Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Consistent superstar Crosby keeps rolling forward for Penguins

By Josh Yohe 
Published: Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, 10:21 p.m.

NEWARK — Sidney Crosby has scored more goals and produced more points halfway through previous seasons.

But he never has been this reliably great.

“Especially with Geno having been out a lot lately,” center Brandon Sutter said, referring to Evgeni Malkin's absence. “There's so much pressure on him every night, and obviously teams are completely zoning in on him. But he just keeps producing.”

Consider what Crosby has played without for much of the season:

• He has played the past two games, and will play the rest of the regular season, without right wing Pascal Dupuis.
• He has played 20 games without power-play weapon James Neal.
• His fellow superstar, Malkin, has missed nine games with multiple injuries.
• He has played without puck-moving defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin for large chunks of the season.

With nearly half of the Penguins' lineup hurt at some point, Crosby has been the opposition's focal point more than ever.

Yet, he's scoring at the most consistent level of his career, tallying points in 33 of his team's first 41 games.

Crosby's December has been particularly consistent. Playing most of the month without Malkin, he has registered a point in 12 of 13 games. He has notched nine goals and 22 points this month.

His game never was known for dramatic fluctuations, but now, indifferent periods that were occasional a few years ago are almost undetectable.

“It's hard to remember that far back now,” Crosby said. “You get to know teams and players better through the years. You learn what's important. It's a little easier when you put your energy toward what is important.”

Producing points on a daily basis is what is important to Crosby, and he's doing so impressively. His 58 points are five clear of Chicago's Patrick Kane for the NHL lead, and his 116-point pace would be the second best of his career, despite scoring in the NHL being down half a goal per game compared to when he won the Art Ross Trophy with 120 points in 2007.

“I think he's been great,” left wing Chris Kunitz said. “Nothing bothers him, whether there are people out of the lineup or teams are going out of their way to stop him. He just wants to be the best and wants to get better every night.”

It could be argued Crosby never has dealt with more responsibility in his career than right now. Aside from being the team captain, he has seen additional penalty killing responsibility and his minutes increase.

“And he's always seeing top defensive pairings, especially right now,” Kunitz said. “Our team relies on him to score the points, win the faceoffs in every zone. All the while, teams are focused on trying to stop him. It takes a special kind of talent to do what he's doing right now.”

Crosby maintains that scoring in the NHL is harder than ever. Statistics confirm this, as scoring is lower this season than during any of Crosby's nine in the NHL.

“It's as tough as it's ever been with the way teams are playing defense,” Crosby said. “You just have to find a way to be up for every game mentally.”

So far, so good.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5330183-74/crosby-points-penguins#ixzz2p3WKpolt 
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Photo: USA Today Sports

Monday, December 30, 2013

Steelers' 8-8 record befits their season

By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
December 30, 2013
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell scores a touchdown Sunday against the Browns at Heinz Field. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)
The Steelers vacated Heinz Field for the North Side gloom Sunday not knowing whether they would play their next football game within eight days or within 8½ months, but they knew this:
They had won the coveted Water Street Trophy.
Never heard of it?
That might have something to do with the fact that I just made it up, but it's no small thing.
With their eighth win of season, a routine, 20-7 arm-twisting of the typically down-and-out Cleveland Browns, the Steelers guaranteed they would go home with more victories than the Pitt Panthers, with whom they share the same South Side football factory at 3400 South Water.
Pitt cranked up the heat a bit with a bedazzling [not really] Pizza Bowl victory against Bowling Green the day after Christmas, making it 7 wins apiece within the building.
But, after Sunday, the fictitious Water Street Trophy goes to the Black & Gold, even though they didn't bother to actually win a game until Oct. 13.
"We knew we had a good football team," said Ike Taylor, now 11 years into this Steelers life, "but, when you're consistent at being inconsistent, you get that 8-8 record."
It wasn't just that this Steelers team managed to sidestep the first losing season under Mike Tomlin, it further managed to put a signature on an 8-8 autumn that was so darned 8-8 it was a little spooky.
How 8-8 is this, for example?
Across 16 hair-raising episodes, the Steelers gained exactly 5,400 yards, their opponents exactly 5,395. The Steelers did that while scoring 379 points, their opponents 370. And if that doesn't stretch credulity, see if you can determine what the following people have in common, other than that they consistently cash checks signed by someone named Rooney: Troy Polamalu, Matt Spaeth, William Gay, Cortez Allen, Will Johnson, Derek Moye.
Eclectic group right there, no?
An eight-time Pro Bowl safety, a back-up tight end, two cornerbacks, a little-used fullback and a free-agent wideout who was de-activated on game day more often that he wasn't.
Well, all six scored the same number of touchdowns this year as decorated tight end Heath Miller. They all scored one, and that, too, is the definition of 8-8, if not 7-9 or 6-10 or worse.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/gene-collier/2013/12/30/Gene-Collier-Steelers-8-8-record-befits-their-season/stories/201312300100#ixzz2oxd5CSqa

