AFC wild-card contenders unworthy of berths

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As the latest breakout performer in a long line of Steelers outside linebackers, LaMarr Woodley(notes) is used to inflicting pain.

And now, with the defending Super Bowl champions needing help from the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals to qualify for the postseason, Woodley wants all of us to feel his pain?

“All of them will lay down,” Woodley told reporters after practice Wednesday, referring to New England, Cincinnati and any other team which, by winning, could help the Steelers break out of a seven-team logjam to claim one of the AFC’s two wild-card berths. “No one wants to see Pittsburgh in it. That’s just how it is. … Everybody knows that we’re a dangerous team once we get into the playoffs.”

Woodley’s Steelers are once again in danger of missing the playoffs one season after winning the Super Bowl.
(Rick Havner/AP)

I have two immediate reactions to Woodley’s words.

First, allow me to break out the violins.

Second: To borrow from the great John McEnroe, You cannot be serious.

Look, I agree with Woodley that the Steelers, in theory, could be a dangerous team if they sneak into the postseason. And it’s entirely possible that Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, as is their prerogative, will elect to rest their top players for part or all of the games that have little bearing on their respective playoff fates, which could doom Pittsburgh’s cause.

But this whole everyone-is-plotting-to-deny-the-Steelers-their-rightful-place-in-the-postseason theory, one which some have cited as a possible impetus for the Indianapolis Colts’ controversial decision to pull Peyton Manning(notes) and other starters in the third quarter of last Sunday’s game against the Jets?

Yeah, right.

To the Steelers and those who support them, I say: Get over yourselves. In fact, I’d say the same thing to the teams with whom they’re competing.

It’s time for a reality check. There are 16 teams in the AFC, and 12 of them – Pittsburgh included – have no business making the playoffs, period.

If justice prevailed, the four runaway division winners – Indy, San Diego, Cincy and New England – would all receive first-round byes and go straight to the divisional round, while the Steelers and the six others still mathematically alive for wild-card berths would finish their seasons on Sunday and go away until September.

At best, the AFC’s fifth and sixth seeds will finish 9-7. It’s even possible that Tennessee, which has already been mathematically eliminated, could join seven other competitors in an eight-way tie at 8-8. That’s just nasty.

So put your conspiracy theories aside, and allow me to explain to Steelers fans – and those of the other six teams with whom they’re vying for wild-card berths – why their team has no right to complain about anything. In alphabetical order:

Baltimore Ravens: To its credit, this team beat the Chargers way back in Week 2 and suffered close defeats to the Vikings, Colts, Patriots and Bengals. But the Ravens could have set themselves up with a victory over the Steelers last weekend and were abysmal in the fourth quarter, with a touchdown called back due to penalty and another easy score squandered when their top receiver dropped a pass in the end zone And they’ll still get in if they can beat the Raiders in Oakland on Sunday. If they can’t do that, why are we even having this conversation?

Josh McDaniels
(Doug Pensinger/Getty)

Denver Broncos: Let’s put aside the fact that, after starting 6-0, the Broncos have lost seven of their past nine games. I’d like to focus on one result in particular: A 20-19 home defeat to the Raiders two weeks ago in which Denver’s D failed to hold a late lead against JaMarcus Russell(notes). Enough said. Josh McDaniels’ team also lost to the Washington Redskins and got pounded by two other wild-card aspirants, the Ravens and Steelers.

Houston Texans: I’ve talked about how this team is the NFL’s biggest tease, and the fact that it got swept by the Jaguars, who have no quality victories all season, tells you all you need to know. And if the Texans are edged out in a tiebreaker by the Jets, perhaps their fans should remember the 24-7 thumping Houston took, at home, against Rex Ryan’s team in the season opener.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Amazingly, this team is still alive at 7-8. Please, make it stop. The Jags’ best victories this season were the aforementioned triumphs over the Texans and a Nov. 15 squeaker over the Jets. Given a chance to legitimize their playoff push last Sunday in New England by beating a team that’s actually good, they fell behind 35-0 and got smoked by the Pats. Oh, and the Jags lost to the Seahawks. By a score of 41-0. Atrocious.

Miami Dolphins: Another 7-8 team that has yet to be officially eliminated, though it essentially shut it down in the first half of last Sunday’s game against the Texans, falling behind 27-0. Way to seize the moment, guys. The Dolphins lost to the Bills, 31-14, in late November and completely choked against the Saints five weeks earlier, blowing a 21-point lead. They are the essence of illegitimate.

New York Jets: If Rex Ryan’s team makes the playoffs, he should get down on his knees and thank the football gods for his good fortune. First his inconsistent team, in its own stadium two weeks ago, allowed the already eliminated Falcons to drive 73 yards in the final minutes to steal a 10-7 victory. Then, with the Jets trailing the Colts by five in the third quarter last Sunday, Indy coach Jim Caldwell essentially sent them a life raft by calling in rookie quarterback Curtis Painter(notes) and the second-stringers. And now, thanks to NBC’s decision to move New York’s game with the Bengals into the Sunday night slot, Ryan may get lucky once more: Depending upon what happens with the Patriots earlier Sunday – and, realistically, how much Lewis cares about getting the third seed, as opposed to the fourth seed – the Jets may face Cincy’s B-team, too. If they still can’t get into the playoffs, what was the point?

