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Tomlin Report – Christmas Eve in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh may have squandered a prime opportunitity to push for home-field advantage in the playoffs on Monday night, but they’ll receive an early Christmas present on Saturday, drawing the lowly St. Louis Rams at Heinz Field in the team’s final home game of the regular season.

2011 Week 16
NEXT GAME
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4) vs. St Louis Rams (2-12) at
Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA
Monday, December 24 – 1:00 PM on FOX

LAST WEEK
Rams: Kellen Clemens became the third quarterback to start for the Rams this season, and piloted the team to a 20-13 loss at home. The Rams were putrid on third down, converting only two of their 13 chances. Steven Jackson was the focus of the Rams offense racking up 143 total yards.

Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger was hobbled, the 49ers defense was dominant and the Steelers were humbled in San Francisco 20-3 on Monday Night Football. Big Ben committed four turnovers and the offense scored only three points, despite outgaining the 49ers on the evening.

BEHIND ENEMY LINES
A Look Around the AFC North
Baltimore (10-4) came out absolutely flat in a game they needed to win and, as a result, found itself on the outside looking in in terms of the division race. Fortunately for them, the Steelers came out absolutely flat in a game they needed to win one night later and, as such, the Ravens are back on top of the division.

All the same, Baltimore’s 34-14 loss to San Diego exposed some cracks in the armor. The defense surrendered more points than they have all season and failed to record a sack on Chargers QB Phillip Rivers. At the same time, Baltimore’s offense failed to protect Joe Flacco, giving up five sacks and two interceptions.

The Ravens will look to rebound and keep a division lead with a home date against the lowly Browns on Saturday.

Cincinnati (8-6) kept its wild card hopes alive with a 20-13 win over the Rams on Sunday. Andy Dalton was a little off as a passer, but fellow-rookie A.J. Green was his usual self and netted 115 yards on his six receptions.

They’ll need a better performance this week, with a home date against a red-hot Arizona Cardinals team that still has something to play for.

Cleveland (4-10) was Arizona’s latest victim and lost a 20-17 squeaker in overtime. Seneca Wallace started at quarterback for the Browns and was thoroughly mediocre, though he did have a nice rapport with rookie receiver Greg Little (5 catches, 131 yards and a TD). The defense got contributions from former-Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who notched two sacks in the loss.

Of course, Seneca Wallace was playing quarterback because starter Colt McCoy was out of the lineup. Remember how he came back into the game against the Steelers after what looked like a concussion? Turns out it actually was a concussion. The team is unsure of whether he’ll play in the final two games.

THE PATH TO THE PLAYOFFS
AFC Playoff Picture as of 12/20/11
Division Leaders
New England Patriots (11-3) – Clinched AFC East
Baltimore Ravens (10-4) – Clinched a playoff berth
Houston Texans (10-4) – Clinched AFC South
Denver Broncos (8-6)

Wild Cards
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4) – Clinched a playoff berth
New York Jets (8-6)

In the Hunt
Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)
Tennessee Titans (7-7)
Oakland Raiders (7-7)
San Diego Chargers (7-7)
Kansas City Chiefs (6-8)

The Pittsburgh Steelers enjoyed a minor Christmas miracle over the weekend, as the cards fell just right and the door to a number-one seed opened before their eyes. Tennessee lost to the winless Indianapolis Colts, clinching a playoff berth for Pittsburgh, which was a nice appetizer. By Monday morning though, both the Ravens and Texans had lost, meaning the Steelers could earn home-field advantage by winning out.

Of course, that didn’t happen, and the Steelers are, more or less, back where they were last week. For the Steelers to have another crack at the AFC’s top seed, they’ll need the Patriots, Ravens, and Texans to all drop at least one of their final two games.

The Steelers have no clinching scenarios this week.

New England stands alone at 11-3 and is currently the conference’s top seed. Having already clinched the AFC East, the Patriots can clinch the #1 seed with losses by each of the three 10-4 teams (Ravens, Steelers, Texans). They can clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Ravens loss OR losses by both the Ravens and Steelers.

Baltimore is back on top of the AFC North, holding its tiebreaker over the head of Pittsburgh. They also hold a tiebreaker over the Texans (head-to-head win) and would earn a first-round bye if the playoffs began today. They can clinch the division with a win and a Steelers loss.

