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Tomlin Report - Wild Card Weekend

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The Steelers, along with the New England Patriots, enter the first weekend of the 2010 NFL Playoffs watching the rest of the AFC field duke it out for rights to travel to Pittsburgh and Foxboro for the Divisional Round. The Steelers will host either the Colts, Ravens or Chiefs at Heinz Field on January 15.

Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4; AFC North Division Champions, AFC No. 2 seed

LAST WEEK

Beat the Browns 41-9 in Cleveland, taking care of business when they needed to, trouncing the Browns and locking up the AFC North and a first-round bye.

BEHIND ENEMY LINES

A Look Around the AFC North

Baltimore (12-4)
will play this weekend as the fifth seed thanks to two costly losses this season. The loss to Pittsburgh in week 13 took away the team’s head-to-head tiebreaker and the week 2 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals ensured that the rival Steelers would win the division tiebreaker. They’ll draw Kansas City this week.

Cleveland (5-11) ended the season with a four-game losing streak. That streak also ended the Eric Mangini era in Cleveland. The Browns and Team President Mike Holmgren are interviewing a number of coaches for the head job, including former Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who currently is serving the same role with the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons this year.

The Browns job isn’t a crown jewel by any stretch, but it is an attractive job for coaching hopefuls. Cleveland boasts a strong offensive line, a strong rushing-receiving threat in RB Peyton Hillis, a do-it-all playmaker in Joshua Cribbs, and a few young players who look like they could be the core members of the new Browns, a group that includes rookies Joe Haden and Colt McCoy. They’ll also have the sixth-overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, meaning they could add another top-player to that mix.

Cincinnati (4-12) put an end to the uncertainty surrounding one of its key positions for the future as head coach Marvin Lewis signed an extension to stay with the Bengals despite an ugly season that featured a ten-game losing streak. The question isn’t whether Lewis and owner Mike Brown can form a working relationship (they can), but whether that relationship can be successful. Lewis wants an indoor practice facility and an expanded front office and scouting department, while Browns wants what any owner wants: wins and more money. It remains to be seen whether this duo can work well enough together to get the team back to its 2005 level (or beyond).

Of course, there is still the old quarterback question. Carson Palmer, who was once the face of the franchise, had another abysmal season as his game seemingly declines every year. At $10-11 million per season, his contract is a good bit above his level of production. Of course, the decision of Andrew Luck (the draft’s top-prospect) to stay in college takes one QB out of the draft and shakes up the top a bit, meaning the Bengals may be stuck reaching for signal-caller with the fourth-overall pick.

There’s also the question of what to do with the receivers. Terrell Owens had a great season, but he’s still nearing the end career-wise and may not want to stick around if he gets a better offer from a more-productive team. Chad Ochocinco has long been a staple of the Bengals offense, but he’s no longer the player he once was and, like Palmer, he could be on his way out. Both players could be hurt by the fact that the Bengals have a few up-and-comers waiting in the wings in Jordan Shipley, Jerome Simpson, and Andre Caldwell.

ROAD TO THE SUPER BOWL

The Steelers and the New England Patriots will watch from home as the other four AFC playoff contenders play this weekend, with only two emerging from the wreckage.

New England is the odds-on favorite to win it all this year thanks to a second-half of utter dominance, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Football Outsiders has this year’s squad ranked as the second-most-efficient team in the NFL since 1993 (as far as their advanced statistics reach currently), behind only the 2007 Patriots. They did finish as the league’s most-efficient offensive team in the same time span, edging out… you guessed it… the 2007 Patriots (who finish as a better team overall thanks to a much-better defense). Fortunately, Pittsburgh won’t have to square up with the Patriots until the AFC Championship game. Unfortunately, that game would happen in New England.

Indianapolis will host the New York Jets in a matchup between the AFC’s third and sixth seeds. Indianapolis looked to be out of the playoff race before a late surge helped them claim the AFC South. The defense is aching and the offense is banged-up (three of Manning’s top-targets are on IR), but they are still a dangerous team. If they knock off the Jets this weekend, they will be Pittsburgh’s first opponent of the postseason. The Jets finished with a win, but were limping through the end of the season beforehand. The defense is still sharp, but the running game and the quarterback play have been inconsistent. If the Jets win, they will head to New England in the divisional round. Pittsburgh cannot play the Jets in the divisional round.

Kansas City will host Baltimore in the other AFC wild-card matchup. The Chiefs are a young team with little playoff experience, but have a strong running game and a solid defense, which gives them a chance to make some noise. The one question for Kansas City will be whether QB Matt Cassel can respond when the pressure’s on. Baltimore has been on-and-off all season but when they’re clicking, they are dangerous on both sides of the ball. If Indianapolis wins the first matchup, the winner of this game heads to New England. If the Jets win, Pittsburgh will host the victor.

