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Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after last Sunday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens that his team would unleash hell in December. This Sunday Pittsburgh did it, taking its own playoff journey and turning it into a contemporary Dante's Inferno.
Indeed, the Steelers have just created their own hell, underachieving their way to a 6-6 record and putting themselves on the outer reaches of the AFC playoff bubble thanks to yet another fourth-quarter collapse. But this one trumped all others, coming at the hands of the Oakland Raiders, a franchise that has spent the last several years framed as the antithesis of the Steelers. For Pittsburgh, there hasn't been a lower point to the season.
But how did this team get here? How was this possible after returning almost all of last season's Super Bowl team? Well, the reality is, this isn't that Super Bowl team. Or, at the very least, this isn't that Super Bowl defense. Defensive end Aaron Smith(notes) is on injured reserve. Safety Troy Polamalu(notes) is on the sideline. Linebacker Larry Foote(notes) and safety Bryant McFadden(notes) are on other teams. Smith and Polamalu are two of the best players on this defense, while Foote and McFadden were smart veteran players whose presence counted most in close fourth quarters.
Even more, this defense has never truly fit into last season's vicious identity. Offenses have become more adept at scheming against outside linebackers James Harrison(notes) and LaMarr Woodley(notes), and other pass rushers simply haven't stepped into the void and helped thwart the adjustments. And without Polamalu, there has been a dearth of playmakers. A fact that is plain as day in this stat: In the five games Polamalu has played in, the Steelers have forced 11 turnovers. In the eight games he hasn't played in, they've forced five. Those numbers are accentuated by one dropped interception after another.
Look no further than rookie Joe Burnett(notes) on Sunday. Pressed into action by injury, Burnett was hit in the gut with what would have been the game-icing interception in the fourth quarter. But as we have seen so many times with Pittsburgh's secondary, he let it slip away. I remember when this used to just be a problem with cornerback Ike Taylor(notes). Lately it seems like there isn't a player in the secondary who can be counted on to make that play when it matters most. There's no doubt that safety Ryan Mundy's(notes) personal foul late in the fourth quarter was a blow, but Burnett's drop was the game.
I remember being in Pittsburgh's locker room in the offseason and looking around and thinking that another collapse couldn't happen following a Super Bowl. There were just too many veterans still around who had gone through it the first time following the win in Super Bowl XL. But then the off-field drama started with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Then we started talking about nose tackle Casey Hampton's(notes) weight. And we wondered why the sacks were so slow to come at the start of the season. Then came the fourth-quarter issues, the injuries and the Hines Ward(notes) interview drama. Every season has its tale of woes, and the Steelers are no different.
But it seems like just when it can't get any worse, something like Sunday happens. Sitting back and looking at it in the larger view, Tomlin was right and wrong. Hell has been unleashed, but it didn't just start in December for this team.
Here are some of Sunday's other Week 13 winners and losers …
• Oakland Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski(notes)
He has some moments where you realize why former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden was once so enthralled with the Pittsburgh native's talents. Similar moments came against Pittsburgh, when he stood in against the Steelers' pass rush and just kept ticking. His three fourth-quarter touchdown passes stunned the Heinz Field crowd. He's got six touchdowns in the last three games and has exponentially more bright spots than JaMarcus Russell(notes). How could this not be an open quarterback competition next season ? Then again, maybe Gradkowski could ice the whole thing down the stretch this season.
• Oakland Raiders wideout Louis Murphy(notes)
I can't remember the last time the Raiders had two guys in the winners column. It's possible it has never happened in this space. Anyway, they deserved it this week. Murphy was fantastic in the fourth quarter, and is easily one of the most underrated rookies in the league this season. The 23-yard pass he fought for late in the decisive fourth-quarter drive is what makes an NFL wideout great.
• Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell(notes)
The guy threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns, so you can't blame him for the Redskins' late meltdown. Quietly, he's had some solid moments since the bye week. I think he looks more confident. Maybe that means nothing in the long run, but this franchise has to find some bright spots to get them to the end of this awful season.