Pittsburgh Steelers: OK, here’s why Woodley makes me roll my eyes. Of all the wild-card contenders, the Steelers have arguably done the most to create their own predicament, and have wasted the most chances to overcome those self-inflicted wounds. Despite losing to the Bears in Week 2, Mike Tomlin’s team was 6-2 at midseason and looked like a legitimate threat to repeat. Then Pittsburgh lost five consecutive games, including setbacks to the Chiefs (blech), the Raiders (ouch) and the Browns (ooof). Really? Then, it took a last-second, complete-by-inches touchdown pass against the Packers to keep the dream alive, followed by the Ravens’ previously discussed implosion last weekend. If Pittsburgh wins in Miami on Sunday, it will need help from the Patriots, Bengals, Raiders and/or Chiefs (who face the Broncos) in various combinations. And the Steelers might get it. But they don’t deserve it. None of these teams does.


Shamed by the intense reaction of fans and media to the way he approached last Sunday’s defeat to the Jets, Colts coach Jim Caldwell will play his starters for longer than he’d otherwise like to in Buffalo – and Indy will still lose to the Bills. … The Texans will keep their playoff hopes alive by defeating the Patriots in an early game, prompting Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, in search of the No. 3 overall seed, to play his starters against the Jets (and setting the stage for a Cincy victory Sunday night). … Despite against-the-grain choices like the Bills and Bengals, I will once again be Y! Sports’ NFL picks king at season’s end.


The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, where I can say hello to my old friend Captain Comeback and watch his brother, John, try to coach the Ravens into the playoffs in a pivotal game against the Raiders. (And when I think of Ravens-Raiders at the Coliseum, it inevitably takes me back to Trent Dilfer’s finest hour.


1. After hearing team president Bill Polian’s coherent explanation as to why the Colts approached last Sunday’s defeat to the Jets differently than the previous Thursday’s victory at Jacksonville, no one can possibly question the unassailable logic behind the decision.

2. Despite Tom Cable’s exceptional coaching, JaMarcus Russell took down the Raiders and kept them from their rightful place among the AFC’s elite this season.

3. In an effort to convince NFL officials that he was merely yelling at his coaching staff on a headset when penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct in Tennessee’s Christmas night defeat to the Chargers, Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil explained that he was frustrated with secondary coach Marcus (Ref, If You Had Another Eye You’d Be A [Expletive] Cyclops) Robertson.


Completing a lively season marked by great calls (Chris Johnson, Vernon Davis(notes), the Packers’ defense) and banging our heads against walls (Braylon Edwards(notes), Antonio Bryant(notes), and the hideous Arian Foster(notes) disaster, UCSB women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s Harsh Reality rolled to a 112-87 victory over Hurricanes to capture third place in the Gauchos, Tigers & Bears oh my! league. For the second time in three weeks, our gambles – with the blessing of Y! Sports guru Brad Evans – paid off, as Jerome Harrison(notes) (18 points) and the Falcons’ defense (21) keyed a steady effort across the board. Hurricanes, meanwhile, were doomed by DeAngelo Williams’(notes) injury, Derrick Mason’s(notes) incomprehensible drop and weak efforts by Heath Miller(notes) and Lawrence Tynes(notes). Though Gottlieb naturally wanted to win the big prize, she was thrilled to rebound from last season’s out-of-the-money performance. I’m pretty sure she’ll keep me around as an advisor, too: For all the laughter we provoked when I successfully urged her to take Johnson with the No. 2 overall pick, there were 11 opponents cursing us on subsequent Sundays.

(Incidentally, Evans and I have a friendly wager on the line this weekend: Over the summer, on a rollicking night with some of our Yahoo! brothers and sisters in Chicago, I bet him Johnson would score 13 touchdowns in ’09. That, too, provoked laughter – though in fairness I was a bit of a laughingstock, in general, on the night in question. Well, Johnson has 14 TDs heading into Sunday’s game in Seattle, but only 12 of the rushing variety. To eliminate any controversy over the terms of the bet, I need CJ to break the plane at least once at Qwest Field. Then, and only then, will I begin shopping for that special sweatshirt featuring the likeness of Oski the Bear for Evans, a proud Illini alum, to wear on a future Y! Sports broadcast.)

