Left for dead only a month ago in the throes of an ugly three-game losing streak that threatened their playoff viability, the Pittsburgh Steelers have rallied back to win three straight by a combined 80-12 count, and are now just one victory shy of qualifying again for the postseason.
And the Steelers suddenly are playing as if they are a team that, despite some obvious shortcomings, could be a "tough out" for any opponent that has to face them in the Super Bowl single-elimination tournament. In the Northeast at least, it is Steelers' weather, and this could be the Steelers' time of year.
The key to the critical reversal: Coach Bill Cowher got his team back to playing Steelers football, returning to Pittsburgh's trademark no-frills style, and at a juncture of the season when simplicity is indeed a blessed commodity. When the weather turns blustery, and playoff aspirations can be chilled by too many moving parts, you want to be able to do two things above all others: Run the football and play stifling defense. And the Steelers have certainly done both of those things during a winning streak that figures to be extended to four games when Pittsburgh hosts the Detroit Lions on New Year's Day.
Pittsburgh's last defeat, a 38-31 home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Dec. 4, offered a textbook demonstration of how even a coach as accomplished and successful as Cowher can fall into the trap of playing the other team's game. In an effort to try to keep pace with the explosive Cincinnati offense that day, the Steelers threw the ball 41 times, and with a quarterback whose right thumb was said to perhaps require amputation. (OK, we made up the amputation part, but Ben Roethlisberger has been known to embellish injuries, so we figured we would, too.) Roethlisberger posted career highs in attempts (41) and passing yards (386), but the net result was a pretty bitter defeat to a divisional opponent.
In the wake of that defeat, it apparently occurred to Cowher and his staff that Steelers football isn't about shootouts. For whatever reason, the Steelers tried to outscore the Bengals and lost sight of the reality that Pittsburgh usually wins by outhitting an opponent. A typical Steelers victory is achieved not by gunning people down, but rather by inflicting blunt force trauma on a victim. And that's what the Steelers have done in righting themselves the past three weeks.
During that stretch, Steelers quarterbacks had only 62 drop backs (56 pass attempts and six sacks), while Pittsburgh ran the ball an amazing 120 times, for 541 yards and seven touchdowns. There are teams that don't record a 40-carry game in a generation, but the Steelers have averaged 40 rushing attempts during their turnaround, and have rediscovered the prototype Pittsburgh blue-collar mind-set.
Some naysayers might point to Saturday's shutout victory at Cleveland as the football equivalent of a baby seal clubbing. Funny, but those are probably the same people who saw the matchup with the Browns, a team that has played exceedingly hard under rookie head coach Romeo Crennel, as a potential trap game. That the Steelers took care of business is evidence Pittsburgh is girding for the playoffs. And remember, the Steelers' winning streak commenced with a victory over a Chicago Bears team that has won 11 games, and whose top-ranked defense couldn't corral the Pittsburgh running attack.
Assuming it secures a wild-card spot, Pittsburgh will have to go on the road for the playoffs, likely to Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati for the first round. But that isn't an altogether bad thing. The Steelers are 6-2 away from Heinz Field this season, and one of those victories came at Cincinnati on Oct. 23. In that game, the Steelers pounded away at a Bengals defense that still has trouble slowing the run, got a lead, and then came hard with the pass rush against most valuable player candidate Carson Palmer.
The Steelers would like an opportunity to break out that tried and true playoff blueprint again. Thanks to a three-game winning streak in which Pittsburgh got back to doing what it does best, there's a pretty good chance the Steelers will get that opportunity.
When he arrived in Baltimore in 1999, a guy with a reputation for offensive genius and the creative development of the passing game, coach Brian Billick announced to the fans: "Don't worry, Baltimore, I know quarterbacks." That pronouncement by The Insufferable One came in the wake of the ho-hum signing of Scott Mitchell, after the failed pursuit of several higher profile quarterbacks, and was intended to calm the nerves of a concerned fan base whose collective reaction to the addition of such a journeyman passer was something along the lines of, "You mean this is the best we can do?!"
In the seasons that ensued, Billick indeed demonstrated he knew quarterbacks. Not necessarily how to coach them, mind you, just that he knew a lot of them: Mitchell, Tony Banks, Stoney Case, Trent Dilfer, Elvis Grbac, Randall Cunningham, Chris Redman, Jeff Blake, Anthony Wright and Kordell Stewart. All but Stewart have started at least one game for the Ravens under Billick's stewardship.
But the long litany of losers may have come to an end. That bright beam you saw emanating from the Inner Harbor on Sunday night wasn't a lighthouse, but rather the light clicking on again over the head of third-year quarterback Kyle Boller, who, 33 starts into his career, seems to finally get it. A third consecutive strong performance by Boller, who unfortunately missed seven games during the first half of the season because of a foot injury, knocked the visiting Minnesota Vikings out of the NFC playoff chase.
