give more special attention to his players on offense. That's a major reason the Browns hired experienced defensive coaches such as Dick Jauron and Ray Rhodes to manage the other side of the football.

President Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert have both done a good job so far in Cleveland. But I have reservations about creating this type of setup with a rookie head coach on a rebuilding team.

What's next for the Steelers?

February, 12, 2011
SteelersNelson Chenault/US PresswirePittsburgh will need to improve its secondary and offensive line if it wants another shot at the title.
As the confetti fell at the conclusion of Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, a look of despair and disappointment immediately came over the faces of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The newly crowned Green Bay Packers were in full celebration mode, while Pittsburgh felt the sting of falling short of its seventh championship.

History weighs heavily against the Steelers -- seven of the past 10 Super Bowl runners-up have failed to make the playoffs the next year.

How do the Steelers avoid becoming another statistic? It will take some smart moves and solid upgrades in the offseason.

"Our goal is to try to get into [the Super Bowl] again, and just don't be on this side again," Steelers receiver Mike Wallace said. "Just get back in the lab and work harder. That's all."

Here is a preview of what's next for the Steelers:

Where are Pittsburgh’s biggest needs?

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Al Bello/Getty ImagesAaron Rodgers took advantage of Pittsburgh's secondary -- completing 24-of-39 for 304 yards and a 111.5 passer rating.
Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, the Steelers are in better shape than most teams. But they are by no means perfect.

Three losses this season -- to the Packers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints -- have provided a blueprint of how to beat the Steelers. It takes a top-flight quarterback and a precise, short and intermediate passing game to put enough points on the board against Pittsburgh's vaunted No. 2 ranked defense.

Forcing the Steelers' offense to play from behind makes the team one-dimensional and susceptible to the pass rush. Pittsburgh's offensive line is one of the weakest areas of the team. Those three losses to Green Bay, New England and New Orleans all played out in similar fashion.

To counter these tough matchups, the Steelers need to improve their roster in several areas.

Pittsburgh's two biggest needs are at cornerback and offensive line. Upgrades to both positions would help the Steelers combat opponents like New England and Green Bay. The Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers (304 yards, three touchdowns) beat Pittsburgh's defense by running a lot of three- and four-receiver sets, which exposed the Steelers' lack of depth in the secondary.

Pittsburgh starting cornerback Ike Taylor is solid, but he will be an unrestricted free agent (we will get to that later). After Taylor there is a dropoff to Bryant McFadden and backups William Gay and Anthony Madison. High-powered passing offenses will continue to give Pittsburgh fits unless it addresses this issue. I wouldn't be surprised if the Steelers draft a cornerback in the first two rounds.

The Steelers need to improve at guard and tackle on the offensive line. Starting left tackle Max Starks is solid and returning from a season-ending neck injury. He will replace the inconsistent Jonathan Scott. Right tackle Flozell Adams, 35, is under contract for one more year with Pittsburgh and is uncertain about his future. Guard Chris Kemoeatu and center Maurkice Pouncey are set, but the Steelers could use another starting-caliber guard.

The Steelers traditionally are not big players in free agency, so don't expect a lot of turnover. Most of their needs will be addressed in April's NFL draft.

"I think we still have a core group of players that we can build around and hopefully make another run at it," Steelers president Art Rooney II said after the Super Bowl loss. "I don't think we'll be sitting there saying we're going to make a lot of changes. We'll prepare for the draft and add some players here and there, and be ready to go."

Who are the Steelers' key free agents?

[+] EnlargeLaMarr Woodley
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRetaining LaMarr Woodley is one of Pittsburgh's top priorities.
Where Pittsburgh does spend its money is retaining its key free agents. The Steelers have two big ones this year in Taylor and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

Pittsburgh has every intention of retaining Woodley, who was one of the NFL's best bargains after making just $550,000 in the final year of his rookie contract. Including playoffs, Woodley recorded 60 tackles, 13 sacks, two interceptions and got stronger as the season went on.

