Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Mondays

Steelers 27, Bengals 21

By Mike Batista

Now the season can finally start.

For the fourth straight year, the Steelers won on a Monday night to complete the first half of the season with a 6-2 record.

It's the fifth time in the last six seasons the Steelers have been 6-2 at the turn.

In 2005, they recovered from a three-game losing streak in the second half and won the Super Bowl.

In 2007, they experienced a slow, steady decline in November and December and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

In 2008, they went 6-2 again in the second half and won the Super Bowl.

In 2009, they completely collapsed.

That covers all the possibilities, right? I've just described every way the second half of an NFL season can unfold. There's no way the Steelers can show us anything we haven't seen before, right?

Well, they tried their hardest to do just that Monday night.

Just like old times

The Steelers were on the verge of blowing the first 20-point lead in franchise history. Not even those horribly dressed, laughable Steelers teams of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s managed to blow a 20-point lead.

With 40 seconds left in Monday's game, the Steelers were 12 yards away from not only blowing a 20-point lead, but blowing it all in the fourth quarter. They'd have been the first team to do that since the Giants in November of 2006.

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer threw to Jordan Shipley on fourth down. Had Shipley held onto the ball, the Bengals, trailing by six, would have had a first-and-goal at the 5.

But Ike Taylor and James Harrison did the Malachi Crunch on the rookie, the ball popped out of his hands, and it was Happy Days for the Steelers.

To give the Steelers their 20-point lead, Antwan Randle-El didn't quite turn the clock back to the days of the Fonz, but he did make like it was 2005 again when he took the ball from Ben Roethlisberger on an end around and fired a 39-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace to open the fourth quarter, making the score 27-7.

Unfortunately, the defense took its foot off the gas pedal, letting the Bengals back into the game with Terrell Owens' second touchdown just 98 seconds later.

Then Roethlisberger threw a lollipop to Heath Miller that was intercepted by Robert L. Williams, and the Steelers entered full collapse mode.

On a day in which the incompetence of the Cowboys was highlighted with the firing of Wade Phillips, Flozell Adams paid tribute to how much his former team sucks by getting called for unsportsmanlike conduct on the interception, giving the Bengals the ball at the Steelers' 36.

The officials then got into the spirit of 2005 when they flagged Casey Hampton for roughing the passer. Hampton approached Palmer's knee much the same way Kimo von Oelhoffen did five years ago, but he just grabbed his calves and flipped him down. Palmer's knees were not in danger. Nonetheless, a five-year-old makeup call was issued, putting the ball on the Steelers' 21.

Next was a pass interference penalty on Ike Taylor in the end zone. The flag came late after Terrell Owens bitched and moaned for it. What a diva wants, a diva gets.

The penalty moved the ball to the 1. A drive that featured more flags than the United Nations ended with Cedric Benson's touchdown, pulling the Bengals to within 27-21 with 9:21 to go.

The Steelers appeared to restore order by going back to their smashmouth roots and handing off to Rashard Mendenhall seven straight times. Mendenhall gained 43 of his 99 yards on the clock-chomping drive. But Jeff Reed, despite looking like Big Foot with his monstrous beard, came up very small with his foot, missing a 46-yard field goal and keeping the Bengals in the game.

Damage control

This whole scene was reminiscent of the Steelers' inability to put teams away last season, when they didn't have Troy Polamalu. The Steelers do have Polamalu this season, but even with his flowing locks, he's been invisible at times. After performing at a Pro Bowl trajectory in the first two games of the season, there's been a curious lack of "splash" plays from Polamalu.

Monday night was no different. However, Polamalu was in position to prevent further damage on the biggest play of the Bengals' final drive. Like a one-man stone wall, he whacked Terrell Owens right after he caught the ball at the 17 after a 20-yard pass from Palmer with 1:01 left.

That stop seemed to stall the Bengals' momentum just enough. A holding call on the next play dragged them back to the 27, and three of Palmer's final four passes fell incomplete.

Dick LeBeau, the Steelers defensive coordinator who 40 years ago Monday was on the Lions team that was beaten by the Saints and Tom Dempsey's record 63-yard field goal, raised his arms over his head in relieved celebration when Taylor and Harrison broke up Palmer's final pass.

A way with words

In the grand scheme of things, however, there isn't much to celebrate. We now know that a Steelers season is far from over after their standard 6-2 start. The season really begins -- and ends -- Sunday night.

Huh?

You see, the Steelers host the Patriots in The Game You Must Not Lose. The Steelers have the upper hand -- kind of -- in this rivalry right now, having won two Super Bowls since the Patriots' last championship, and beating them in New England the last time the teams met. But the Steelers' only win over a Tom Brady-led Patriots team came on Halloween in 2004.

This is the third straight time the Steelers face the Patriots after beating the Bengals in prime time. In 2007, they were home on a Sunday night before going to Foxboro, Massachusetts the following Sunday. In 2008, it was a Thursday-night game, giving them a 10-day break before facing the Patriots.

This time, the prime time win over the Bengals costs the Steelers a day of preparation. When the weary Steelers got back to Pittsburgh in the wee hours Tuesday morning, Cranky Pants Belichick already had been at work for a full day, thumbing through a dozen dictionaries trying to find a meaning for the word "scalded" that might make good bulletin board material.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin labeled the Patriots as "scalded" Monday night, alluding to their 34-14 loss in Cleveland on Sunday. Tomlin might be too articulate for his own good.

Sure, the Browns bitchslapped the Patriots Sunday, but they did the same thing to the Saints two weeks ago and the Steelers couldn't beat them.

That puts another layer of importance on Sunday's game. A loss to the Patriots would suck not only because it's the Patriots, but also because it would hint that the Steelers aren't even as good as the Browns.

Yep, 6-2 means nothing.

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