Houston is currently slotted as the third-seed and has clinched the AFC South. The Texans are still in the running for the AFC’s top seed. Houston wins ties with the Patriots (conference record), but not the Ravens. However, they can leapfrog the Ravens for the #1 seed should the Texans, Patriots, and Ravens finish tied atop the conference.

The AFC West is still undecided, and all four of its teams are in the running. The Broncos can clinch the division with a win this week and a loss by the Raiders OR a win against the Chiefs in week 17.

Oakland is currently the leading candidate to take over the division, as they own a number of tiebreakers over other division opponents. All the same, they’ll need Denver to lose at least once to make a run.

San Diego could eliminate one of Oakland’s tiebreakers with a victory over their bay-area opponent in week 17. In order to take the AFC West, they’ll need to win both that game and this week’s battle against the Lions, and will need the Broncos to lose their final two games.

Kansas City, at 6-8, has a very realistic chance of saying who wins the division. Kansas City can take the AFC West by winning out, coupled with one loss by the Chargers and two losses by the Broncos. The Chiefs would jump over the Raiders with a head-to-head victory this week, and could hand the Broncos one of their two necessary losses in a head-to-head matchup in week 17. So, assuming KC wins out, they’ll essentially need a Chargers loss and a loss this week by Denver.

The New York Jets can clinch a wild-card berth by winning out, thanks to a common-games tiebreaker over the Bengals. Cincinnati can leapfrog New York with two wins and a Jets loss. The Tennessee Titans and most of the AFC West is also still in the running for the second wild-card spot.

MIKE LIKED…
There was very little to like about last night. The only thing Tomlin mentioned that was remotely positive was the team’s effort to move the ball in the second half.

STEELERS INJURY UPDATE
QB Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t his usual self, but he played a full 60 minutes without any setbacks. He figures to be PROBABLE this week, unless the team decides to sit him to make sure he’s healthy for the playoffs.

RB Mewelde Moore suffered an MCL sprain in the fourth quarter of Monday’s loss and will be OUT for the game on Christmas Eve. The Steelers plan on making a roster move to replace the injured Moore.

LB LaMarr Woodley was taken out of last night’s contest because of fatigue and coach Tomlin assured the media on Tuesday that there was no setback with his injured hamstring. As such, he should be PROBABLE for Saturday.

RB Rashard Mendenhall has sore ribs, but he should be good-to-go against the Rams.

C Maurkice Pouncey (ankle), WR Emmanuel Sanders (foot), and LB Chris Carter (hamstring) could all potentially make their returns against the Rams. List them as QUESTIONABLE at this stage of the week.

RAMS INJURY UPDATE
LB Josh Hull suffered a high ankle sprain Sunday against Cincinnati and is expected to miss the remainder of the season.

QBs Sam Bradford (ankle) and A.J. Feeley (thumb) could be characterized as DOUBTFUL for Saturday. Bradford has a better chance than Feeley of playing, but the Rams could choose to shut his season down to protect the former first-overall pick.

MAIN STORYLINE FOR SATURDAY
Will the Steelers continue to roll out Ben, or will they choose to rest their franchise quarterback’s ankle and start Charlie Batch instead?

RAMS TO WATCH
RB Steven Jackson – Jackson has been the only constant in a team that has shuffled its quarterbacks, receivers, and offensive line all season. He remains the Rams’ best threat, and often its only threat. The back racked up 143 yards in last weekend’s loss, while leading the team with nine receptions. Jackson, who once registered 90 catches in a season, is as much of a threat in the passing game as he is on the ground.

DE Chris Long – The son of former Raider great Howie Long, Chris is one of the lone bright spots for the Rams this season and has racked up a career-best 13 sacks this season. As a left defensive end, he’ll line up against rookie Marcus Gilbert most often, though he could line up elsewhere if the opportunity presents itself.

LB James Laurinaitis– For the second straight week, the Steelers will square off against a young, emerging threat at middle linebacker. Like the 49er’s Navorro Bowman, Laurinaitis is a force against the run. Unlike Bowman, he also creates problems as a pass rusher (5 sacks) and a pass defender (2 INTs, 7 PD).

LOCAL CONNECTIONS
• Rams WR Dominique Curry played collegiately at California University of Pennsylvania, located one hour south of Pittsburgh.
• Rams CB Justin King was born in Pittsburgh. He attended Gateway High School where he won the Gatorade Player of the Year for the State of Pennsylvania as a senior. King and Steelers LB Mortty Ivy were teammates at Gateway High School. King then attended Penn State University.
• Rams LB Josh Hull played collegiately at Penn State University.