Steelers' luck ran dry, but not well

By Dejan Kovacevic 
Published: Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, 10:45 p.m.

The kick went wide.
Of course it went wide.
The fumble return for a touchdown was waved off.
Of course it was waved off.
All that luck the Steelers had been hoarding for two weeks — the cumulative equivalent of a five-leaf clover, a rabbit's entire leg and a ball ricocheting right into Franco's hands — all of it disintegrated blow by devastating blow on their TV sets Sunday night.
Chargers 27, Chiefs 24.
And from wherever the Steelers watched that outcome quash what would have been an incredible playoff berth, a few reacted on social media.
Some of it was sadness. Injured Larry Foote tweeted: “Feel like I just got reinjured. My heart is broken.”
Some was anger. Marcus Gilbert, in an apparent lapse of reason, accused Kansas City kicker Ryan Succop — he of the 41-yard miss that would have sent the Steelers to the playoffs — of cheating: “Well? Succop? What was it? Point shaving? Tell me why?”
But the most poignant came from Le'Veon Bell right after the Succop shank: “SMH. Knew it, tho. Simply knew it.”
That's “SMH” as in shake my head. And that's “knew it” as in … well, didn't you, too?
Surreal as this Sunday felt well beyond the Steelers' 20-7 bouncing of the Cleveland Browns, let's get real here for a moment.
Two weeks ago, the Steelers had a 1 percent mathematical chance at the playoffs.
Last week, they needed four games to go their way. All did.
And Sunday, they needed to take care of business and for the Cincinnati Bengals' Andy Dalton to overcome four picks to beat the Baltimore Ravens and for the New York Jets' Geno Smith and his 65.3 QB rating to dance around the Miami Dolphins … and they needed the Kansas City Chiefs in the nightcap to win after Andy Reid decided to rest several starters.
Almost but not quite.
The irrational will blame Succop. That's just weird.
Others will blame Reid. As if the Steelers haven't employed exactly the same practice in recent years.
But most, I suspect, will blame the Steelers for going 0-4, then 2-6, for blowing a game at the Minnesota Vikings' 6-yard line in London, for conceding a 93-yard TD run to Terrelle Pryor, for losing to a Miami team in bitter cold and snow.
“The Dolphins, man,” Ramon Foster was lamenting after the Steelers' victory Sunday. “We lost to the Dolphins.”
They did, but they also flipped 2-6 into 6-2.
And that's why I won't take the blame route. Not now.
The convenient stance to take is that, if only they had beaten one lesser opponent, they would have been OK. Well, no kidding.
But doesn't what followed count for anything, including toward the future?
Sorry, I'm giving credit where due: This wasn't the best edition of the Steelers, to be kind, but you had better believe it was among the most resilient.
“I'm really proud of what's happened,” Ben Roethlisberger said after the victory Sunday. “We had one of the worst records in football, but guys continued to fight, never quit.”
No one led that charge like Roethlisberger. Not on the field, where he didn't miss a snap. Certainly not off it.
But beyond the intangibles, beyond the stubbornly solid foundation built and now possibly rebuilt by Mike Tomlin, there were real reasons to feel that 6-2 surge portends well for 2014 and beyond.
That's especially true on offense, where the scoring average was 28.2 over the final nine games. Antonio Brown is 25, he's signed for the long term, and he's brilliant. Bell grew by bounds each week. The younger fixtures on the O-line stepped up eventually. And hey, give credit — even if through gritted teeth — to Todd Haley for some of that.
“A lot of things got better for us as a unit,” Brown said.
The defense is old and flawed, and it's imperative to address that without sentiment. But I also saw Cam Heyward grow up, Cortez Allen settle down and Jarvis Jones blossom a bit in Week 17 with a game-high nine tackles.
Remember all the angst after London about needing years and years to rebuild?
Not getting that now.
Oh, and for fun, I'll remind that the NFL's best playoff teams tend to have peaked late.
“Imagine that,” Ike Taylor said after the game. “Imagine us and the Bengals with how we're going right now. There would be hell to pay, man.”
Alas, the payment on this season finally came due.

Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/dejankovacevic/dejancolumns/5327187-74/steelers-kovacevic-dejan#ixzz2oxYzfim2 
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Neal has 3 goals, 2 assists as Pens beat CBJ, 5-3

By Rusty Miller
December 29, 2013

Neal has 3 goals, 2 assists as Pens beat CBJ, 5-3

James Neal improved his season totals to 14 goals and 16 assists in 21 games with last night's 5-point effort in Columbus. (AP)
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are on a record pace halfway through the season.

Related Stories

Imagine what they might do if they get healthy.
James Neal scored three times and had two assists, andSidney Crosby added the go-ahead goal and set up two other tallies to lead the Penguins past the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-3 on Sunday night.
''With the injuries we've had, the guys have come in, and the job they've done is a big reason why we've had a decent first half,'' Crosby said after the Penguins improved to 29-11-1. ''We were at a point where we started to lose guys and it could have gone either way. But we've found a way to survive.''
Not only survive, but flourish.
Their 29 wins eclipsed the previous franchise record for victories through 41 games, snapping a tie with the 1992-93 team which won a franchise-record 56 games and the Stanley Cup.

Sun, Dec 29, 2013

The Penguins' 59 points are just one behind that team that was led by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. The Penguins are on pace for 58-22-2 record - again just a point behind the club mark of 119 put up by the '92-93 team.
The Penguins have done it despite losing defensemen Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Paul Martin for extended stretches, along with forwards Pascal Dupuis, Chuck Kobasew and superstar Evgeni Malkin, along with backup goalie Tomas Vokoun.
''The one thing about our team, especially over the last 25 games, we've won as a team,'' coach Dan Bylsma said. ''We've found ways to win. Different guys have been stepping up.''
Chris Kunitz added his 21st goal and two assists, and Jeff Zatkoff made 25 saves for the Penguins, who have won all four meetings with Columbus this season.
Crosby's shot, which broke a 2-2 tie midway through the third period, was initially stopped by Curtis McElhinney. But Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin plowed into McElhinney, and the puck ended up over the goal line. It was Crosby's 22nd goal of the season off a feed from Kunitz on a 2-on-2 rush.

Three Stars

  1. James Neal
    #18, Pittsburgh
  2. Sidney Crosby
    #87, Pittsburgh
  3. Corey Tropp
    #26, Columbus
''I saw it when (McElhinney) fell on it and it was sort of tucked under his armpit, and ended up falling into the net,'' Crosby said.
Neal scored twice on the power play - the Penguins were 3 for 6 with the advantage - including his third goal of the night and 14th of the season with 2:27 left which gave him a career-high five points.
He credited Crosby and Kunitz for making his job easy.
''There's only one puck out there, and those guys are so skilled,'' he said. ''On any given night, one of them is going to step up. That's just the way it is. It's fun to be able to be around guys like that. They're unbelievable.''
Brandon Dubinsky, Corey Tropp and Nikita Nikitin scored for the Blue Jackets before a season-high home crowd of 18,871. Nikitin also had an assist.
Moments after Crosby scored, he sent a cross-ice pass to Kunitz for a one-timed shot that pushed Pittsburgh's lead to two. Neal's final goal sealed the win.
Zatkoff, who earned his first career shutout in Columbus on Nov. 2, had 25 saves.
The Blue Jackets more than held their own when the teams were at even strength. For large portions of the first and second periods, they controlled the puck and pressured the Penguins in their zone.
But eventually they blinked, and that was all the Penguins needed.
''For me, it was about cracking and we cracked first,'' Columbus coach Todd Richards said. ''It was a 2-2 game, and I liked the way we started the third period. But we were the team that broke first.''
NOTES: Scuderi, who had missed 29 games with a broken ankle, returned. ... Blue Jackets LW Blake Comeau played in his 400th NHL game. ... Columbus recalled C Ryan Craig from AHL Springfield on Sunday and then sent him back when fourth-line C Derek MacKenzie was able to play after taking a puck off the shin on Friday. ... Pittsburgh was without Malkin, Dupuis, Martin and Letang. Columbus was missing Nathan Horton, Marian Gaborik, Matt Calvert, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP
Photos: AP

