Monday, December 29, 2014

Steelers might need Antonio Brown's greatness to get past Ravens

By Scott Brown
December 29, 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84)
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) catches the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27).  The Enquirer/Jeff Swinger

PITTSBURGH -- The biggest reason to think the Pittsburgh Steelers will be all right if running back Le'Veon Bell is unable to play in the wild-card round is Antonio Brown

Forget the three-time Pro Bowler's statistics for a second. 

They are staggering and dizzying, but they don't completely do justice to the player who lights up rooms with his megawatt smile and lights up defenses with his mad football skills. 

Brown returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown to open the scoring Sunday night in a 27-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He capped the scoring with a 63-yard touchdown reception, a play that allowed Steelers fans who had crammed into Heinz Field to exhale and Pittsburgh to win its first division title since 2010. 

Brown made both look plays look easy, even though they were anything but. 

Brown caught Kevin Huber's punt early in the first quarter and proceeded to run horizontally, something generally not encouraged in the NFL. He reversed field, and after directing Shamarko Thomas into Huber's path, he was off to his third career punt return for a touchdown. 

All three are against the Bengals, for those who are scoring at home, and for those -- ahem, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis -- who should be. 

Brown struck again after the Bengals had knocked Bell out of the game and pulled to within three points. Two plays after cornerback Antwon Blake forced and recovered a fumble, the Steelers faced a critical third-and-8 from their own 37 with just over three minutes left in a three-point game. 

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass down the right sideline that Brown caught even though Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was in decent position to make a play. Brown made a seamless adjustment and Kirkpatrick looked lost. Sixty-three yards later, Brown had scored the touchdown that all but clinched the Steelers' 11th win of 2014 and set a franchise record for most scoring catches in a season (13). 

"He's a playmaker," Roethlisberger said. "I have all of the faith and trust in the world in him." 

So does coach Mike Tomlin, whose appreciation for the 195th pick of the 2010 NFL draft goes way beyond Brown's immense physical talent. 

"It's not haphazard the he rises up in moments," Tomlin said after winning the AFC North for the fourth time in eight seasons. "He works harder than he plays. I hope that is a blueprint for our younger guys, and I think it is, how to work and ultimately how to deliver for your teammates." 

The Steelers might need Brown, who led the NFL in both receptions (129) and receiving yards (1,698) this season, do that more than ever Saturday night. 

He is the only one of the Steelers' Big Three who didn't have to battle through a stomach virus during the Bengals game or slowly walk to a cart with his right knee wrapped in ice after the game. 

Roethlisberger, whose linemen said he was sicker than he let on, should be fine by Saturday night, when the Steelers host the Ravens in a wild-card game. Less certain is the status of Bell, who hyperextended his knee after taking a direct hit on it from Bengals safety Reggie Nelson

Brown, on the other hand, is a picture of health, and he is close to unstoppable right now. 

The Steelers might need him to lead the way Saturday night, when they try to advance beyond the wild-card round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010. 

"The playoff is starting a new season," Brown said. 

The Steelers can only hope it is the same old story for their star wide receiver.

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