The Steelers are expected to use their franchise tag on Woodley, 26, while trying to negotiate a long-term deal. The deadline to tag Woodley is Feb. 24. But it will be challenging for Pittsburgh to work out a large extension until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. Under the current CBA, the 30-percent rule is a major holdup in working out an extension with Woodley, who is a former second-round pick.

Taylor's situation is more fluid. The unrestricted free agent will be 31 in May and has spent his entire career with Pittsburgh. Returning will be Taylor's first preference, but he will certainly garner interest from other teams. Pittsburgh has to determine what is the right price to try to keep its No. 1 cornerback.

Other free agents of note for Pittsburgh include backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, tailback Mewelde Moore, kicker Shaun Suisham and offensive linemen Willie Colon and Trai Essex.

Can Pittsburgh remain a contender?

As we mentioned earlier, history is not kind to Super Bowl runners-up. Pittsburgh also will have to overcome its own negative history The last two times the current Steelers made the Super Bowl -- both victories -- they missed the playoffs in the following seasons, 2006 and 2009.

The Steelers are usually at their best as underdogs. That was the case this season; most experts wrote off Pittsburgh because of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension at the beginning of the season. But the Steelers showed they could overcome setbacks and made it to Super Bowl XLV.

Expectations will be high for Pittsburgh next season, because a lot of talent and veteran leadership remain. But is it enough to get to Super Bowl XVLI in Indianapolis?

"I love this group; I think it is a heck of a group," said Steelers linebacker and captain James Farrior. "There is a lot more football left in us. We just have to stay together. Hopefully, everything works out in the offseason and we get back here next season."

DALLAS -- The Arizona Cardinals experienced more roster turnover than most from 2009 to 2010.

They felt it, too.

Arizona finished with a 5-11 record largely because quarterback Kurt Warner retired. The team hoped it had enough veteran strength throughout its roster to keep the Cardinals competitive. A favorable schedule and division in transition made it seem possible.

Looking back, the roster turnover played a leading role in the Cardinals' fall, coach Ken Whisenhunt said from the Super Bowl media center Friday.

"What you lose more than anything is that equity buildup that you have had for a couple years," Whisenhunt said.

Specifically, Whisenhunt said the Cardinals too often couldn't draw on shared experiences -- say, adjustment that worked against an opponent the previous season.

"Even though you have a Kerry Rhodes, you have Paris Lenon, you have guys you are comfortable with that are good players in the league, they don't know what you have gone through to get to that point," Whisenhunt said. "To have those guys step up and say, 'Listen, we are not practicing the right way, we are not making these plays like we should be,' you don't have that history with them. You can get away with that if it is one or two, but if you have five or six -- especially if they are good football players -- that is hard to overcome."

The Cardinals parted with a long list of players featuring Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle, Bryant McFadden, Bertrand Berry, Chike Okeafor, Mike Gandy, Reggie Wells, Neil Rackers, Anthony Becht, Sean Morey, Jerheme Urban, Matt Leinart, Ralph Brown, Monty Beisel and Dan Kreider.

"You can never go in and say, 'Gosh, woe is me because we lost those guys,' because you are counting on the other guys to step in and you always want to be positive," Whisenhunt said. "But you have to recognize it's a pretty big blow to lose [key] guys."

Whisenhunt called the situation a "perfect storm" with Warner retiring, key players hitting the market and the NFL heading toward an uncertain labor situation.

"There is no operating plan for what you do or how you do it," he said. "It doesn't really matter at this point. You just have to move forward."

Quite a few younger players gained more experience than anticipated. That could help Arizona build back some of that equity Whisenhunt said was missing. But so much comes back to the quarterback situation. An upgrade at that position would cover for imperfections elsewhere on the roster.

