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The real deal

Steelers have given no reason to doubt they're the postseason favorite

Posted: Monday January 3, 2005 9:13AM; Updated: Tuesday January 18, 2005 1:51PM
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Steelers WR Antwaan Randle El scores a touchdown under pressure from Buffalo's Jabari Greer on Sunday.
AP

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- I don't see the Steelers losing in the next five weeks. Not to say they can't. But as I watched them down the stretch, including their remarkable regular-season finale here against the really weird Buffalo Bills. I didn't see enough holes to form a losing squad. This day was remarkable because the Bills needed the game desperately, while the Steelers didn't need it at all, and Pittsburgh played the final 25 minutes (the decisive minutes) with a fourth-string running back, a third-string quarterback and backups all over the place ... and the Steelers still handed the Bills their lunch, 29-24.

As I made my way through the masses to the locker rooms afterward, a well-lubed Steelers fan said to me: "Who isn't a believer now, Peter?"

I'm certainly one. After watching Pittsburgh humiliate the Eagles 27-3 two months ago, I wrote that the Steelers were among the best handful of teams I'd seen in any short period of time since I've been covering the NFL. I never said they were one of the best, although my words were twisted thusly in some talk-show corners. The Steelers skunked two very good clubs -- the Pats and Eagles. But to be among the best, you have to win a championship or two at the very least. Though the Steelers haven't been as dominant in the last couple of months, winning eight games by a combined 61 points, wins are wins. Pittsburgh's the only AFC team ever to go 15-1 in a regular season.

"Look at the way we win,'' Hines Ward told me in the tunnel outside the Steelers locker room on Sunday, "and look at our weapons. Our fourth running back runs for 100 today. We've got three receivers, athletic and fast guys, who can beat you. Our line is so strong at run blocking and pass blocking. We can do so many things, and we can do them better than at any time since I've been here.''

One more thing: Pittsburgh allowed the fewest yards and the fewest points in the NFL this year.

The recipe to beat the Steelers? You need two things: an accurate quarterback who can take advantage of Pittsburgh's decent but not great corners, and a defense that doesn't get rattled or overpowered. By those measures, San Diego and New England would be Pittsburgh's biggest AFC tests -- and those are the two teams who could well face the Steelers in Pittsburgh on the third and fourth weekends of this month.

The Chargers have to get through the Jets in Saturday's AFC wild-card game to play the Steelers in the divisional round. Drew Brees is a 65.5 percent thrower, though the weather in Pittsburgh could neutralize his so-so arm. Watching San Diego throw all sorts of defensive changeups at Peyton Manning on Dec. 26 -- Manning didn't seem to know whether outside linebacker Steve Foley or inside 'backer Donnie Edwards were rushing from outside or inside or not at all -- was a good sign, as the Chargers weren't overly juiced facing a good offense on the road. That poise would be key when facing Steelers rookie Ben Roethlisberger. Confusion. Lots of it. The kid doesn't get rattled, but if he can't react intelligently, that would help the Bolts. And San Diego's a very good run-stopping unit, led by nose man Jamal Williams. For my money, he's the most underrated player in football.

New England got steamrolled by the Steelers 34-20 in midseason. But you can be sure the Pats would have more success running if they met again. You can also be sure those lights on very late in the Patriot offices this week will be Bill Belichick and staff studying several AFC teams, including the Steelers. Belichick's unrivaled in finding edges where none seem to be. His staff will gameplan better than it did last time if there's a rematch with Pittsburgh.

Will it be good enough? I say no. But I also predict that if any team can beat the Steelers this postseason, it's New England. The NFC mystifies me right now, but Philadelphia, even without three significant things (a running game, Terrell Owens and momentum), is still the best team.

FREE-AGENT FRENZY ON THE HORIZON

There is one hope for you anti-Steelers folk out there -- that free agency will rob Pittsburgh of some of its riches. The signing period begins on March 2, and here's where I see the best of the crop landing.