• The Chicago Bears
Sunday's win was ugly, and it has to be concerning that quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) threw the ball only 17 times against a poor defense. But considering how tremendously negative the city of Chicago has gotten about this team, breaking that four-game losing streak was important, particularly with the latest spate of injuries. Now Chicago has to figure out how to score points in next week's game against the Green Bay Packers.
• The Carolina Panthers defense
With no DeAngelo Williams(notes) and with an anemic passing game, the Panthers needed the defense to carry them for a week. Thankfully, that week coincided with the Buccaneers and rookie quarterback Josh Freeman(notes). And while it wasn't a stout opponent, the Panthers didn't squander their opportunities. That is an underrated plus (just ask the Steelers). Jon Beason(notes) escaped his off-field controversy for an afternoon, notching two of Carolina's five interceptions.
• The Jacksonville Jaguars defense
The pass rush was a bit better against a Steve Slaton(notes)-less Texans team, and did a good job of keeping Houston's passing game off-balance much of the day. The front seven also blew up the pivotal Chris Brown pass attempt, which in retrospect may have been the game's true turning point. But it's still too early to give this team respect as a true playoff contender. That respect will be earned with at least a 2-1 record in the next three games (vs. Dolphins, Colts; at Patriots). The season hinges on that trio of games.
• The Denver Broncos running game
The Chiefs shot themselves in the foot a few times, but Denver's 44-13 win reminded us what this team looked like early in the season. The Broncos were dominant running the football, stacking up 245 rushing yards and suffocating the clock en route to a 36-24 advantage in time of possession. That kept the defense fresh in the fourth quarter, and should bode well heading into next week's game at Indianapolis. If the Broncos can run this way against the Colts, they can win in Lucas Oil Stadium.
• The Indianapolis Colts defense
When is this unit going to get credit for being one of the best in the NFL? It is finally getting healthy again, and it showed against the Titans. The Colts limited big plays all day against the Titans. And while Tennessee running back Chris Johnson had 141 yards from scrimmage, he never had a play longer than 11 yards. The secondary is vastly underrated in its ability to be versatile against the pass and run, especially safety Melvin Bullitt(notes). Give credit to coach Jim Caldwell for shaking up the defensive staff in the offseason. His move has paid off.
• Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick(notes)
He has been frustrated with his role in Philadelphia's offense this season, but to his credit, he has not become a problem. That patience paid off this week, as Vick had his best game of the season – and his largest role. He threw a touchdown pass to Brent Celek(notes) and ran for another, and clearly enjoyed his return in spite of a shower of boos from the Atlanta crowd. By the end of the game, he had even won over some of the Falcons' faithful. It will be interesting to see if Vick has earned himself a larger role down the line.
• New Orleans Saints wideout Robert Meachem(notes)
The more you watch him, the more you realize why the Saints have continued to be so high on his talent since he was a first-round pick out of Tennessee in 2007. Meachem has now scored seven touchdowns in his past five games. That includes a pair in Sunday's shocking comeback win over Washington – one score coming on a strip and fumble return at the end of the first half.
• Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chad Johnson
When the season started, he vowed to go back to his spotlight grabbing antics and to once again have fun on the field. To his credit, he looks like a guy who is enjoying himself and playing with passion again. With Sunday's 137 yards and a touchdown against the Detroit Lions, he's got 910 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season, and is on pace for one of the best years of his career. You might not like the way he does it, but he makes the NFL fun, he performs at a high level, and he cares about winning and losing. That's more than you can say about a lot of highly touted players who have come and gone in Cincinnati.
• Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis(notes)
His interception of Tom Brady(notes) in the end zone in the fourth quarter of Miami's win was pivotal. Davis even gained a measure of revenge against Randy Moss(notes), who had beaten him up consistently this season before that play. But there's no doubt that Davis has the skill and ability to be a big-time corner in this league. He has taken a lot of lumps as a rookie starter, but he has dished a few out, too. He's one of the big bright spots going forward.