XLV: Practice report III

January, 28, 2011
Getting inside Friday's Super Bowl practice report, which in a particularly quirky development, required both teams to classify their injured players' prospects for playing the Feb. 6 game:

Pittsburgh Steelers: Three players who had been sitting out practice this week returned for full participation Friday: Cornerback Bryant McFadden (abdomen), safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles) and receiver Emmanuel Sanders (foot) all practiced Friday. Center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) did not and was listed as questionable for the game, along with safety Will Allen (knee) and defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps). Don't read much into those designations. We won't know anything definitive about Pouncey until late next week, if at all.

Green Bay Packers: Friday was the Packers' first practice of the week; they continue working through Monday morning before they depart for Texas. Coach Mike McCarthy decided to give his players as much time off as he could. He also reversed course on an initial plan to have players wear full pads Friday. The big news was that linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) practiced for the first time in about six weeks. His return coincided with current starter Erik Walden's ankle injury. McCarthy said Walden won't practice until next Wednesday at the earliest. It's not yet clear if Zombo would be healthy enough to replace Walden in the starting lineup. For what it's worth, the Packers listed Walden and Zombo as questionable for the game.

AFC Championship injury report

January, 21, 2011
Here is the final injury report for the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's AFC Championship Game:

Jets (13-5)

Questionable: CB Drew Coleman (knee), DE Shaun Ellis (knee), S James Ihedigbo (knee, ankle), WR Brad Smith (groin)

Probable: CB Antonio Cromartie (groin), DT Mike Devito (neck), WR Santonio Holmes (quadricep), C Nick Mangold (shoulder), DT Sione Pouha (back), CB Darrelle Revis (hamstring), QB Mark Sanchez (right shoulder), LB Jason Taylor (concussion)

Steelers (13-4)

Doubtful: DE Aaron Smith (triceps)

Questionable: S Will Allen (knee), CB Bryant McFadden (abdomen)

Probable: S Troy Polamalu (Achilles)

Troy Probable-malu against the Jets

January, 21, 2011
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets fans shouldn't be concerned with all the names on the AFC Championship Game injury report. Jets head coach Rex Ryan announced Friday everybody will play Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers list four names on their report. The two biggest are safety Troy Polamalu (probable, Achilles) and defensive end Aaron Smith (doubtful, triceps). Polamalu missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, but participated fully Friday.

Cornerback Bryant McFadden (abdomen) and safety Will Allen (knee) are questionable.

For the Jets, receiver Brad Smith (groin), defensive end Shaun Ellis (knee), cornerback Drew Coleman (knee) and safety James Ihedigbo (knee, ankle) are questionable.

"They're questionable. They're playing. OK," Ryan said after rattling off the injury report at the start of Friday's news conference. "That's pretty much it."

Listed as probable are quarterback Mark Sanchez (shoulder), receiver Santonio Holmes (quadriceps), center Nick Mangold (shoulder), defensive tackle Mike DeVito (neck), defensive tackle Sione Pouha (back), outside linebacker Jason Taylor (concussion), cornerback Darrelle Revis (hamstring) and cornerback Antonio Cromartie (groin).

Tomlin, Ryan show mutual respect

January, 18, 2011
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' Mike Tomlin was informed Tuesday that Jets counterpart Rex Ryan said Tomlin was one of his favorite coaches.

A smile came to Tomlin's face. Then, he returned the compliment.

"I love Rex," Tomlin said. "Rex has a lot of fun with you guys [the media]. But when you pass all of those things, man, Rex is a great football coach. He has a pulse of his football team, does a great job of motivating them, and he's very sound schematically. His glass is always half full and I appreciate that."

Things are already warm and fuzzy between the Steelers and Jets compared to last week's heated AFC divisional playoff games. Do not expect any T-shirts with obscene gestures this week or threats to ruin players’ careers.

The outspoken Ryan and normally low-key Tomlin usually have different approaches. But it appears both are taking the same tact heading into the AFC Championship Game. The AFC East and AFC North trash-talking is over for the rest of this season, and now the sole focus for Pittsburgh and New York is advancing to Super Bowl XLV.