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Unexpectedly, an Aging Jagr Has Become the Jagr of Old

NEWARK — As the milestones mount, the quips keep coming.
Jaromir Jagr held court in the Devils’ locker room after surpassing another hockey great’s achievement, cracking jokes in his thick Czech accent, always on the hunt for the punch line.
On Dec. 18, Jagr scored the 122nd game-winning goal of his N.H.L. career, breaking Gordie Howe’s record. Did he know much about Howe, who retired in 1980?
“I never played against him,” Jagr said, pausing for reporters’ laughter. “No, he’s Mr. Hockey. It’s a big honor for me to break his record. That’s why I practice, so I can be strong in the third period.”
Was he finally turning serious?
“It’s all about me, scoring the game-winning goals,” Jagr added, then flashed a grin. “Just kidding.”
In the past 30 days, Jagr, 41, passed Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman on the N.H.L. list for career goals, and is with Mark Messier in seventh place with 694. He was also a point short of seventh place in career points, occupied by Lemieux with 1,723, after assisting on a goal in the Devils’ 2-1 victory against the Islanders on Saturday.
Jagr will turn 42 during the Olympics in February in Sochi, Russia; the Czech Republic team will be announced next month. But he has longer-range plans.
“I hope to play in them after I go back to Czech,” Jagr said, referring to the 2018 Olympics.
Jagr’s performance this season has been a surprise gift to the Devils and to hockey. When General Manager Lou Lamoriello signed him as a free agent in July, many regarded him as a fill-in on power plays and on spot shifts, an honorable coda to a career of more than a quarter-century with 11 clubs in five countries. No one expected him to be the Devils’ leading scorer.
Jagr came to the N.H.L. as a teenager sporting a mullet and wearing No. 68 in honor of his grandfather’s resistance to the 1968 Soviet invasion. He played 11 years in Pittsburgh, where he and Lemieux won two Stanley Cups and it was often noted that Jaromir was an anagram of Mario Jr. From there, Jagr went to Washington, then spent three and a half years leading the Rangers’ Czech contingent. He also played for Kladno, his hometown team, and for Avangard Omsk in Siberia.
After three years in the Russian K.H.L., he returned to the N.H.L. in 2011 with Philadelphia, his hair shorter and his whiskers flecked with gray. Last season, Jagr wound up with Boston for the Bruins’ trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
He has won five N.H.L. scoring titles, an Olympic gold medal and two world championships. He has overcome gambling and tax problems. He has never taken an N.H.L. fighting major penalty. He has left a long trail of delighted fans and teammates with highlight-reel goals like the one he scored against Chicago in the 1992 Cup finals, when he stick-handled through four Blackhawks and backhanded the puck past goalie Ed Belfour.
But Jagr looked slow and did not score a goal in Boston’s 22-game run to the finals last season. Some said he could not handle the grind of an N.H.L. schedule anymore.
Lamoriello, however, understood that Jagr played 101 games last season: 33 with the Bruins, 34 before that with Dallas and 34 with Kladno during the lockout. He figured Jagr still had something left and could help make up for Ilya Kovalchuk’s departure to St. Petersburg, Russia.
“I didn’t know what to expect from Jaromir,” Devils Coach Peter DeBoer said. “I watched him in Dallas last year and he was a very good player, almost a point-a-game guy. I watched him in Boston, on the third line in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I thought he was a very good player in that role, even though he wasn’t producing at the level he had.”
He added: “The thing with players when they get up in age is you never know how much they’re going to lose from one year to the next, so that was the intangible. But because of his conditioning and how he takes care of himself, he hasn’t lost anything from last year. Which makes him the player we thought he was going to be, which is a very good one.”
More than very good, Jagr has been the Devils’ best player. He has 13 goals and 21 assists and was a team-leading plus-11 heading into Saturday.
Although tired of being asked if he is surprised to be playing so well, Jagr inevitably makes a joke about it.
“Honestly, I thought I was going to be better,” Jagr will say. “But I’m working on it. I’m going to get better.”
Other aging N.H.L. skaters have done well. Howe scored 15 goals for the Hartford Whalers before retiring at 51; Chris Chelios played defense for the Atlanta Thrashers at 48. Teemu Selanne, 43 and in his farewell season, had 11 points in 30 games for the league-leading Anaheim Ducks going into Saturday. Daniel Alfredsson, 41, is among the Detroit Red Wings’ top scorers.
But Jagr is on track to become the N.H.L.’s oldest team scoring leader; he will be 42 years and almost 2 months old at the end of the season. Howe holds the current mark, according to Elias Sports Bureau, at 42 years 5 days when he led the 1969-70 Red Wings in points.
Goalie Martin Brodeur noted Jagr’s value to the Devils.
“Dallas and Boston were different types of teams last year, with a little more depth, maybe, than us,” Brodeur said. “But with us losing Kovy and everything we needed to replace, plus injuries, it opened up a lot of space in the first two lines, and Jaromir has been there all the way.”
He added: “Good players need ice time. They need to be put in situations, and they’ll perform. If they’re not put in the situation, it’s harder, especially when you get older. But when you’re given that, and you’re embracing it, well, with Jaromir you see the result.”
Jagr’s place on the career scoring lists is impressive, yet he might be standing higher — behind only Wayne Gretzky and Howe — if he had not spent 2008-9 through 2010-11 with Avangard in the K.H.L.
Asked whether he regretted leaving the N.H.L. for three seasons, Jagr grew serious.
“I’m never going to look back and complain about whatever I did,” he said. “At that time I thought it was the right way to do it.”
Jagr continued: “Who knows if I’d be playing hockey right now if I didn’t go to Russia? I played less games there. I had a chance to see my parents; they’re getting pretty old, so I figured it’s the right thing to do.”
After a recent practice, Jagr lingered in the dressing room, empty except for three reporters and an equipment manager, to talk hockey. He said he was impressed with the Dallas rookie Valeri Nichushkin.
“He’s so fast and strong, great stick handler; he’s going to be a superstar,” Jagr said.
Asked if Nichushkin reminded him of anyone, Jagr said, “Me.”
He paused for laughter.
“Just kidding.”