2005 Free Agents
Player Pos. Current Team New Team Why
John Abraham DE N.Y. Jets Houston Need sacks
Kendrell Bell LB Pittsburgh Kansas City Desperate for D
Shaun Alexander RB Seattle Arizona Denny needs a runner
Jonas Jennings T Buffalo N.Y. Giants Petitgout's a weak link
Plaxico Burress WR Pittsburgh Baltimore Uh-oh. Ben's best bud.
Muhsin Muhammad WR Carolina Washington Snyder makes him fit
Pat Williams DT Buffalo Chicago Bears need a stuffer
Rudi Johnson RB Cincinnati Cincinnati Marvin won't lose him
*Najeh Davenport RB Green Bay Miami Saban needs a back
Keydrick Vincent G Pittsburgh Arizona Real run-game masher
T.J. Houshmandzadeh WR Cincinnati N.Y. Giants Eli begs for a wideout
#Ty Law CB New England Oakland Al's sick of Woodson

Notes: Several of these players will get the franchise designation, meaning it's highly unlikely they'll move unless teams choose to trade them.

* Davenport's a restricted free agent, which means the Packers could match whatever offer he gets. I doubt they'll match a big or front-loaded offer because of the commitment to Ahman Green.

# Law, who turns 32 in 2005, is not scheduled to become a free agent this year, but I predict he will. He's on the Pats' cap for at least $9.86 million next season, and I can't see New England paying him that much. Law has been vocal about not taking a pay cut.

THE FINE FIFTEEN

I just realized something. The top three of my Fine Fifteen has stayed the same for two months. How amazing. But that's how I've seen it.

1. Pittsburgh (15-1). The fourth back on the depth chart rushed for 102 yards in Orchard Park. Sort of a deep team.

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2. New England (14-2). If the Patriots play Indianapolis at home in their first playoff game two weeks from now, it will be the third time New England has hosted the Colts in one calendar year. And guess who's on the schedule in 2005 for a trip to Foxboro? That's right. The Peytonmannings.

3. Philadelphia (13-3). You can predict the Eagles will be fine when they play their first meaningful games in about five months two weeks from now. You can predict that, but you really won't know.

4. Indianapolis (12-4). Colts-Broncs four times in a 54-week span.

5. San Diego (12-4). I'm really glad for Philip Rivers. The kid deserved a touchdown pass for what he's gone through ... and will continue to go through, I suspect, in 2005.

6. Atlanta (11-5). Does anyone ever know what exactly to make of this team?

7. New York Jets (10-6). What would you say if I told you this team was 4-5 over the last two months? You'd say: "This team's not winning in San Diego on Saturday night.''

8. Green Bay (10-6). Brett Favre had his fourth 4,000-yard passing season this year (4,088) and eighth 30-touchdown-pass season (30).

9. Denver (10-6). Play like you did Sunday this upcoming weekend, Ashley Lelie. Denver's been waiting for you.

10. New Orleans (8-8). Jim Haslett made noise after the game that if the Saints had gotten into the playoffs they'd have run the ball up Green Bay's keister in the wild-card game this weekend. Just to correct you Jim, no, that wouldn't have happened. You might have passed for 389, but my guess is you'd have run for about a buck thirty.

11. Seattle (9-7). Stopped a two-point conversion at the six-inch line at home this weekend.

12. St. Louis (8-8). Stopped from a home game on Saturday by said two-point play.

13. Carolina (7-9). In the end, 1-7 was too big a hole.

14. Buffalo (9-7). In the end, quasi-frauds.

15. Baltimore (9-7). Might be the year Ray Lewis gets unseated as an All-Pro inside linebacker.

THE AWARDS SECTION

Offensive Player of the Week

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Tiki Barber finished the season with 1,518 yards rushing.
AP

New York Giants RB Tiki Barber. You almost had to see this to believe it. If you didn't stay up last night, you missed seeing Barber break Rodney Hampton's Giants career rushing record early in the game. In the final 11 seconds -- with the Giants trailing Dallas 24-21, out of timeouts, on the Cowboys' 3, Barber was one yard shy of Joe Morris' single-season club record of 1,516 yards rushing, set in 1986. There was no way he'd get it at that point. But Eli Manning, gunning for his first NFL win, handed it to Barber on a draw. If he made the end zone, the Giants would win. If not, the clock would run out. With the Dallas defense spread, Barber picked a hole between guard and center, slithered through, and dove into the end zone. He finished the season with 1,518 yards, a remarkable 4.7 yards-per-carry clip behind a struggling offensive line ... and a vote on my AP All-Pro team at running back.

