Monday, January 31, 2011

Will Experience Be a Determining Factor in Super Bowl XLV?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have 14 starters with Super Bowl experience and 11 of those guys have played in two Super Bowls. [That doesn't include back ups like Larry Foote and Antwan Randal El, who both have Super Bowl experience. That's just the starters listed on the offensive and defensive depth charts.] The Packers, meanwhile, have just two starters with Super Bowl experience -- the amazing Charles Woodson and defensive end Ryan Pickett, who played his rookie year with the 2001 Rams.

Tomlin has coached in two Super Bowls (one as an assistant with the 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs and, of course, as the head man for the 2008 Steelers.) Green Bay's head coach (and the pride of Greenfield!) Mike McCarthy has been to zero.

If experience were the sole determining factor, the Steelers would win in a landslide. But then, if experience were a determining factor for success in life, we would all watch "Murder She Wrote" reruns instead of "The Jersey Shore," AOL would still rule the internets, and Marv Levy would still be coaching.

Recent SB history is pretty mixed in terms of experience versus inexperience, so much so that you have to wonder if experience counts for anything at all. The Packers won SB XXXI, then promptly went out and lost XXXII to the Denver Broncos. The St. Louis Rams won SB XXXIV, then lost to the New England Patriots in XXXVI. Of course, those Pats won a couple more, but lost to the Giants in XLII. The Indy Colts won XLII, but lost XLIV to the New Orleans Saints. On the flip side, the Pats did win two more SB's after their first win. The Broncos defended their title and, of course, the 2008 Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals for a second title.

Clearly, experience does not equal a win, but what it might mean is that the Steelers can dispatch their jitters more quickly, or at least that's what I hope.

The Super Bowl, no matter how much coaches and players may want to treat it like a run of the mill game, is no run of the mill game. It's weird. It's crazy. Halftime is way longer. Big stars show up for the National Anthem. There are reporters there from all over the world. When a guy with a microphone and a podcast in the Republic of Palau can get media credential, rest assured it's an out of control spectacle.

Beyond that, the players know that all NFL eyes are on them. Guys play just a bit harder on Monday Night Football, knowing that the rest of the league is at home watching them play. They want to perform for their peers. They most certainly don't want to embarrass themselves. If there's that much more additional pressure on a Monday night in October, what must this feel like?

I don't believe there is any way to anticipate what this stage is like if you haven't played on it before. Hines Ward puked his guts out during introductions before SB XL. Pig Ben said that, in most games, he has butterflies at the start, but that they go very early on, but in XL, they never went away.

There's no question that Aaron Rogers has been riding a hot streak for the last month and a half and has made long stretches of the post-season look like a 6 on 6 scrimmage. At times, he has been more accurate than Brady, more mobile than Vick and cooler than Montana. But if the nerves get to him at the start, if the lights and glitz and media glare, not to mention Jerr'Jones' death star HD screen hanging above him, gives him a fit of the yips early on, the Steelers might have the crack they need.

It's reasonable to expect that Rogers and the Pack will have at least some nerves. And while they work through the butterflies and twitches, the Steelers need to dig the Packers' grave and push them into it.

We know the Packers can score. In the regular season, they averaged 24.3 points per game and have averaged 30 per game in the post-season. Nobody's putting 30 points up on the Steelers defense, but I don't think you can keep them out of the endzone all night, nerves or not. So the Steelers defense needs to create opportunities early and keep the Steelers offense on the field throughout the first half. Oh, and they need touchdowns, not field goals. Touchdowns just aren't going to do it in this one.

If the Steelers can build a big enough lead at the start, it could be all the difference end. Just ask the Jets.

Super Bowl XLIII Memories ... Or, Just So Long as I Do Not Have to Sleep in a Tent

"Seriously, take some xanax."

I grunted. Then I continued twitching and tossing and fidgeting on my side of the tent. My crampy left calf was keeping me up, beyond which, sleeping on the hard ground was always a dicey proposition. I wasn't complaining so much as making very unhappy pre-verbal sounds, like a cranky toddler too tired to sleep.