The ideal scenario for Pittsburgh is probably wins by both Indianapolis and Baltimore. While the Steelers will certainly have a better chance of knocking off Kansas City in the short-term, sending Baltimore to New England could be the team’s best long-term solution, as Baltimore may have the best chance of knocking off the powerhouse Patriots. If that happens, and Pittsburgh handles its business against Indy, the two AFC North rivals could meet for a third time this season in the AFC Championship game. Winner goes to the Super Bowl.

STEELERS INJURY UPDATE

S Troy Polamalu
was held out of practice for most of this week, but should resume practicing with the team next week. Barring a major setback, he will be PROBABLE for the start of the playoffs.

DE Aaron Smith remains a question mark as he continues to rehab a torn triceps that caused him to miss a large chunk of the season. It does not seem likely that Smith will play in the AFC divisional playoff, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. If the team passes that round however, it is likely he may return for the AFC Championship. If the team wins that game, it’ll be another two weeks before the Super Bowl, giving Smith a great chance to make his return then. Regardless, he is somewhere between QUESTIONABLE and DOUBTFUL for this week.

CB Bryant McFadden (abdomen) did not practice during the bye week, but is PROBABLE to play in the team’s first playoff game.

TEAM POSITIVES

The team is entering the postseason hot on offense, especially when you look at the deep-threat combo of Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace. Wallace finished with over 100-yards in six of his final eight games and has failed to score a touchdown in only four games since the bye week (a twelve-game span).

Lawrence Timmons finished with some strong performances at the end of the season as well; looking like the force he was early in the season before a slight disappearing act around midseason. At his best, Timmons is a fierce playmaker who, like Polamalu, can set the tone for the game. The Steelers will need him to show up to make a push for a seventh ring.

Pittsburgh finished the season allowing just 62.8 yards per game on defense and was just five yards shy of holding opponents to less than 1000 yards total this season (they allowed 1004). That per-game average in the third-lowest total by a defense since the merger, behind the 2006 Minnesota Vikings (61.6 ypg) and 2000 Ravens (60.6 ypg).

TEAM NEGATIVES

Can Rashard Mendenhall make major contributions behind a patchwork offensive line? Yes, he ran for 1273 yards and 13 touchdowns, but some of his performances lacked the punch this team needs on offense (those 20-carry, 60-yard games specifically). Both Mendenhall and the line need to hit their strides to keep opposing defenses from keying on the passing game.

Pittsburgh will need to find a way to harass star QBs in the playoffs, as they’ll likely have to face a Manning or a Brady to reach the Super Bowl. The team failed to get pressure on Brady and the Saints’ Drew Brees in losses this season, allowing each cornerback to challenge the secondary with great results.

Hines Ward had a down season this year, netting only 59 catches, 755 yards, and 5 TDs. If this is indeed the beginning of the end for number eighty-six (I’m sure fans hope it’s not), they’ll need him to flash his old brilliance in the playoffs on third down and in the redzone to keep the offense moving.

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN THE PLAYOFFS

Offense:
Emmanuel Sanders, WR – While Mike Wallace has evolved into the league’s best-deep threat as well as the focal point of Pittsburgh’s passing offense, a rookie may be putting himself in position for some playoff heroics. First-year wideout Emmanuel Sanders made big strides over the second half of the season, becoming one of Big Ben’s favorite targets in the process. Wallace will still be the bread-winner of the group, but don’t be surprised if Sanders comes down with a few memorable catches in big moments this postseason.

Defense: Troy Polamalu, S – Polamalu hobbled through much of the second half of the season, but when he did play, he flashed the skills and the big-play ability that makes him one of the best defensive players in the NFL. If Polamalu, who should be healthier thanks to the bye week, comes up big in January, the Steelers could be well on their way to their second Super Bowl in three years.

LOOK FOR…

Pittsburgh to hold Aaron Smith out until he’s absolutely ready to go, regardless of whether they need him or not.

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMM…

I mentioned earlier that Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics (which cover 1993 to the present) thought very highly of the Patriots both on offense and as a whole. They also liked another team this season…

That’s right, your 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers. This year’s Steelers finished as the sixth-most-efficient team since 1993 according to FO’s metrics, not far behind the 2004 Steelers that went 15-1. This year’s team gets the nod thanks to great performances on offense and defense (fifth in both) and league-average special teams. This team may not wow you in any one area (except maybe run defense), but they have become an all-around contender who can dominant on both sides of the ball when they’re hot.

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