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CHANCE ENCOUNTER
Steelers overwhelm Bengals,
slim playoff hopes flickering

December 16, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

The score: Pittsburgh 30, Cincinnati 20

The bottom line: The Steelers got two touchdowns on huge special teams plays and made that stand up against a Bengals team that looked like anything but a serious postseason contender. In the process, Pittsburgh kept its precarious postseason hopes flickering on a day when five other AFC teams were eliminated.

It was over when: After playing the second half like THEY were the team with the 9-4 record, the Steelers found themselves on the verge of a one-score game after a Bengals TD midway through the fourth quarter on a blown fourth-down coverage pulled the visitors within 10. However, Jarvis Jones, who’s made very few impact plays in his rookie season, batted down Andy Dalton’s two-point conversion attempt to put the Bengals in an insurmountable hole.

Play of the day: The Bengals were just trying to get out of a forgettable first quarter, punting from their own end with 1:27 to go, but Antonio Brown and the Steelers special teams unit had other ideas. Brown took a low kick from Kevin Huber straight back up the field, busting through the Cincy wedge thanks to three key blocks (including a crushing one on Huber) and into the clear to stake Pittsburgh to a 3TD lead.

Hot topics:
+ We don’t want to sound rosy about this. The Steelers playoff chances are not good, but they’re not “million to one” or “better off playing the lottery” bad. They’re about 100 to 1. And it’s not WHAT needs to happen, but rather HOW MANY whats that are the real issue. In a nutshell, Pittsburgh needs 10 things to happen to qualify. Foremost among them, of course, is winning their own two games. Miami is the only team who needs to lose out. And the most unlikely thing that needs to happen is Geno Smith and the Jets winning twice. If you want to go over the whole scenario, click the link at right to see our blog from yesterday.
+ Predictably, attendance was an all-time Heinz Field low of around 45,000 and there were maybe 5,000 left at the final whistle. Don’t think it was predictable? Go back to last Wednesday and see our tweet where we predicted 20,000 no shows. The issue here is two fold: A Steelers problem (bad team, cold weather, spoiled fans) and an NFL problem (stadium experience has become blasé for many, living room experience more appealing).
+ Wow, what in the world are the Steelers going to do about LaMarr Woodley. Just one game after returning from a left calf injury, he left this game during the first series with a right calf injury. You’ll remember last year Woodley was largely sidelined with a series of left-right-left hamstring injuries. Bottom line: If a pass rusher’s legs go, he’s done. But in this case, that pass rushers counts $13 million (or so) against the salary cap. Releasing Woodley after the season (and before the draft) means all that hit comes in 2014. By releasing him after June 1, the hit can be spread out over two seasons, but you’re still talking about a team with a multitude of needs chewing up a portion of its payroll with a player who isn’t on your roster. Yikes.

Zebra hunting:
+ You don’t find much to complain about with the officiating when your team cruises to victory, but the non-call on the hit on Kevin Huber is likely to generate a considerable amount of discussion (and likely a fine for Terence Garvin) so let’s discuss that from the point of view of the rules. Before anyone starts talking about unwritten rules, let’s review the written rule. In this case, Rule 12, Article 9, Section 2, clearly establishes that kickers and punters are considered defenseless players when they are on the field for returns in any capacity, including as potential tacklers. That means blows to their head and neck are illegal and makes Garvin’s crushing block that broke Huber’s jaw an illegal play, clearly and simply. But here’s where the practical application of the rule comes into question. On that particular play, at game speed, how in the world could Garvin identify Huber as the punter before he blocked him? And how could an official do the same?

Game mismanagement:
+ With Mike Tomlin mostly relieved of making strategic blunders by a three-touchdown lead, Marvin Lewis stepped up to provide some fodder for this category. In a nutshell, the Bengals failed to use their timeouts and other game management tools to lengthen the second quarter of the game, when they still had a very reasonable opportunity to make a comeback, and then used them way too early in the fourth quarter and basically gave the game away before the critical final four minutes. Cincy’s first scoring possession used up nearly five minutes of clock. They then allowed Pittsburgh to run off another four minutes before finally using a timeout with 1:21 left. Lewis then made the opposite gaffe in the second half, calling his first timeout with 3:56 left, which basically made the game 3:30 shorter than it needed to be at a time when Cincy needed a score and an onside kick.

In the booth:

+ Yes, Chris Collinsworth went a bit overboard in his praise for the Steelers, in general, and for Todd Haley, in particular, but that’s often what happens in a blowout on national television. But in a game where Ben Roethlisberger got the ball out of his hand quickly and consistently, Collinsworth was right on the button when he said, “THIS is why Todd Haley was brought in, to get the ball out of #7’s hand and keep him healthy.” You have to admit, there’s a kernel of truth there and this is clearly as healthy as Roethlisberger’s been this late in a season in at least five years.
+ We thought NBC handled the Tomlin thing just right, giving it about two minutes of air time late in the first half and using one clip from the apology.

A word from our sponsors: We thought the great AT&T “Bigger Is Better” campaign was finally out of steam with the overplayed “Kindergarten” spot, but the “Dinosaur Ninja” spot that started running this weekend says otherwise. We’re guessing that’s the eighth incarnation of that spot and, as Beetlejuice might say, it keeps getting funnier.

Sweet tweet: “@15MinutesBlog: When your 1-in-125 playoff chances are on the line, you can count on Manny Sanders.” Blogger’s note: Thank you, thank you very much, we’ll be here all week. Try the veal.

Next week: The Steelers travel to Lambeau Field to face the Packers in a game between two all-time great franchises having forgettable seasons. Dallas’ collapse Sunday against Green Bay gives the home team a little something to play for next week and will likely be enough incentive to bring Aaron Rodgers back from a shoulder injury. If the Ravens lose tonight to Detroit, Pittsburgh will enter this game knowing for certain if their playoff hopes are still alive as both Miami-Buffalo and Cleveland-NYJ are 1 p.m. games. This game and the Patriots-Ravens game are both 4:25 p.m. and certainly Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are going to do that game, right? Right?

 
 
 

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Markus Wheaton celebrates Antonio Brown's first-quarter TD Sunday.

 
 
 
 

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