• San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson(notes)
With all due respect to tight end Antonio Gates(notes), who strung together a second straight big game, this day belonged to Tomlinson, who scored his 150th career touchdown and moved into eighth place on the league's all-time rushing list. His emergence as a consistent red zone threat has boosted this offense. He may never average more than 4.0 yards per carry, but he's still vital to this team's success in the stretch run. He is still dangerous.
• Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn(notes)
How in the hell was this guy not starting all season long. I don't care about the start of the season, when he was playing against some pretty darn good teams. Quinn never, ever, should have been on the bench. Good for him for making the most of his opportunity now. He showed some leadership abilities late against San Diego, with three fourth-quarter scoring drives. He gives every Cleveland Brown fan a reason to watch as the season winds down.
• The New York Giants offensive line
The stats won't totally reflect it, but the unit played extremely well Sunday. While Eli Manning(notes), the defensive stars and the skill position players get a lot of credit, this is still the backbone of this team. The Giants' line did a superb job of keeping the Dallas Cowboys' pass rush off of Manning for much of the game, while getting a push for the running backs in important spots. The unit isn't back to being totally dominant again, and likely won't be if guard Chris Snee's(notes) knee injury is serious. But it still has the ability to control games.
• Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes)
If only most people could see Hasselbeck this season, they would respect how tough he truly is. He is playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in football, and takes brutal hits. Only his ability to get rid of the ball has kept his sack total from being astronomical. Watch his two-touchdown performance against the 49ers and you'll feel an appreciation for him. In spite of five sacks and a lot of pressure, Hasselbeck battled Seattle into a winning position from start to finish. One can only hope he won't finish his career under constant duress.
• The 2009 rookie quarterback class
I still like this group, but man has it seen some awful games this season. With Josh Freeman's five-interception game against Carolina, all three of this season's rookie starters – Freeman, the Lions' Matt Stafford and the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez(notes) – have a game with five picks. As a group that trio has an astronomical 47 interceptions in 27 starts, including Stafford's 20. It's a super talented class, with some big arms, but those numbers are absurd.
• Atlanta Falcons fans
I don't have a problem with all Falcons fans – only the morons who were chanting “We want Vick!” in the midst of Sunday's ugly 34-7 loss for the Falcons. Vick has paid his debt and all that, but that chant is disrespectful to what the new regime is building. The team is going through a horrible run of injuries and is struggling right now. But that Vick chant is a joke. Your new coaches, players and front office deserve better.
• The Houston Texans coaching staff
The Chris Brown interception in the fourth quarter, on first-and-goal at the Jacksonville 5-yard line, was absurd. There was no reason to have a running back throwing the ball in that situation. Say what you want about the defense's inability to force a punt in the final minutes of the game, but the Brown interception is where this contest was lost. In struggling seasons like this, that's what gets coaching staffs fired.
• The Kansas City Chiefs
The defense has gotten pummeled in back-to-back weeks, but the ineffective offense isn't helping. The dropped balls in the first quarter helped change the complexion of this game and allowed Denver to take control. Dwayne Bowe(notes) was missed in this game. This isn't a roster than can afford to lose even one playmaker. Still, the Chiefs have two winnable games (vs. Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns) coming up. And considering all the roster issues, it will qualify as a step in the right direction if this franchise makes it to five wins.
• The Tennessee Titans' playoff hopes
It was nearly impossible that this team would rattle off 10 straight wins and grab a wild-card spot, but the loss to the Colts was still bitter. Had the Titans won this one, they would have instantly become the most dangerous team in the NFL. Instead, the Titans have to pray every break falls their way during the season's final four games. One thing that stuck out late in the third quarter of this one: After Chris Johnson rushed to the Colts' 1-yard line and made it first-and-goal, he didn't touch the ball again, and the Titans turned the ball over on downs. Why run four more plays without your best player touching the ball even once? Very curious.