And then there was the black and gold elephant in the tent.

At that moment, as I lay in a tent in a remote area in southern Chile, the Pittsburgh Steelers were playing in Super Bowl XLIII. I had managed to banish thoughts of the game from my head through our long day of hiking (more than 12 hours), but in the quiet of the tent with no other distractions (save for that crampy left calf muscle) I had one, intrusive, insistent thought: I cannot believe I am missing the fucking Super Bowl!

Somehow, I thought I could handle it. To this point, I had managed not to think about it, immersed in each day of hiking in one of the most beautiful areas of the world, plus I was often distracted by searing pain in my bionic, rebuilt ankle, so I had that going for me. Still it was crazy, inconceivable that I would miss the Steelers, the Pittsburgh Steelers mind you, playing in Super Bowl XLIII. I had given some thought to what it might be like to miss the game, but with game night coming down around me, no access to a television or even the internet, it was more slippery, trickier than I thought it would be.

While my fellow 'Burghers were cooking and cleaning and gearing up for the game, I was hiking to The Towers in Torres del Paine (pictured above), a trek that is pretty much straight uphill from the start. It's not technical climbing by any stretch, but it is a consistent climb for many hours which eventually brings you to the moraine at the base of the Towers. You've got to climb up this moraine -- loose rocks and boulders -- at an even steeper incline for about mile to take you to the Towers. That one mile? Takes almost an hour because of the grade, but also because the footing is a sprained ankle or blown out knee waiting to happen, so even those fittest of trekkers have to tread carefully. It was quite the day, too. The photo above is one of mine and I'm told that many a trekker has made the long hike to get there, only to have the Towers themselves obscured by cloud cover.

It had been an amazing, exhausting hike and we had wildly entertaining company at dinner, so it was easy enough to not think about the NFL. We even saw a guy hiking up the moraine in a pair of underpants. No pants, mind you, just a black hat, black vest, and hiking boots. He looked like an outcast from the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade circa 1992, save for his navy blue underpants with little clouds on them. That provided us hours of entertainment at dinner as we all wondered just how he came to hike in Patagonia without pants? Perhaps his luggage was lost? Maybe he was attacked by a feral guanaco, who ripped his pants from his body? Nah. I was convinced and remain so to this day that that he was German.

As Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes marched the team down the field for the game winning touchdown, I was laying in a tent, trying to be mindful of just how lucky I was. After all, how many people get to hike in Patagonia for over a week, treading their way through the Fitzroy range in southern Argentina and then in the Torres del Paine range in southern Chile? But sports allegiance in America is a funny thing. It defines us in many ways. I am, a writer, cook, reader, glass cutter, kayaker, hiker and a Steelers fan. It's not merely some entertainment, but part of who I am.

I am also a traveler. What to do when the two come in conflict? Super Bowl? Or hiking in Patagonia? Of course, as a Pittsburgh sports fan, the best time to travel is the summer time, the domain of that testament to irrelevancy, the Pittsburgh Pirates. But it's a terrible time to travel -- expensive and crowded. The best time to leave home is smack dab in the middle of football and hockey season. It's a constant conflict and one that I still haven't learned how to balance.

It seemed silly to fret about a game, so I lay there castigating myself for feeling sorry for myself. I was in this amazing place seeing incredible things and I was bumming because I was missing a game? Seriously?It was a long and mostly sleepless night -- what with the cold, hard-ground, the cramping leg, and the shameful self-pity. But the next morning, with the above picture my view at breakfast and another day of trekking in front of us, it was hard to feel anything but exuberant. A nice guy who worked at the campsite also had the world's weakest internet access and while it took him about 20 minutes to get the site to come up, I was truly grateful for his patience. That's how I learned the Steelers had won -- on a computer moving at glacial speed. (Given that I had hiked near and around several glaciers on this trip, it seemed somehow fitting.) It would be ten more days before I was back in the States and could see a replay of the game. (That's a whole other story. Damn you DVR! Damn you!)