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Penguins push past Canes to win 4-3 in OT

calexander@newsobserver.comDecember 27, 2013 

              Carolina Hurricanes' Alexander Semin (28), of Russia, battles with Pittsburgh Penguins' James Neal (18) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/12/27/3488650/penguins-push-past-canes-in-overtime.html#storylink=cpy
 — The Pittsburgh Penguins keep losing players but winning games.
The Penguins did it again Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes. James Neal’s goal 63 seconds into overtime gave the Pens a 4-3 victory at PNC Arena.
Earlier Friday, Penguins coach Dan Blysma said veteran forward Pascal Dupuis would undergo knee surgery and might be lost for the season. That was a downer for the Pens, who also played Friday without center Evgeni Malkin, but they didn’t let it affect their play on the ice.
The Canes controlled much of the first two periods, leading 1-0 after the first and 2-1 after the second. But Carolina (14-15-9) again could not hold a third-period lead and lost yet another overtime game.
“We came out and had a really strong two periods but the difference was they capitalized on their chances and we didn’t,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said.
The Canes have dropped four straight games and are 1-2-4 in their past seven. They’re 1-6 this season in games decided in overtime, and 1-3 in shootouts, letting a lot of potential points slip away.
“Overtimes and shootouts have not been good for us,” Canes center Jordan Staal said. “We’ve got to find a way to get those two points.”
When Pens defenseman Deryk Engelland scored with fewer than seven minutes left in regulation, the Canes trailed 3-2 and were in danger of another regulation loss. On Monday, in their final game before the Christmas break, the Canes saw Columbus surge with two goals in the final minutes for a 4-3 comeback win.
But Drayson Bowman playing one of the best games of his NHL career, tied the score with 2:29 left in regulation. The winger beat Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a wraparound for a 3-3 tie.
The Canes had the first two shots of overtime, only to have Neal zoom down the ice and beat Canes goalie Justin Peters for the winner.
Defenseman Andrej Sekera scored for the Canes in the final seconds of the first period, beating Fleury with a top-shelf backhander. The Pens’ Sidney Crosby tied it 1-1 with a backhander 16 seconds in the second period, but Canes forward Nathan Gerbe fought off Pens defenseman Matt Niskanen and scored 14 seconds after Crosby.
Chris Conner’s goal about two minutes into the third made it a 2-2 game as the Pens had more jump and intensity and moved the puck better.
“They came out desperate,” Peters said. “They definitely elevated their game.”
Gerbe had a goal and assist, and Jordan Staal and Alex Semin each had assists as the Canes’ second line was matched up much of the game against Crosby’s line. The Pens, in turn, wouldn’t let the Canes’ Jeff Skinner be a difference-maker, limiting the dangerous winger – who has 10 goals in December – to one shot.
The Canes said Friday that forward Jiri Tlusty underwent an emergency appendectomy Tuesday and would be lost for two to three weeks. With Tlusty out, Bowman was shifted to the third line and forward Zach Boychuk recalled from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL.
Former Canes forward Jussi Jokinen, who had a hat trick against his old team earlier this season, had the primary assist on Neal’s goal and finished with three helpers. Neal assisted on the goals by Crosby and Conner.
The Pens, 28-11-1 and at the top of Eastern Conference, lost 5-0 at Ottawa in their final game before the three-day holiday break, ending a seven-game win streak. But they rebounded behind Fleury, who had 31 saves and was called the Pens’ best player by Bylsma.
“They kept battling and made some nice plays,” Canes defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “They’re a good team and we couldn’t close them out.”
Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/12/27/3488650/penguins-push-past-canes-in-overtime.html#storylink=cpy