More significant to the future of the Ravens -- and perhaps the continued employment of Billick and Boller -- it represented another bit of evidence to support the notion that the Ravens' first-round pick in the 2003 draft might be more than just a guy whose previous claim to fame was that he could, on his knees, throw a ball through the goal posts from 60 yards away. The whole knee trick seemed apropos for the first couple years of his career, since most Ravens fans who watched Boller often dropped to genuflect and pray for a better solution to the team's long-standing quarterback woes. But in the last three games, including Sunday night's 30-23 victory, Boller has completed 66 of 100 passes for 793 yards, with seven touchdowns, just three interceptions and a 100.9 passer rating.
For those of you not too eggnog-induced on Christmas evening, or suffering from tryptophan overexposure, well, you saw Boller author another solid performance. In all three outings, Boller threw for 250-plus yards, a feat he had accomplished just once (302 yards against Cincinnati on Oct. 19, 2003) in his previous 30 starts. In the last two games and three of the last five, Boller had three touchdown passes. Just once before, on Dec. 12, 2004, had he thrown more than two touchdown passes in a game. It's at least fair to assume that had he not suffered the foot injury that cost him precious playing time earlier in the season, Boller might actually be posting such numbers on a regular basis. Certainly his late-season performance has earned him the right to go to training camp next summer as the unquestioned starter, and keeps general manager Ozzie Newsome from having to scour the free-agent rolls for a veteran challenger.
As for Billick, well, word is that he and his staff have been recently assured they will get one more season in 2006 to complete the development of Boller and perhaps get the Ravens back to the playoffs. And in the case of Billick at least, one final opportunity to demonstrate to the lingering skeptics in Baltimore and around the NFL that maybe he does know something about quarterbacks.
All tied up
One of the more enduring sights of the weekend was that of Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora, clutching a cell phone to his ear, trying to ascertain at a critical juncture of overtime at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa how a tie against the Bucs would affect his club's playoff status. Granted, there is nothing a man wants less to receive at this time of year than an ugly Christmas tie (OK, a poor attempt at humor there, we concede). But with the Falcons' playoff aspirations barely flickering, and with only two minutes remaining in the extra stanza, Mora might have welcomed a pink and purple polka-dot cravat at that point if it would have simply extended Atlanta's postseason chances into the final weekend of the season.
Instead, the desperate Mora, seeking clarification and guidance, got zilch. Not even a lump of coal in his stocking, because no one could definitively apprise him about the ramifications of a tie game. Now we're not certain who to blame for the crucial lack of communication here. On one hand, any franchise that spends so much time preparing for such a watershed game against a division opponent should probably have every possible playoff scenario extrapolated before the contest even begins. Heck, Falcons general manager Rich McKay is the co-chairman of the league's nearly omnipotent competition committee. You'd think he might be able to pull a few strings at the highest levels of Paul Tagliabue's fiefdom, wouldn't you? Then again, the NFL is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, and ought to be able to afford to design some sort of computer software that updates every playoff scenario as every snap of every late-season game transpires.
On Saturday afternoon, as a desperate Mora tried to determine whether he should have Michael Vick simply run out the clock in overtime, or whether the faltering Falcons needed a victory to stay alive, there apparently were no answers forthcoming. The mind's eye sort of conjures up a picture of a bunch of NFL functionaries, huddled in the league offices on Park Avenue in Manhattan, with their wing-tip shoes discarded and trying to count on their toes all the various tiebreaker permutations. There's got to be a better way.
An official from another team locked in a tight playoff situation told ESPN.com last week that when the league disseminated to its teams a list of all the playoff scenarios early last week, his general manger perused it and noted that at least a couple possibilities were missing. The official phoned the league and was told that, yeah, there probably were a few more that had yet to be ascertained. A league that prides itself on its button-down efficiency needs to get a heck of a lot better, it seems, at nailing down the playoff scenarios. If not for the media and fans, at least for its member teams, who, the last time we checked, pay seven-figure dues for such germane bookkeeping services.
As for Mora, a terrific guy who seems to have inherited his father's celebrated temper, well, there's got to be a better way for the second-year head coach to handle stress. According to several witnesses, Mora suffered a meltdown when asked on his postgame show why he punted on a fourth-and-2 late in the overtime. An innocuous enough question, and certainly pertinent to the moment, from radio host and former Falcons quarterback David Archer, right? Apparently not to Mora, who abruptly ended the interview, and then spewed a string of invective. On Sunday, McKay said the Falcons are considering some sort of disciplinary action against their head coach.
