It doesn't really matter how they pulled it off, as it was a season of ups and downs and lots of hangovers, but the Steelers ended up 12-4 for the regular season, secured the #5 seed in the AFC, and are heading to Denver on Sunday, Jan. 8 at 4:30 p.m.
The 13-9 win over the Cleveland Browns pretty much culminated this rocky season. It seems that the Steelers have lost running back Rashard Mendenhall for the playoffs, as he might have a torn ACL. Of course, it's inevitable for teams to experience injuries, but hot damn, it seems that the Steelers have had the worst luck of it. Backup RB Mewelde Moore won't be playing with an injured MCL, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't look like himself on his injured ankle, we played a few games this season without center Maurkice Pouncey, safety Troy Polamalu, linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and don't even get me started on the offensive line. It's hard to keep up with that constantly rotating roster. But somehow, they still managed to win, no matter how sloppy (except against the Baltimore Ravens, who ended 12-4 as well but won the division due to sweeping the Steelers this season -- sigh -- there just aren't enough curse words).
Let's hope that the the Steelers can pull off a repeat of 2005 by winning four in a row to get their seventh Super Bowl win. The way the team is playing and with all the injuries, it's hard to say if they can do it at this point, but I think they at least have a pretty good shot at beating up on the Broncos and silencing Tebow Mania until next season.
Though it was mostly a struggle on Sunday, there were a few moments of brilliance. Hines Ward reached a huge milestone, getting five receptions to get all the way up to 1,000, only the eighth player in NFL history to do so. Congrats Hines! So well deserved!
As for the rest of the offense, Ben has seemed to have lost his rhythm since the ankle injury, going 23 for 40 for 221 yards but no touchdown passes. At least he didn't throw any interceptions, but I think that would have been a different case had the Browns defense had been any better. It was also a very windy day, which seemed to affect passes on both sides. Mike Wallace, the supposedly number one receiver, only had one catch for 11 yards. Antonio Brown proved he deserved the MVP honor with a huge 40-yard catch to set up a field goal at the end of the first half, bringing the score up to a measly 3-6 (with the Browns winning) at the end of the first half. Brown ended up with six catches for 90 yards.
With Mendenhall out, backup Isaac Redman carried the load, but his awesome performance was tainted by two fumbles in the fourth quarter. The second one was after a 22-yard run to the Browns 39, obviously killing the momentum of the drive. That really needs to stop happening. Still, he had 92 yards on 19 carries as well as a 7-yard touchdown run.
On the defensive side, it always looks great when you hold your opponent to just field goals. The Browns rushed for only 72 yards the whole game. But quarterback Seneca Wallace had big scrambles of 27 and 20 yards, getting 47 of those yards and setting up two field goals. Peyton Hillis, who had racked up 211 yards in his past two games, got only 30 yards on 10 carries.
The Steelers sacked Wallace only three times, and James Harrison was contained, so let's hope LaMarr Woodley is healthy enough for next week. The pass defense was, in a word, stellar. Cornerback Ike Taylor completely shut down receiver Greg Little. And of course Troy Polamalu got a huge interception during the third quarter that led to a touchdown. He was also all over the place, defending passes and getting one of those very coolly timed sacks. It even looked like he made a game-saving swipe when Wallace threw the ball into the endzone at the very end to win the game, with Troy getting a hand on the ball before Little could reach for it.
So, as with most of the games this season, the Steelers finished their up-and-down season with an up-and-down game. With Mendenhall out for the playoffs, their entire game plan might need to change. Safety Ryan Clark, who also had a great game, will likely be sidelined because of his sickle cell trait, which is dangerous in Denver's high altitude. I am completely in favor of that decision. But it's still yet another factor for the Steelers to consider when trying to figure out how to shut down the Broncos.
According to the history of the Steelers vs. Broncos matchups, it could be anyone's game. The Steelers are 3-3 against the Broncos in the postseason; they're 2-2 in Denver. The last time the Steelers played there in the postseason, they won 34-17 in 2005 in the AFC championship game. Let's hope they can pull off a repeat of that one and keep their postseason alive. Otherwise, it could be a very, very long winter. Still, cheers to a 12-4 season and another trip to the playoffs!