• The Falcons
It has really become a rough go for Atlanta, which has suffered too many injuries to win games against upper-tier teams. But Sunday had to carry a special sting, with former quarterback Michael Vick throwing and running for touchdowns. Just a tough loss to swallow, especially with a segment of fans wearing Vick jerseys and chanting for him at the end. For some fans, Vick will always be bigger than the Falcons franchise.
• The Washington Redskins
Rarely have I ever seen a team lose like the Redskins did. There was no shortage of traumatic plays, from the missed chip shot field goal by Shaun Suisham(notes) that likely would have iced the game with 1:52 remaining in the fourth quarter, to the pair of costly fumbles that allowed New Orleans to stay in and eventually win. If Washington was in the playoff hunt, I wouldn't be shocked if Suisham was cut by Monday night. You just can't miss 23-yard field goals like that. His saving grace might be that so many other things went wrong over the course of the game.
• The New England Patriots' swagger
There was a day that this roster could intimidate other teams, but that aura has faded significantly. That crazy 59-0 win over Tennessee wasn't a sign that New England's dominance still existed. It was a one-sided anomaly. I was as guilty as anyone for buying into it, and I believed at one point this was a team capable of running the table and competing for a Super Bowl. Not anymore. Not after the last-minute loss to Miami. And certainly not with this inconsistent defense. The Patriots just look, well, beatable.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: Tom Brady starting Sunday's game 14 of 15 with two touchdowns and a perfect quarterback rating after all the consternation over his hand injury. Proof positive that Las Vegas gambling insiders don't know everything.
Loathed: The first-quarter end zone interception thrown by Kyle Orton(notes) against the Chiefs. Part of coach Josh McDaniels' private criticisms of Jay Cutler in the preseason was about Cutler's decision-making in the red zone. Well, the Broncos went into Sunday tied for 29th in red zone touchdowns. Orton hasn't been all that efficient, either.
Loved: Matthew Stafford's(notes) 54-yard yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson(notes) in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals. If you want to see sick arm strength, watch the highlights. Stafford barely has to wind up on the play, and appears to throw it with part of his leverage on his back foot. He releases the ball at his own 41-yard line, and gets it to Calvin Johnson – in perfect stride – at Cincinnati's 2. A 57-yard flick, like nothing.
Loathed: Chiefs wideout Bobby Wade(notes) dropping a wide open, rock solid pass that would have been a 76-yard touchdown in the first quarter against Denver. Then later in the quarter, watching Lance Long(notes) drop another sure touchdown in the end zone. Coach Todd Haley's offense is showing promise, but the talent executing it still leaves a lot to be desired.
Loved: Rams wideout Brandon Gibson's(notes) second-quarter fumble that looked like a direct snap into the arms of Bears safety Al Afalava(notes). Considering the speed of the play, it was shocking that Afalava actually caught the ball. His awareness and reaction on the catch was unbelievable.
Loathed: The Bears coaching staff squandering Afalava's effort by running a fake field goal, which failed. The points were a gimme. The Bears should have opted to go up 13-0 at home rather than get cute. Bad decision.
Loved: Chad Johnson's sombrero after his second-quarter touchdown against Detroit. I miss his colorful touchdown celebrations. The CPR on the football was among the best ever.
Loved: Seeing San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith notch another solid game with 310 passing yards and two touchdowns during the loss to Seattle. San Francisco kept him on the roster this season when it didn't have to, and that is paying dividends. Smith is the starting quarterback for now and the future. He'll continue to grow with those young offensive pieces.
Loathed: The knee issue that robbed Tampa Bay wideout Antonio Bryant(notes) of much of his season. Bryant is finally getting healthy and if you saw him play Sunday, you realized how much of a difference he makes for that offense. He's a star when healthy.
- Oakland Raiders