Ryan and Tomlin set the tone for the week, and that likely will permeate down to the players.

Here are some other quick notes from Tomlin's news conference:
  • In terms of injuries, Tomlin says the Steelers are in "great shape." The biggest concerns this week are starting cornerback Bryant McFadden (abs) and defensive end Aaron Smith, who is still working to return from triceps surgery. McFadden will be limited in practice this week, while Smith will practice and is making progress.
  • If Smith is healthy enough to play, he won't start Sunday. Tomlin said Ziggy Hood has been solid. And after not playing for nearly two months, it would be risky to play Smith too many snaps this early.
  • Tomlin said the running game is very important for the Jets and a big part of their "personality." Pittsburgh is No. 1 in the NFL at stopping the run and it will be strength versus strength.

Ravens-Steelers halftime notes

January, 15, 2011
PITTSBURGH -- The Baltimore Ravens lead the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-7 at intermission.

Here are some notes at halftime:
  • On Friday we wrote in the AFC North blog that rust could be an issue for Pittsburgh, and that's clearly the case in the first half. The Steelers haven't played in two weeks, and combined with Baltimore looking very sharp and bringing its 'A' game, that's made for a lopsided first half. The Ravens are taking advantage of Steelers' penalties (six) and turnovers (two) and turning them into points. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and tailback Rashard Mendenhall both had big fumbles for Pittsburgh, and Baltimore turned them into 14 points. Pittsburgh kicker Shaun Suisham also missed a 43-yard field goal right before halftime.
  • Baltimore has done a solid job on offense of avoiding Pittsburgh's pressure by running several screens and draw plays for decent gains. The Steelers often blitz on second and third downs, and the Ravens have caught the Steelers a few times in the first half. Baltimore's first touchdown was scored on a 14-yard draw play by tailback Ray Rice.
  • The officials have made their presence felt early. There have been two pass interference calls -- one for each team -- totaling 74 yards. Both calls eventually led to touchdowns. Officials did get the big fumble call correct against Roethlisberger when he was hit by Terrell Suggs, who has two sacks in the first half. Everyone on the field thought it was a forward pass, until Ravens defensive lineman Cory Redding picked up the football and walked into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown. Overall, there were nine penalties in the first half.
  • On the injury front, Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden suffered a hip injury and didn't return. The team announced that his return to the game is questionable.
After resting all week, Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (ankle, Achilles) returned to practice on Thursday. He is expected to play in his second consecutive game Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens.

In other injury news, Steelers starting cornerback Bryant McFadden also had full participation for the first time this week. He was limited with a groin injury. Defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) was the only player limited in practice for Pittsburgh.

For Baltimore, starting center Matt Birk (knee) and cornerback Chris Carr (thigh) both sat out of practice Thursday.

Ravens-Steelers III: Injury reports

January, 12, 2011
Here is the latest news on who practiced and who didn't for the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers:

Steelers (12-4)

Coming off the bye week, the Steelers are as healthy as they've been in months. They only have one player who sat out of practice entirely Wednesday and that's Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles). Recently Pittsburgh has been resting Polamalu during the week before bringing him back before the final practice. Polamalu said Wednesday that he will practice Thursday. Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden (hamstring) and defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) had limited practices. Smith, who has been out for two months, said Tuesday he doesn't expect a final decision on his playing status until late in the week.

Ravens (13-4)

Baltimore was fortunate to come out of last week's wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs healthy. The Ravens have five players listed on their injury report, with receiver Donte' Stallworth (illness) and starting center Matt Birk (knee) being the only two who didn't practice Wednesday. Cornerback Chris Carr (thigh) was limited but he's expected to play. Linebacker Tavares Gooden (shoulder) and safety Tom Zbikowski (back) are both improving and fully participated in practice. All things considered, the Ravens are a healthy group coming into the divisional playoff game.

