What We Learned
Three things we know after the Eagles-Steelers game
Updated: Monday November 13, 2000 9:03 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
PITTSBURGH -- Doubling their point total for the entire game in the final three minutes plus overtime, the Philadelphia Eagles thrust themselves firmly into playoff position Sunday with a stirring 26-23 comeback victory against the staggering Pittsburgh Steelers. After quarterbacks Kordell Stewart and Donovan McNabb took turns battling for the title of most ineffective passer in Pennsylvania, McNabb rallied late to lift the Eagles to their seventh win in 11 tries. Here are three observations from the game:
1. Run the table? Pittsburgh didn't even get to step up and place an opening bet.
In the wake of a 9-7 last-second loss at Tennessee last week, some Steelers talked about winning out through the final seven games of the regular season, as head coach Bill Cowher had challenged his team to do. Strong safety Lee Flowers, in particular, made headlines early in the week by saying that's exactly what Pittsburgh planned. From 5-4 to 12-4 in one blaze of glory. Make that 5-5 and holding. Instead, it is the surprising Eagles that appear to be putting together a rare playoff season.
Philadelphia has a little team karma going these days. Though far from pretty at times, the comeback against the Steelers represented their second consecutive overtime win, following last week's 16-13 home conquest of Dallas. The Eagles' last three victories have been by four or fewer points.
At 7-4, the Eagles might be able to play sub-.500 ball the rest of the way (2-3) and still make the post-season for the first time since 1996. A 3-2 finish, and Philadelphia still has stragglers like Arizona, Cleveland and Cincinnati on its schedule, would likely remove all angst. That would be a huge accomplishment in the second season of the Andy Reid era. The Eagles went 5-11 last year in Reid's debut season.
"A win like this one definitely lifts our spirits," Eagles second-year quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "Any time you can come back from 10 points down that late, get it to overtime and win, it puts you in a great position mentally. We've been in that tight, overtime situation for two straight weeks now. We knew we had been in this position before.
"Right now, with this team, you never know what could happen. We're finding a way to get it done."
The Eagles now have second place in the NFC East all to themselves, one-half game ahead of third-place Washington (6-4), and one-half game behind the first-place New York Giants (7-3). They're 0-2 against the Giants already this season and have lost eight in a row to the New Yorkers. But Philadelphia gets another shot at the Redskins in two weeks at Washington. The Redskins beat the Eagles 17-14 at Philadelphia in Week 6, dropping them to 3-3 at the time.
"[This team] hung in there the last two weeks," Reid said. "I've got to lose some weight or I'm going to have a heart attack. I've got to give them credit. There was never a doubt in their minds."
After a five-game winning streak got them feeling heady and talking playoffs, the Steelers have sunk back to the middle of the very mediocre pack in the AFC Central. At 5-5, Pittsburgh is third, 1 1/2 games behind second-place Baltimore (7-4). Remaining are three games against teams with winning records: Oakland, at the New York Giants, and Washington.
2. Say what you will about quarterback Kordell Stewart's troubles, and they are significant, but the situation is only exacerbated by the almost complete lack of play-making turned in by Pittsburgh's twin first-round receivers: Plaxico Burress (2000) and Troy Edwards (1999).
At one point Sunday against Philadelphia, the Steelers benched both Burress and Edwards and went with a three-receiver formation of Courtney Hawkins, 1998 third-round pick Hines Ward, and unheralded third-year man Bobby Shaw. Though Edwards rotated back into the game occasionally, Burress' role was extremely limited in the second half.
Despite talking a very good game this preseason, Edwards has had next-to-no impact this year, catching just 13 passes for 126 yards entering Sunday. Against the Eagles, Edwards had two catches for 25 yards, tying for second on the team behind Hawkins' four receptions for 71 yards. Burress caught a paltry one pass for four yards against the Eagles, running out of bounds on his own on a third-and-10, and has just 22 catches for 273 yards this season. Neither he nor Edwards have scored a touchdown.
Selected instead of Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington, who was the popular consensus choice given Pittsburgh's quarterback situation, Burress is rapidly losing any chance of staying on the good side of Steelers fans. His penchant for dropping passes and going brain-dead on the field -- who can forget his infamous spike of a live ball earlier this season -- has quickly drawn the ire of the faithful and he was booed steadily on Sunday. Burress' confidence looks almost shot, and he is skittish whenever catching a ball in traffic. His only real contribution to the Pittsburgh attack Sunday was drawing a 15-yard, personal foul call against third-year Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter midway through the second quarter.
On the play, Trotter laid out an unprotected Burress with devastating hit up above the shoulders. Trotter led with the helmet on the tackle and could be in line for a league fine. Fittingly, Burress dropped the short pass even before he was crunched and bent backward by Trotter and left the game for a while looking somewhat dazed.
Edwards has become adept at complaining about the lack of pass interference calls, but little else. In training camp, Edwards made headlines one day in August by proclaiming that the arrival of Burress would do nothing to eclipse his role in the Steelers' passing game. Sadly for Steelers fans, Edwards was right.
3. Referee Dick Hantak's flag-happy crew was the talk of both locker rooms, and the calls were bad on both sides of the field.
The Steelers didn't overtly use the 13 penalties for 141 yards that were called against them to explain away their loss, but they didn't shy away from that insinuation either. The victorious Eagles could afford to stay above the fray.
"It's a sad state of affairs," Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said. "I don't want to get fined or anything like that, but somebody needs to look at it. I'm sure we're going to get another apology [from the league] tommorrow."
Hantak's crew assessed 21 penalties for a combined 202 yards. Seven of those were pass interference calls, both offensive and defensive. Five other penalties were declined, including plays on which Pittsburgh scored a field goal and a touchdown despite the Eagles having 12 men on the field.
"There were some crazy calls today," Steelers receiver Troy Edwards said. "You can't really blame the refs, but that's the most flags thrown and most questionable calls I've ever been involved with. We can't sit here and blame it on the ref, though. We still should have won the game."
Said Steelers head coach Bill Cowher: "This was one of those games with refs who are going to call hand checks. They were calling everything."
The game's most pivotal call was easy to identify. With the Steelers up 23-13 and 2:36 remaining, Pittsburgh strong safety Lee Flowers was called for unneccessary roughness for hitting Eagles running back Stanley Pritchett as he stepped out of bounds at the Steelers' 26 after an 11-yard reception on second-and-9.
The flag tacked 13 yards onto the play, and the Eagles scored on the next snap on a 13-yard Donovan McNabb pass to running back Brian Mitchell, making it 23-20 game. Pritchett appeared to still be partially in bounds when Flowers gave him a light shove, making it a highly questionable call.
Asked if the call was debatable, Cowher said: "It looked that way from my angle on the other side of the field and from watching up on the screen." On another front, Steelers cornerback Chad Scott, playing against Eagles receiver Charles Johnson, drew one of his three pass interference calls (one was eventually waved off) on a second-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 28 midway through the second quarter. The penalty went for 26 yards and gave the Eagles a first and goal at the 2.
The Eagles scored on a 2-yard touchdown reception two plays later by Jeff Thomason, breaking Pittsburgh's 21-quarter streak of not allowing an opposing touchdown, just one shy of the 1976 Steelers' NFL record. Replays showed the call against Scott to be ticky-tacky at best. All told, the Eagles garnered 53 of their 78 yards on that touchdown drive via the yellow flag.