Upon Further Review

Perhaps the curious has now become commonplace in the fourth-quarter thought process of the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In this December of Heinz Field Sundays, each game has concluded with a flurry of activity, an outcome in doubt until the final gun, and head-scratching among the Steelers' fandom and members of the fourth estate.

* Against Oakland, Coach Mike Tomlin trotted out Jeff Reed to attempt a 53-yard field goal, citing the kicker's "history," even though a cursory review reveals Reed never having converted a kick beyond 50 yards at Heinz Field.

* Against Green Bay, Tomlin opted for an onside kick with just under four minutes remaining as a means of protecting a two-point lead, citing "30 minutes of evidence" that neither team's defense was capable of registering a stop. The Steelers did get the ball back, as Tomlin had hoped, with sufficient time to mount a game-winning drive, but the math reveals that by going onside, he very easily could have ceded the ball, the short field and the clock.

* Against Baltimore, with Baltimore unable to stop the clock, and facing 3rd & 11 from their own 40-yard line, the Steelers chose to go to the air with a 3-point lead, rather than drain the clock of 40 more precious seconds.

This decision was even more suspect when one considers the fifteen minutes of evidence of Steelers defensive play during yesterday's 4th quarter. Coach Dick LeBeau's charges had matched the Ravens' largesse in the form of penalties, dumb penalties (yes, there is a difference) and dropped touchdown passes with solid play of their own in the form of a trio of 4th quarter sacks. In so doing, the Steelers had done three times what they had failed to do since Daylight Savings Time ended, that being to execute a 4th quarter stop on their home field. In eight previous opportunities, spanning three games, the Steelers defense had surrendered six touchdowns and a pair of field goals.

It was not a manageable 3rd down that the Steelers faced at yesterday's two-minute mark, but rather a long-yardage situation. Following the two-minute warning, most expected the Steelers to hand the ball off, watch the clock move to the 80-second mark, and then kick it away to the Ravens, who would set up shop deep in their own territory, needing to drive into field goal range without the benefit of a timeout, versus this defensive squad that was bringing sufficient heat on quarterback Joe Flacco. In yet another display of one "rather being lucky than smart," the ensuing Ravens interception of a Ben Roethlisberger pass and return to the cusp of field-goal range was negated by yet another yellow flag, and the Steelers were victors once more.

Other game notes:

* Once again, let's not be hasty with waving goodbye to Jeff Reed. The kicker made three more kicks, including the game-winner from 38-yards into the treacherous open end of the North Side sandbox, and was even able to shove Baltimore's kick returner out of bounds in Steelers territory.

* Undrafted free agent receiver Tyler Grisham was able to accomplish what Limas Sweed could not this year, making a 3rd down catch to extend the Steelers' game-winning drive. Of course, Grisham then seemingly contracted the contagious Sweed Flu, dropping a 3rd down pass on the play preceding the winning field goal. Stefan Logan made an appearance with the Steelers offense as well, marking a departure from the usual practice of employing tight end Heath Miller and a running back as the 4th and 5th wide receivers.

The story of the week is the plausibility of the Steelers qualifying for the NFL's post-season tournament. The Steelers once again benefited from the kindness of strangers as the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles vanquished the Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos, respectively. The efforts of the Pats and Iggles were not exactly philanthropic, though, as they nailed down their own invites to the playoffs in the process.

In the other story of the day from Sunday, one has to speculate that a loss was in fact desirable to the "organizational" goals of the Indianapolis Colts. How could they have shut things down in frigid Buffalo next week with an undefeated season looming? Now, it's a non-issue.

While the Steelers still need help, one does find some beacons of light amid the conventional thinking that both the Pats, facing the Texans, and the Bengals, facing the Jets, will rest their players, and treat themselves to a late-season bye. Here are the arguments:

* The Patriots haven't been able to string together consistent games throughout the '09 campaign. After yesterday's domination of the Jaguars, Coach Bill Belichick may be reluctant to take his foot off the gas. The No. 3 seed that the Pats can earn with a win is also not without value. No team knows this better than the Patriots, who lost the '06 AFC Championship Game at the home of No. 3 seed Indianapolis.

* Do the Bengals want to enter this post-season having lost three of their last four games, their final three road games, and their only victory via a late-game score against the lowly Chiefs? Prior to the '05 playoffs, the AFC North Champion Bengals lost their final two games and were a quick exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Steelers. Let us also not forget that the Bengals have had very little national exposure, and their playing to win just might be maximized in this game, flexed by the NFL schedule maker into the Sunday Night slot, for the entire nation to see.

* Should the Patriots win, Steeler Nation may be in position for an early celebration if the Oakland Raiders have one more upset in their bag of tricks. It's been one week on, one week off for the Silver & Black, going back to November, beating the Bengals, Steelers and Broncos, with losses to the Redskins and Browns in between. Will the Raiders hold serve, and upset the Ravens in the Black Hole?

New Year's dreams must be tempered, however, with a review of the most recent history. While the Steelers received the help they needed from their NFL cohorts to qualify for playoff spots in '76, '77, '89, '93 and '05, the friendliness was most often spawned from teams out of the playoff hunt, or seeking to qualify themselves, the notable exceptions being the '76 Raiders and '93 Oilers. The Raiders, notably, beat the Bengals in a nationally televised Monday Night contest. The Oilers, notably, beat the Jets in the final Sunday Nighter of the season, the game in which Houston defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, took exception to Houston offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and threw a haymaker in his direction. Jets, Sunday Night, Ryan; perhaps there are too many similarities to ignore.

The last time though, that the Steelers needed help from a playoff qualifier in order to gain entry to the tournament themselves though, was in 2000, when a Christmas Eve victory by the visiting Minnesota Vikings at Indy was needed. Who turned up under center in that game for the Minnie Vikes though? Old friend, Bubby Brister. The Vikes were quickly dispatched, along with the playoff hopes of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Is there some magic left in the '09 campaign? The Steelers must win in South Florida, and then watch the scoreboard.

For more by Dave Villiotti, check out We're From the Town with the Great Football Team: A Pittsburgh Steelers Manifestoas well as We Cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers: The ‘70s, available at both www.amazon.com and www.lulu.com

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