Monday, January 12, 2009

When everybody shows up

After a season of teasing us with glimpses of greatness, the real Pittsburgh Steelers stood up Sunday.

With a few minor glitches, the Steelers played as if their jobs depended on it (which may have been true for some of them) and turned in the best game of the season.

The NFL playoffs have been a real nightmare so far if you bet the favorites. The Steelers were the only fave among last week’s winners, as well as the only home team. And the only one not named for a bird, whatever that means.

What the playoffs have lacked in predictability, they should make up for in excitement, as the final four (yeah, I know, that’s basketball talk) are all teams with checkered regular seasons that are peaking at the right time.

I never thought I would use the phrases “Arizona Cardinals” and “NFC Championship” in the same sentence—but I just did. The Cardinals have, at least in my lifetime, been one of the most hapless sports franchises. I was nine when they last won their division in 1975. Prior to this year, they had won one playoff game since their 1947 NFL Championship. This year’s NFC West title was dismissed by many (including me) as the result of playing in football’s worst division, and a pitiful game in New England in December didn’t help, but the Cardinals have proven the skeptics wrong with upsets over the Falcons and Panthers in the playoffs.

They face the Philadelphia Eagles, who sneaked into the wild card picture with some help, then earned their spot in Week 17 with a blowout of the Cowboys. Their season has been a rollercoaster. Besides the Cowboys rout, another high point was a win over…uh…some other team in Pennsylvania, while the nadir may have been, not a loss, but a tie—the first in the NFL since 2002—with the wretched Bengals. Donovan McNabb has endured injuries, being benched in favor of Kevin Kolb, and even being dissed by Rush Limbaugh, but still seeks that elusive Super Bowl ring.

On the AFC side, the Steelers have their third game of the season against the





(One for the Bugs Bunny fans out there)

The Ravens have generated bad karma from the start, as the team was formed when Art Modell pulled the Browns out of Cleveland in 1996 after he failed to get a new stadium. Since then, they have laid claim to the title formerly held by the Oakland Raiders as the NFL’s bad boys, with a formidable defense led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. With the Browns and Bengals fighting for the AFC North cellar, the Ravens have emerged as the Steelers’ arch-rival in recent years. Not that we don’t pwn them anyhow. Although they do get kudos for knocking off the towel-stomping Titans for us.

Then there are the one, the only, your Pittsburgh Steelers! It appears that the final piece of the puzzle came together in the Chargers game. The offensive line, maligned everywhere from this blog to a Wal-Mart parking lot, finally played to its potential, protected Ben Roethlisberger and opened lines for Willie Parker. I never imagined that the O-line would be one of the strongest parts of any game this season. Just one of many surprises in these playoffs.

For Sunday, as in any Steelers-Ravens game, expect the mother of all defensive struggles—and with the AFC championship on the line to boot. Sub-freezing temperatures, hits you can hear from the back row of section 512, the titanic struggle of good vs. evil. I can hear the NFL Films music now.

Does it get any better?

Steelers 17, Ravens 6.

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