So this year, no matter the outcome, no matter the quality of the game, I am here, able to watch the game in live action and, most importantly, sleep in my own bed. But I have to admit, a small part of me wishes I were going to be in a tent in some other remote part of the world, able to enjoy the news of the outcome at a distance, without the inevitable tension and anxiety of watching the actual game. Funny that.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Recipe: Super Bowl Feast

You don't have to be a Packers fan or a Steelers fan to eat like a champion on Super Bowl Sunday. In the event you want to plan a Super Bowl party menu, or just bring a contribution to somebody else's Super Bowl party, I've included the recipes for a number of dishes, any of which make a great Super Bowl treat, and all of which transport well if you're viewing somewhere else.

Don't be the guest who shows up with a bag of chips you bought at the Gas N Sip on your way over. Don't be that guy. Be the guest who shows up with the dish that wows everybody.

Mushrooms stuffed with pine nuts

Leek, Olive and Gruyere Galette

White Bean Dip

Green Goddess Dressing [served over a leafy green salad with grilled chicken or served with poached salmon]

Mini Turkey-Spinach Meatballs. These are simply my turkey spinach meatballs, made smaller (about 1 inch in diameter, maybe a hair bigger), which make great finger food. Because of the size, you need to bake them for a much shorter time period, around 15 minutes, but check them after 10. I serve them with marinara sauce for dipping, but they really stand alone, too.

Needless to say, Go Steelers!

Sunday Recipe: Green Goddess Dressing (on a green salad with chicken)

The first time I had green goddess dressing, it was served on some poached salmon, which was fantastic and a perfect mix, but its also just an amazing salad dressing. If you're going to serve it on a salad, I like this dressing on a very simple salad -- just some boneless, skinless chicken breasts cooked stove top in the winter or on the grill in the summer, seasoned with just some salt and pepper and served on top of fresh leafy lettuce you like. Romaine and green leaf lettuces work well, and Bibb lettuce is sublime. Add some scallions to pick up the scallions in the dressing.

I can tell you, this stuff is so good, you could put it on a your stinky old gym socks and it would make them at least palatable.

Also, if you care about such things, it is sure to impress if you make it for a date or some friends. It is easy as pie. Actually, its much easier than pie which, I am told, can be hard to master. This? Not so much.

You will need
1 cup mayonnaise
one bundle of scallions - chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves (it's one large bundle of basil, essentially)
1 lemon - juiced
1 clove of chopped garlic
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
heavy pinch of kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup sour cream

Add the mayo, one bunch of scallions, basil, garlic, lemon, anchovy paste, salt and pepper into the food processor and mix. When the basil and scallions are little shards of deliciousness, add the sour cream and pulse again. Taste for salt, but it's this simple. Also, again, people will be impressed.

Galette with Leeks, Olives and Gruyere

This is one of the tastier football treats I've ever stumbled across. The flavors are amazing, but the prep is easier than most things I putter around in the kitchen putting together. I served this little treat for the AFC Championship game and I impressed even myself.

You will need:
one 15-ounce package rolled refrigerated unbaked pie crust
2 leeks, cleaned and chopped (white and light green part only - leave the dark leaves for the trash heap)
1 fennel bulb, finely chopped
1 cup coarsely kalamata olives - sliced or coarsely chopped
2 cups of freshly grated gruyere cheese -- NOTE: you want a young gruyere for this

The prep, wherein you pretend to know something about cooking, but really don't:

Allow pie crust to stand at room temperature according to package directions.

Slice your kalamatas into halves or quarters. Grate your gruyere and set both aside.

Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. (If you don't have it and my supermarket seems to be forever out of it, use foil, but the crusts will stick a bit if you do. Parchment is better if you can lay your hands on some.)