ACCORDING TO TOMLIN
“Looking back at it, it probably was. We dumped the ball to a check-down back that produced minus two and I thought we had a pretty good play that would put us in field goal range. They covered the guys downfield, but we dumped the ball to the back in an effort to get some yards that would make us a little more comfortable with the field goad position we were looking at. Obviously minus two didn’t do it. He stepped out of bounds. There were four seconds left on the clock. It was irrelevant to utilize a time out at that time. We took a shot at the end zone because we were outside of field goal range. So probably could have handled the situation better, and definitely the utilization of the time out could have played a part in that. But we were interested in utilizing the whole field on the second down play when we checked it down to the back, and you needed a timeout in order to do that. So if we used the interior of the field we could clock it, and go on from there, and kick a field goal. Those things didn’t transpire and that is one of the many reasons we lost the game.” When asked if the Steelers had a missed opportunity at the end of the first half, when poor clock management prevented the Steelers from getting into field goal range.

“They didn’t really have much more information than what we had. A transformer or something was down and they were doing the best that they could at that time to rectify the situation. Where it was going to take us, they weren’t sure. All our conversations the second time it went down was keeping the teams on the field if at all possible, to avoid the re-warming up and so forth that goes with going into the locker room. We were just interested in staying on the field. They handled the situation as quickly as they could. It had no bearing on how the game unfolded as far as I am concerned. It was a situation that both teams had to deal with. Obviously they dealt with it better than we did.” When asked what he was told during the two delays during Monday’s contest. The power went out twice at Candlestick Park, once around kickoff and again during the second quarter.

“He felt sore of course. But no worse for the wear as far as I could tell. We didn’t talk a great deal about how he felt, we talked more about how the game unfolded, and that is usually the lines of our discussion post-game.” On how Ben Roethlisberger felt following the game.

“I didn’t get one that I was satisfied with. That was a big question mark for me, but definitely not the reason we lost the game.” When asked if he received an explanation of Lawrence Timmons’ “leaping” penalty on a field goal attempt in the second half. The coach also seemed to be less than pleased with the explanations on a returner interference penalty and a chop block penalty also called against his team.

LOOK FOR…
The Steelers to give their fans an early Christmas present with one of their usual rebound performances against a lowly opponent.

SPLASH TALK
“He is a competitor and I am not going to deny those guys those opportunities.  I think his teammates definitely have an appreciation for that. I think that is how we are built.” On why QB Ben Roethlisberger remained in the game for the full duration, despite his being injured and with the game out of reach.

“I’m sure you can have a position on both sides of that matter. We don’t live in our fears, we live in our hopes. We made a decision that we were going to give that guy an opportunity to play, and we don’t second guess that regardless of outcome. We understand that we open ourselves up for judgment, particularly when we lose. But such is life in the National Football League, when you compete in the manner in which we do. We will do it without shame. We won’t apologize for it. Last night was last night. It was a losing performance by us. We accept responsibility for it. No interest in going back and rehashing or wishing we could change things, because we can’t. We will just simply learn from what transpired last night in an effort to win, or increase our chances of winning moving forward.” On whether Big Ben’s lack of practice during the week affected his performance in Monday night’s loss.

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMM…
A few weeks ago, I discussed the team’s -10 turnover differential; a mark that tied for the team’s worst differential since the merger.

The team managed to nab some takeaways soon afterwards, pushing their differential back towards zero. However, with a four-turnover performance Monday night, the Steelers find themselves at -11 in the turnover margin. Obviously, if that stays the same, it will be the worst mark by a Steelers team since the merger.

While that number is certainly a negative for the Steelers (pun intended), they have already clinched a playoff berth. If they finish at -10 or worse at the end of the season, they’ll become only the 18th team since the merger to make the playoffs with a turnover margin of -10 or worse.

Fun fact: the worst team in terms of TO margin to make it to the playoffs? The 8-8 St. Louis Rams, who make the postseason in 2004 despite a -24.

Even with the negative number going in, there is at least some precedence for making a run once the playoffs begin. The two teams in the 1979 Super Bowl, the Steelers and the Cowboys, were a -10 and a -11 respectively in turnover differential.

There were also two other teams to make the Super Bowl with a differential that bad. The 1983 Raiders (-13) ended up winning it all, and the St. Louis Rams (-10) were a field goal away from picking up their second championship in three years back in 2001.

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