Steelers-Browns halftime notes

January, 2, 2011
CLEVELAND -- The Pittsburgh Steelers lead the Browns 31-3 at halftime.

Here are some notes at intermission:
  • Pittsburgh Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu made his first appearance in three games and made an instant impact. Polamalu picked off Browns quarterback Colt McCoy on Cleveland's opening drive. The play led to a Mike Wallace 56-yard touchdown reception on Pittsburgh's opening play to give the Steelers an early lead. Polamalu has tied a career high with seven interceptions this season.
  • McCoy is struggling for the second game in a row. He's thrown for 108 yards and three interceptions. The rookie third-round draft pick now has six interceptions in his last six quarters, which isn't the way he wants to go into the offseason. After a solid start, more questions will linger about McCoy's poor play of late, particularly in cold-weather games.
  • Entering the game, I felt Browns coach Eric Mangini’s fate was already sealed. But I really can't see him surviving this debacle now. Cleveland is getting drilled by its biggest rival again and his team didn't show up for this game. Barring a miracle, Mangini will end the year on a four-game losing streak, which isn't a good sign.
  • There were two injuries in the first half. Pittsburgh starting cornerback Bryant McFadden suffered a groin injury in the first quarter and his return is questionable. Browns receiver and kick returner Josh Cribbs had a foot injury in the first quarter but he returned.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 10, 2010
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Here are five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

Must-win Mangini: Sunday starts a must-win stretch for Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini. The Browns have played solidly recently, going 4-2 in their past six games. But at 5-7, Mangini must continue to pad his record to increase his job security. The good news for Cleveland is it has two of the NFL's worst teams coming up in the Buffalo Bills (2-10) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-10). The bad news is both games are on the road and Mangini likely cannot drop either contest. Cleveland will finish its season as big underdogs against the Baltimore Ravens (8-4) and Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3). Therefore, seven wins or more will make for a tough decision by Browns president Mike Holmgren.

[+] EnlargePeyton HIllis
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeCleveland's Peyton Hillis is closing on his first 1,000-yard season.
Hillis for 1,000: Browns tailback Peyton Hillis has a very good chance to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career this weekend. Hillis has 962 rushing yards, and Buffalo has the league's worst run defense (170.9 rushing yards per game). It's a good matchup for the Browns, so expect them to pound the ball with Hillis. Bad weather in Buffalo also could be a factor.

Avoiding a letdown: The Steelers and Ravens played another brutal and emotional game last week, adding to their heated rivalry. Now both teams must avoid a hangover. The Steelers (9-3) host the struggling Bengals on Sunday. Pittsburgh, which is banged up at quarterback, tight end and the offensive line, is 6-2 in the regular season since 2006 after playing the Ravens. Baltimore, trying to bounce back after the tough loss to the Steelers, will play Monday against the Houston Texans (5-7), who are well-rested with 11 days to prepare. Baltimore is 4-4 since 2006 after playing Pittsburgh the week prior.

Dunlap gaining steam: Keep an eye on Bengals second-round pick Carlos Dunlap, who is starting to turn the corner. The rookie defensive end has 4.5 sacks in the past five games and has added a much-needed boost to Cincinnati's abysmal rush. The recent hot streak was enough for Dunlap to take the team lead in sacks this season. Safety Chris Crocker, who was put on injured reserve Nov. 22 with a knee injury, remains second on the team with two sacks. Dunlap was a first-round talent who entered the draft with questions about his motivation and motor. The Bengals are finally getting Dunlap to play hard more consistently.

Big game for T.O.? Bengals receiver Terrell Owens is having a great season, and he could be in for another big game against the Steelers. In the Nov. 8 game against Pittsburgh, he caught 10 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau traditionally prefers to take away Chad Ochocinco, which provides single coverage on other Bengals. In the first meeting, Owens got the best of Pittsburgh defensive backs in one-on-one matchups. If Pittsburgh keeps the same strategy, cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden must play much better against Owens.