Steelers' Polamalu, Brown selected for Pro Bowl

By Alan Robinson 
Published: Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, 10:27 p.m.

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown's record-breaking season earned him his second Pro Bowl selection. Safety Troy Polamalu's comeback season earned him his eighth trip.

This is the 13th consecutive year and the 22nd time in 25 seasons the Steelers will send multiple players to the Pro Bowl, which will be played Jan. 26 in Honolulu.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was one of the more significant players passed over, but he is expected to be selected if any of the other quarterbacks pass on the invitation. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers were selected from the AFC.

Brown, whose 1,412 yards receiving with one game remaining are a single-season Steelers record, was chosen as a wide receiver and a punt returner. He also was selected in 2011, when he won the first of his two Steelers MVP awards; the second came this season.

Of his play this season, Brown said, “I just want to continue to remain positive, continue to provide the team with situational plays and continue to never take anything for granted.”

Brown has 101 catches — eight for touchdowns — and his 94.1 yards receiving per game average is the highest in franchise history.

“AB's had a great year for us,” Polamalu said. “He's our team MVP. He's made a lot of splash plays on special teams and offense.”

A season after he was limited to five games by a torn calf, Polamalu is back in the Pro Bowl for the third time in four seasons. He has a career-high five forced fumbles, his fifth career defensive touchdown and two sacks plus two interceptions.

Asked if he thought he's played at a Pro-Bowl level, Polamalu said, “I don't know. I just look at ways to get better. I'm not looking at accomplishments.”

Polamalu's previous selections were from 2004-08 and 2010-11.

This will be the first time the Pro Bowl is played without the teams representing their conferences. Players will go into a pool and will be drafted, with no consideration to team or conference affiliations. The Chiefs and 49ers each had eight players selected. The Broncos had five, including Manning for a 13th time.

The Steelers had two Pro Bowl players last season, center Maurkice Pouncey and tight end Heath Miller.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/steelers/5317823-74/bowl-pro-steelers#ixzz2omK3tLFS 
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Double Coverage: Browns at Steelers

By Scott Brown and Pat McManamon
December 27, 2013

Edwin Baker and Jason Worilds
AP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesCan Edwin Baker and the Browns bury the slim playoff hopes of Jason Worilds and the Steelers?

The Browns and Steelers finish the regular season Sunday at Heinz Field and renew what had once been one of the most contentious rivalries in the NFL. 

The rivalry took a hiatus after Art Modell moved the Browns franchise to Baltimore, and the luster hasn’t returned to it since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999. The Steelers have lost to the Browns just five times since 1999, and Cleveland hasn’t won in Pittsburgh since 2003. 

The Browns will try to snap a nine-game losing streak Sunday at Heinz Field and extinguish what remains of the Steelers’ playoff hopes. NFL Nation reporters Pat McManamon (Browns) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game. 

Scott Brown: Pat, what type of effort and performance do you expect to see out of the Browns on Sunday? 

Pat McManamon: Well Scott, you’ve seen how these late-season games between these teams have gone. This should not be any different than the past four -- which were ugly. It also should be pretty similar to what we saw against the Jets. The Browns were lifeless, lackluster and gave every impression they have their cars packed and ready to get out of town -- if not physically, then mentally. 