As for my buddy Malibu, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’s pathetic performance in the Sex, Drugs and Fantasy Football League was offset by his son A-Man’s stirring run to the finals with Man up Willis U … And with a $4,000 first prize on the line for the Cal freshman, A-Man pulled it off, rolling to a 28-point triumph over ”Divers” that should pay for his hot sausages at Top Dog for the duration of his undergraduate days. Divers put up a decent fight, with Ryan Grant(notes), Roddy White(notes) and the Cowboys’ defense leading the way. But A-Man’s big guns (Johnson, Donovan McNabb(notes), Randy Moss(notes)) came through, the Packers’ defense gave him an 18-point effort, and Harrison’s 28-point output accounted for the final margin. Again, I feel like I justified my existence: First I insisted that the kid claim Harrison off waivers, rather than Jason Snelling(notes), and as late as Sunday morning A-Man was still stressing out over the possibility that Browns coach Eric Mangini would restrict the young runner’s carries and pondering a switch to Fred Jackson(notes) before I talked him out of it. Wait a minuteâdid I just admit to devoting time on a hectic Sunday morning to worrying about someone’s fantasy-football lineup? What the hell happened to me?


Now that Mike Leach has been fired by Texas Tech, and Al Davis is probably a few days away from whipping out the ol’ overhead projector for the inevitable press conference to fire Tom Cable, has anyone considered the notion that this could be a professional marriage made in heaven? That’s right – Mike Leach as the next coach of the Raiders, and I am being completely serious. Think about it: The Raiders have an abysmal offense and are trying to salvage the career of a former No. 1 overall draft pick, quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Leach is an innovative offensive mind who has made prolific passers out of far less talented QBs. Davis is a big-time meddler, but he has also worked best with headstrong head coaches who aren’t afraid to be their own men. Leach, as recent events confirm, would fit that mold. Further, as Leach proved this week, he, too, is not afraid to lawyer up, and both will soon be intimately familiar with the nuances of the term ”with cause.” Finally, Leach has a well-documented thing for pirates. Can you imagine how much he’d fun he’d have in an eye patch?


All of the healers, teachers, public servants, soldiers, colleagues, friends and so many others who have enhanced the lives of those around them – and especially those of my loved ones – during these past 365 days. I realize that’s a lot of shots, so I hope some of you will lend your assistance, either by consuming liquor or pouring it out, and by doing your best to put positive energy into the world in 2010 and beyond.


Is it possible that selfish, aggressive behavior is a less effective survival strategy than cultivating compassion and empathy? Some social scientists at the world’s greatest academic institution are helping to prove it. (That said, I hope Mike Montgomery’s hoopsters eat their Stanford counterparts alive at Haas Pavilion Saturday, especially because I’ll be there to take in the inevitable ‘Tiiiiiigggger’ chants emanating from the Cal student section.)


biggest freakout ever


After guiding Reading to a second consecutive 1-1 draw, this time against Swansea City at Madejski Stadium last Saturday, interim manager Brian McDermott tasted the type of defeat that was all too commonplace under ousted predecessor Brendan Rodgers. Two days after Gylfi Sigurdsson’s curling free kick in first-half stoppage time earned the Royals a point against the Swans, Reading got routed by Plymouth, 4-1, on a mucky pitch at Home Park, with Sigurdsson’s header in the 62nd minute the only bright spot for the visitors. ”Losing is one thing but being outfought is another,” McDermott told the team’s website afterward. ”That’s the most disappointing thing.” Just two points clear of the relegation line, the Royals get a break from Football League Championship competition this weekend – and a take a stroll down memory lane (not to be confused with Penny Lane. In what will give its fans flashbacks to Reading’s two-year run in the Premiership, mighty Liverpool visits Madejski Stadium Saturday for a nationally televised FA Cup match. In other words, fans all over the U.K. can see how far the Royals have fallen in two years.


After laying low for most of the past year, Mike Shanahan is ready to return with a vengeance in 2010, likely as the next head coach of the Redskins. Shanahan has the skill and sense of self to flourish under Dan Snyder, but the partnership he’d really like to form is with a certain quarterback who’s currently stationed in Chicago. As Shanahan ponders his next move – and plots an eventual reunion with the strong-armed passer he groomed – I see him standing onstage at Red Rocks, under a blood red sky, mimicking Bono circa 1983. After all, you know what day it is, right? Yeah, of course you do. Am I bugging you? I don’t mean to bug ya …

Yeah! All is quiet on New Year’s Day
Zorn will be fired – it’s underway
Already did a sham interview: Jerry Gray
Major changes in three more days
In three more days

I will be in Washington
I’ll beat up on everyone

I’ve got a bright red face
And Josh McDaniels – what a disgrace
Traded Jay, he had no clue
And Yahoo! Sports says, says
Say it’s true it’s true
Dan to the rescue
Though torn in two
We can be one

Then … We will begin again
Then … The Skins will win again

Yeah – ohhhhhhh

Oh … Maybe the price is right
Oh … Would the Bears bite?

I will be with you again
I will be with you again

And so we’re told this is the golden age
And gold is the reason that I’m on this stage
Though I want a quarterback
Quarterback just like Jay
On New Year’s Day
On New Year’s Day
On New Year’s Day …