Tomlin, Tanner, Tomlinson ...

SCI publisher Jim Wexell attempts to escape the dark cloud over him by putting his thoughts down on paper before the Pittsburgh Steelers host the San Diego Chargers in the playoffs.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who can't remember a more important game for the Steelers' organization:

* Since the Steelers beat the Ravens last month, fans have come to expect a long playoff run. If it doesn't happen, and Mike Tomlin goes 0-2 in home playoff games, the grumbling, I believe, won't end with the firing of the offensive coordinator.

* The Steelers entered the playoffs with the worst offense of all playoff teams. They turned the ball over more often and were sacked more times than all entrants, and scored, on average, only one-tenth of a point more than the vanquished Miami Dolphins.

* If the Steelers lose, I don't expect a coach, who refused all season to make excuses, to suddenly blame the O-line and the schedule for his wretched offense.

* But the only way Tomlin takes serious heat for an early exit is if he changes quarterbacks before the game. It's something he won't do.

* It's something I'd do. I have little confidence in concussed quarterbacks and hope Tomlin's standing by with a Chuck Tanner-like quick hook.

* Of course, the Steelers' road became easier with San Diego's upset of Indianapolis. The true war this weekend will be waged in Tennessee against Baltimore.

* Amazing how similar this year's Ravens are to the 2005 Steelers: great defense, great run game, rookie quarterback, and similar path (particularly if they get a break and have to beat the AFC West in the semifinals).

* The Ravens' biggest question is whether Joe Flacco can replicate Ben Roethlisberger. The former hasn't shown the latter's competitiveness in fourth quarters yet.

* After watching Flacco in last year's Division I-AA championship game, where he completed 48 percent of his passes in a 49-21 blowout loss to Appalachian State, I'd have never expected him to be where he's at now.

* Then again, I'm always wrong about the Ravens' draft picks. Must be that I dislike them instantly.

* Do you know what Ed Reed enjoys most about scoring touchdowns? Trotting back on the field and trying to score again. Offensive players never get that opportunity.

* Bill Cowher, in his last pre-game show of the season, questioned Flacco's ability to make it to the Super Bowl and picked the Steelers instead. I have to admit I've enjoyed watching Cowher this season, and he certainly enhanced his legacy with fans by waving his Terrible Towel before the Titans game, criticizing LenDale White for disgracing the Towel after the game, and then turning away the wealthy owner of the Cleveland Browns without a listen. Cowher can approach Chuck Noll and The Chief as patron saints if he keeps it up.

* Cowher also asked Jeff Fisher a great question Sunday: What message were you sending your team when you put the pads on before Thursday's practice?

* Yes, on the same day Tomlin rested his players, Fisher turned up the heat on his. "They weren't particularly pleased with it," Fisher told Cowher. "But sometimes when they don't like something it's good for them."

* Wasn't it funny that a story appeared Sunday in a Pittsburgh paper that praised Tomlin for being such a nice guy for doing such nice things for his players?

* Nah, I wasn't amused, either. Win a playoff game before casting him into sainthood.

* My guess, and this is only a guess, is that when Tomlin considered whether to call off Thursday's practice, he realized his quarterback was still under his hoodie and that practice couldn't be fulfilling anyway.

* I'm hoping that this obvious storyline has a plot twist somewhere.

* Or am I being too negative? Yes, I want the team to win for more than just my business goals, but I can't escape the dark cloud hanging over me.

* For optimism, fans should probably read Ron Cook's column today in the Post-Gazette about how the Ravens, in the AFC title game, are the Steelers' real concern.

* Perhaps my negativity began with Marshall Faulk's comment on the NFL Network about the Colts: "You're not going to win in the playoffs if you can't run the football. They don't have a glimpse of a run game."

* Of course, the Colts, the only playoff team with a worse run game than the Steelers, were eliminated by a team that just couldn't quite give that game away.

* I have to laugh, laugh, laugh at the youngsters who criticize us old run-game fuddy-duddies by themselves living in the past and spewing run-game stats from the 2005 playoffs. That team had already established the run, and the pass game was a surprise. This team still needs to establish its own identity before calling on game plans from the glory year.

* Arians, in fact, did just that, and he snidely mocked Pittsburghers as people who "believe if you run 30 times you automatically win." Has he lost his mind? Doesn't he realize that his boss, the guy who signs his checks, is one of them?

* The morning after that great game between the Giants and the Panthers a few weeks ago, Dan Rooney walked into a room and joked that "I want a fullback now, too."

* I say that he joked only because it would've been taken too literally by fans otherwise. Then again, five days later the Steelers used a fullback in front of 17 run plays. In the previous four games combined they'd used a fullback in front of 9 run plays.

* Against San Diego, the fullback was used in front of five running plays. One of those, out of the rarest of formations -- the traditional 2WR/2RB set -- included my last recollection of Carey Davis at the position. He was 1 for 2 on third-and-1s, and apparently that wasn't good enough.

* If one quarterback is concussed, and when healthy has directed a sack-filled and turnover-riddled offense all season, what is the basement for the backup quarterback? And Leftwich is by no means a schlep. He's a mistake made by a Jacksonville franchise that's firing its personnel people. And he's healthy for once in his life.

* The downside of course is losing the trust of your $102 million quarterback. Money rules ... again.

* Can Arians be blamed for the offensive line? No. But can he be blamed when he didn't even want the guy who's turned into his best lineman? That might be the big question next week.

* Lorenzo Neal, even at 38, would be a great free-agent pickup. He'd at least become a mentor to whichever young fullback joined him on the roster.

* Jason Brown, the young center with the Ravens, should be another target next March. It's a win-win when you can sign away your rival's top players.

* Speaking of centers, A.Q. Shipley was Penn State's best player in the Rose Bowl. I realize the Steelers' need is greater at guard (where Brown could play), but Shipley has toughness and mobility the organization looks for in a young center, and he can be had in the fourth round.

* Not that I would be critical of the Steelers drafting Shipley in the third round.

* I'm off to the South Side to begin a week of "Ben, Ben, Ben." He'll love it, of course, but frankly I've grown tired of the national largesse, particularly after watching the low-key and upbeat Leftwich run practice and seeing how the team responds to him. Now it's back to the rock star.

* The last time the Steelers played the Chargers, they didn't have Heath Miller or Bryant McFadden, and the Chargers had LaDainian Tomlinson. So with the added artillery, and the Chargers' loss, I really can't see the Chargers beating the Steelers ... unless the Steelers beat themselves.


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