A team that loses constantly and starts losing at the end of the season has a hard time pulling it together. All are true of the Browns. The coaches are trying, but the players ... well ... this could be like a lot of season finales against the Steelers: ugly. 

Do folks in Pittsburgh marvel at the Browns' annual struggles? It’s like the winter [solstice]. It comes every year. 

Brown: I think older fans who remember the Browns teams before they were uprooted are actually a little bit wistful about what Cleveland’s struggles have meant for this rivalry. It has become too one-sided for the Browns to even be in the conversation of the Steelers’ chief rival, and that is sad given the proximity of the two working-class cities, the Browns’ history and how passionate their fans are despite the franchise’s struggles since the NFL returned to Cleveland. 

I wonder if younger fans here look at the Browns the way they did the Pirates when the latter endured two decades of losing. They don’t see the tradition, the great fan support. They see a franchise that can’t get out of its own way and is not one to be taken seriously. All of that could change if the Browns continue to build on what appears to be a solid nucleus and add the obvious missing piece sooner rather than later. 

Speaking of which, how close are the Browns to winning and is it simply a matter of getting the right quarterback to pull everything together? 

McManamon: A few weeks ago it would have been convenient to say the Browns were a quarterback away. That was the simple solution. It also was the wrong solution. A quarterback is needed, yes, but so is a lot more. And once the Browns let center Alex Mackand safety T.J. Ward leave via free agency -- there has been no effort to sign them -- there will be two more self-created holes to fill. 

The Browns need a quarterback, a running back, a fullback, a second and third receiver, two or three offensive linemen, a second corner, a safety and perhaps another inside linebacker. Or two. If that doesn’t sound like a two- or three-year rebuilding project, it’s hard to say what does. 

The Steelers need a ton of help to reach the playoffs. Do you think it’s possible? 

Brown: It’s possible, but still very unlikely. First things first, the Steelers have to take care of their own business and beat the Browns. I do think they will win, but it is anything but a guarantee. The Steelers have had some bad losses this season, and anyone who thinks the Browns can’t add another one to their total needs only to be referred to games against the Vikings, Raiders and Dolphins. 

If the Steelers won any one of those three games they wouldn’t have needed nearly as much help as they do to get into the playoffs. As it stands, the Steelers need to beat the Browns and also for the Jets, Bengals and Chiefs to win. It sounds like the Chiefs are going to rest some of their key starters, so even if the three things that need to happen in the 1 p.m. ET games come through, the Steelers might not get the cooperation they need from Kansas City in San Diego. I will say this: The Steelers would love to take their chances on the Chiefs in the late-afternoon game, but I’m not sure they get wins from both the Jets and the Bengals. 

Pat, given the futility that has plagued the Browns’ organization, do you think it ever reaches a point where a significant numbers of fans will desert the team because they are so fed up with losing? 

McManamon: What’s amazing is it hasn’t happened yet, Scott. The Browns treat their fans like sheep, and the sheep just keep coming back. Six years in a row of 11-loss seasons add up to six years in a row of frustration. Empty promise has built on empty promise. A good portion of the fan base does seem turned off, but just as many are (again) excited about having a high draft pick. It’s mind-boggling. The Browns smack their fans in the face over and over and over, yet they keep coming back to be smacked again. Call them loyal, call them lemmings. They just keep coming back. 

What’s the future for Pittsburgh? The Steelers seem to be in a period of transition. Can they do it on the fly and still continue the winning tradition? 

Brown: I’m a lot more optimistic for the Steelers’ future than I was a couple of months ago. The offense has really come together, and I think it has a chance to carry the team while the Steelers retool their defense. The Steelers have a lot of youth on offense, starting with rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, and the line is relatively young too. If it could ever stay healthy, it could develop into a strength, and the Steelers may take a left tackle with one of their top picks in the 2014 draft. 

The biggest reason I don’t think the Steelers are facing a rebuilding period: QuarterbackBen Roethlisberger is still in his prime and has played at a very high level this season. If the Steelers’ record was better, we’d be talking about this probably being Roethlisberger’s best season, and he said earlier this week that he feels his best football is still ahead of him. 

Pat, if I’m convinced of anything in the NFL it is this: If you have a quarterback, you have a chance. Look at the respective paths the Browns and Steelers have taken since the former passed on Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft to take tight end Kellen Winslow. It is a case study in how important quarterbacks are in the NFL.