Riding the roller coaster
Arguably the two most schizophrenic teams in the NFL this season have been the San Diego Chargers and the Carolina Panthers, a couple of clubs blessed with terrific talent, but which suffer too many inexcusable lapses. The latest dip on this roller coaster ride of a season, a loss at Kansas City on Saturday in a game in which San Diego could muster but one score against the NFL's shoddiest tackling defense, cost the Chargers all hope of sneaking into the playoffs and making some noise.
The Panthers, who lost to Dallas in part because of a dubious running-into-the-kicker call against Julius Peppers, can still earn a postseason invitation with a New Year's Day victory at Atlanta. But a Panthers bunch not long ago regarded by many as the NFC's best Super Bowl hope aren't really inspiring much confidence of late, are they?
The Panthers have lost three of their last six games. Over that stretch, Carolina is 0-3 against franchises which have either claimed postseason berths or remain in playoff contention. The three victories in those six games were against clubs with a combined record of 16-29. If the Panthers do make it to the playoffs, they'll do so without much momentum, and with an industrial-sized dose of doubt about their staying power.
As for the Chargers, well, trust us on this one: There are a bunch of AFC playoff teams that breathed a sigh of relief on Saturday night when San Diego was eliminated. Of course, the fear they elicited from opponents isn't going to be much consolation to a Chargers team that might be one of the most talented bunches in a lot of years to not claim a playoff spot.
The switch to quarterback Rex Grossman seems to have paid off nicely for coach Lovie Smith and the Chicago Bears. In his first start of the season, the former first-round pick threw for 166 yards, and provided Chicago the kind of deep-ball dimension Kyle Orton seemed incapable of delivering.
Sure, the 166 yards Grossman rung up might not seem like much. But in his 14 starts, Orton only topped that passing-game figure on two occasions. Under Grossman, the Bears' offense has a rhythm and a spring to its step it didn't possess earlier, and the wide receivers certainly seem a lot more motivated now.
It will be interesting, with his team now officially in the playoffs, to see how Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio handles his quarterback quandary of sorts. Last week, injured starter Byron Leftwich ran for the first time on his fractured left ankle, reported only marginal discomfort, and declared himself ready to return. In fact, he lobbied Del Rio hard to allow him to get in some snaps against Houston on Saturday. Backup quarterback David Garrard has registered a 3-1 record, and while the Jaguars' offense has sputtered at times, Jacksonville players have a great deal of confidence in him.
It's a tough call for Del Rio. Go back to Leftwich and there is a chance you disturb whatever equilibrium Garrard has helped to create. On the other hand, there is a reason Leftwich was the regular starter, right?
Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is now 2-5 in his seven starts against Tampa Bay and has been sacked 16 times in the last four. Pittsburgh has now won 11 of 12 against Cleveland. The 80-yard touchdown run by Steelers tailback Willie Parker on Saturday was Pittsburgh's longest since quarterback Kordell Stewart ran 80 yards in a 1996 game. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is now 21-3 as a starter in his two seasons in the league. Brett Favre has now gone four full games without throwing a touchdown pass, the longest such streak of his career, and twice as long as any previous stretch. Favre's last touchdown pass was late in the second quarter of a Nov. 27 game against Philadelphia. Since then, he's thrown 190 passes without a scoring connection, and has 10 interceptions. On Saturday, Buffalo quarterback Kelly Holcomb authored the Bills' first 300-yard passing performance in 45 games. The Bills have beaten the Bengals eight straight times. Bills cornerback Terrence McGee became the first player in NFL history to return a kickoff (99 yards) and an interception (46 yards) for touchdowns in the same game. Dallas rookie linebacker DeMarcus Ware notched three sacks and three forced fumbles against Carolina. After getting four sacks in his first six games, Ware had none in the next eight outings, and seemed to have just hit the wall physically. Washington was 4-0 in December, and in his career, coach Joe Gibbs is now 56-18 in games played after Nov. 30. Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels has five sacks in the last two weeks. He had just 5½ in his previous 31 appearances. San Francisco swept the St. Louis Rams for the first time since 1998. The Rams lost for the fourth straight time at home. Miami has won five straight games for the first time since 1999. The San Diego defense had gone 16 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher until Kansas City tailback Larry Johnson got 131 yards on Saturday. Jacksonville's comeback victory at Houston was the sixth time this season that the Jaguars have overcome a halftime deficit. Quarterback Josh McCown is now 10-11 as a starter in Arizona, including 8-8 under Dennis Green, but the Cardinals seem prepared to allow him to depart as a free agent. Cardinals wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin both went over 1,300 yards for the season. They are just the sixth tandem in NFL history to do so in the same season. Chicago swept the division series from Green Bay for the first time since 1991.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.