Defensive Player of the Week

Arizona DT Darnell Dockett, still bitter at being a third-round draft pick last April, had a fumble recovery, interception and sack in the Cardinals' win over Tampa Bay. "The teams that passed me up are looking crazy,'' Dockett said. "Denny Green took a chance and got himself a hell of a player.'' The Cards, who finished 6-10, have two defensive rookie keepers in Dockett and linebacker Karlos Dansby.

Special Teams Player of the Week

New York Jets WR Jerricho Cotchery. Jets down 21-10, early second half. Rams kick off. Cotchery takes it at the 4. He breaks a tackle at St. Louis' 8, he scores. The 94-yard touchdown -- a very clutch one -- got the Jets back in the game.

Coach of the Week

Dolphins interim coach Jim Bates. Every time I looked up the last month, I saw a Miami team playing like its pants were on fire. The Dolphins lost at Denver by three, beat New England and Cleveland at home, and lost by a disputed touchdown at Baltimore ... all this from a team cleaning house to give full control to Nick Saban. Good choice, but it's a shame Bates is going to be on the street after the job he did getting this team ready to play.

Journalist of the Week

Detroit Free Press Lions beat man Curt Sylvester, who covered his last Lions game in Nashville, finishing 26 years on the job. He will retire in 2005. Sylvester is one of the great guys in our business -- reliable and prolific and with a great work ethic. On a lot of beats in this league, writers feign friendship with each other. But there was never a need to do that with Sylvester. I asked his long-time arch-rival, Mike O'Hara of the Detroit News, for his thoughts on Curt. "The lasting tribute I'd give him is the conviviality of the press room,'' he said. "His grace and good humor is the predominant reason the beat writers try to cut each other's throats to get stories but remain on friendly terms.''

Goat of the Week

Buffalo QB Drew Bledsoe. A grim, dinosaur-like performance by a guy who, when confronted by a confusing, attacking defense (New England, Pittsburgh) looks too old to be really good anymore.

Stat of the Week

In the last five games of the season: Billy Volek threw for 1,473 yards. Peyton Manning threw for 1,356.

FACTOID THAT MAY INTEREST ONLY ME

New York Giants starting wide receivers Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard combined for 100 catches and zero touchdowns this year.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"He's a piņata to you guys. People who have no idea what's going on in this locker room, no idea what it's like to play in the NFL, or run a football team ... they're criticizing Mike Martz. Mike gets a game ball after we beat the Eagles, but does anyone report that? Anyone?''

-- St. Louis defensive end Tyoka Jackson, on his coach.

AGGRAVATING/ENJOYABLE TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK

I have no idea what this means. See if you can figure it out.

On Saturday, crack of dawn of 2005, I flew from Newark to Washington Dulles to Buffalo, on a couple of United Express commuters, to get to Billsville in time for some morning interviews. (Aaaah, that's the way to travel. Sardine-like.) Aside from the liquor-through-the-pores smell of a few of the flying customers -- you've got to figure a bunch of them went directly from Times Square or some local bar to the 6:20 a.m. flight in Newark -- the oddity came when the flight attendant on the Newark leg came through with the beverage cart.

"What would you like to drink?'' she asked.

"Water, no ice, please,'' I said.

She gave me a cup of water with no ice. She served the woman in the seat across the aisle from me, then turned to me, wordlessly, and took an unopened 32-ounce bottle of Crystal Geyser from her cart and placed it on my tray table.

"This should be good,'' she said.

Yes, it should, and I am grateful for the free $1.39 bottle of California's finest spring water. But I have no idea why a request for a cup of water, no ice, turned into a such a random act of hydrating kindness.

Click Here for Ten things I think I think

Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.

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