Sunday, January 01, 2012

Reliving Steelers' highs, lows so far

Sunday, January 1, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 08: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws a 79 yard touchdown pass to teammate Antonio Brown #84 against the Cleveland Browns during the game on December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Though their 16-game path varies from year to year, the Steelers typically land in a familiar spot: playoff-bound with a decent chance to win the Super Bowl.

What more could you ask for?

In 12 seasons since the millennium turned, this franchise has qualified for the playoffs eight times -- including this season -- and has won 12 playoff games, three AFC championships and two Super Bowls.

To put that into perspective, and perhaps lend a little on how the rest of the football world lives, consider that nearly half of the league's teams -- 14 of 32 -- are still scrounging for their first Super Bowl victory.

Once the Steelers complete their regular-season journey today in Cleveland, attention immediately will turn to the playoff opener.

As such, this would be the ideal time to peak into the rearview mirror and appraise a campaign that took root, as always, in sweltering heat amid the rolling hills of Latrobe ...

• MVP: Ben Roethlisberger. Did his teammates really not pick him (again) for this award? Somebody should tell them they'd be 8-8, at best, without their quarterback. Go watch tape of the Kansas City game, when Roethlisberger was under constant siege but still found a way to make the biggest play and win. Roethlisberger rebounded from a rough first quarter of the season, shrugged off injuries and led the team to wins in eight of his past 10 starts. Highlight was beating Tom Brady at his own game.

• Best Play: Franchise-record, 95-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace comes to mind. But in 40 years of watching football, I'd never seen a punt returner race 40 yards to crush a punter, one yard short of a first down. Antonio Brown, come on down!

• Worst Play: Baltimore's Torrey Smith somehow gets behind secondary (again?) to win critical game at Heinz Field.

• Biggest Surprise: Max Starks, having practiced three times in 338 days, returns to play superbly vs. Titans.

• Biggest Disappointment: Rashard Mendenhall -- though there's still time to make amends.

• Best Coaching Decision: Changing personalities on both sides to beat Patriots. That meant attempting 50 passes, much of the rhythm variety, and using press coverage to stifle Brady

• Worst Coaching Decision: Eschewing 47-yard field-goal attempt that could have beaten the Ravens, instead depending on wounded, tired defense that hadn't gotten off the field all night.

• Controversial Call: Troy Polamalu assures wife, from bench via cell phone, that he is OK after leaving Jacksonville game. Team neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon makes call and hands Polamalu phone. NFL fines Polamalu $10,000.

• Gatorade Award: Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose players dumped the bucket over him after wins at Heinz Field and against his brother's 49ers. What did Steelers linebacker James Farrior make of it? "Everybody knows there's only one time when you do that."

• Best Drive: After spirit-crushing interception gives New England easy second-quarter TD, Roethlisberger leads 10-play, 76-yard march.

• Worst Drive: Torn between Texans' 11-minute odyssey (10:55, to be exact) -- NFL's longest in three years -- and Curtis Painter's masterpiece: 80 yards in 10 plays.

• Where Did That Come From?: Daniel Sepulveda completes 33-yard pass to Ryan Mundy against Titans, same game in which Jonathan Dwyer rips off 76-yard run (he gained 47 yards on his other 15 carries this season).

• Courage/Crazy Award: James Harrison continues to play against Texans despite broken eye socket; Roethlisberger returns vs. Browns even though he can barely walk.

• Temporary Insanity Award: Tomlin leaves injured Roethlisberger by road side for buzzards to pick in San Francisco. He'd taken out LaMarr Woodley as a "precaution" for being "fatigued." He couldn't take out $102 million quarterback for being badly hurt and beaten up in hopeless cause?

• Sad Goodbyes: Aaron Smith, Sepulveda, Willie Colon and Chris Hoke among those who sustained season-ending injuries. Could be career-enders for Hoke and Smith, two pros who gave hearts and souls to franchise.

• Bounce-back Award: Week after he and Ryan Clark were beaten for late TD against Ravens, William Gay makes game-sealing interception at Cincinnati.

• Roger Goodell Conspiracy Award: Harrison becomes first player in 25 years suspended for a tackle, even though he'd gone full year without violating rules.

• Rip-Goodell-Because-He-Deserves-It Award: I'll take this one by asking a simple question: Do Goodell and money-grubbing owners still want to see an 18-game season and justify it in the name of fan interest? Look around, Roger. Behold the battered bodies. To subject these men to more punishment would not only represent the height of hypocrisy, irresponsibility and greed, it also would be borderline criminal. Give it up.

Quotes of The Year:

• "People that know and compete in this league understand there is a fine line between drinking wine and squashing grapes. Obviously, last weekend we were grape squashers." -- Tomlin, two days after season-opening loss at Baltimore

• "If I can't play then can't nobody play... Lights out!" -- Tweet from Harrison, after second power outage in San Francisco.

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