In a medium skillet, heat some olive oil over medium heat. Cook leeks and fennel in hot oil until really good and soft -- for about 15 to 20 minutes. You want them to be tender and just a titch browned. Remove from heat and cool.

You can do all of those steps ahead - hours and hours ahead if you want to.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Roll pie crusts onto the baking sheets. Spread one half of the fennel/leek mixture onto each pastry, leaving about a 1/2 inch rim uncovered on the edge and form that into a little crust - like you would a pie crust in a baking dish. Top with cheese and the olives.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until pastry is golden. Cut into wedges to serve and each pie makes 6 to 8 servings.

White Bean (and Sun-Dried Tomato) Dip

This is a nice little riff on hummus, using some of those flavors, but adding some surprises. Dips are perfect for Super Bowl parties.

You will need:
2 cans of cannellini beans (white kidney beans), rinsed and drained
1 to 2 lemons, juiced
2 bundles of scallions, cleaned and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup bottled oil-packed dried tomatoes, drained and chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Several dashes bottled hot sauce -- whatever your favorite is

Get to work:
In a food processor or blender, combine the beans, sun-dried tomatoes and the lemon juice. Cover and process or blend until nearly smooth. If it is a little dry, add some water.

In a large skillet, cook the garlic in hot oil over medium heat until tender. Add the scallions and sautee for just a few minutes more. Stir in pureed beans mix, oregano, cumin, and hot sauce. Heat through. Test for salt.

Drizzle with Olive Oil. Serve with a sliced baguette.

Sunday Recipe: Mushrooms Stuffed with Pine Nuts

Ah, pignolis, those unctuous little nuts.

These are a great treat for your vegetarian friends, but don't let that scare you off. They are sublime little pockets of goodness.

You will need:
18 large button mushrooms
4 ounces (ish) of pine nuts (that's two little jars)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup finely grated romano cheese
1 lemon, juiced
pinch of crushed red pepper

First, toast the pine nuts in a hot, dry sautee pan. Remove.

Clean the mushroom caps and remove the stems of the mushrooms. Dip each one of the caps in lemon juice and put top side down in a glass baking dish that has been brushed with olive oil(reserve the remaining lemon).

Chop the mushroom stems and sautee with the garlic in olive oil until they are completely broken down. Add the crushed red pepper and bread crumbs and sautee a couple of minutes. Then remove from the pan and toss in a large bowl with the grated romano and toasted pine nuts. Taste for salt and, if the stuffing mix seems a little dry, mix in some additional olive oil.

Stuff each cap with the filing and pour the remaining lemon juice over top.

Bake uncovered at 400 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.

This is adapted from the Moosewood Cookbook, if you want to go to the mother-ship.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Carson Palmer Wants Out of the Jungle

A couple years ago, Chad Ochocinco (soon to be Chad Johnson again) asked to be traded by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Now, quarterback Carson Palmer is asking to get out.

I don’t know if they still have a caged Bengal Tiger on the sidelines of Bengals games (they used to back in the Boomer Esiason era), but it seems to me that’s a pretty potent metaphor for life as a Bengal. Caged. Trapped in Cincinnati. With the world's worst owners.

Speaking of the world's worst owner, Bengals owner Mike Brown refused to shop Ochocinco and has told Carson the same thing. No trades, bub. He does not trade.

And why would Brown trade anybody? If he trades Palmer, then Domata Peko will want out. And Leon Hall will come knocking, wanting out. Then Jermaine Gresham will demand a trade. It’ll be a freaking Bengals stampede.

To paraphrase the great, great Judd Nelson in ‘The Breakfast Club,’

“If Carson gets out, we’ll all get out. It’ll be anarchy!”

I now return you to your regularly scheduled reading about relevant football clubs.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Performance Art, David Mamet and the AFC Championship Game

A long time ago, like back in the Neil O'Donnell era, I went to an evening of performance art at Mellon Park put together by this artsy guy who I kinda knew because he dated somebody I knew. I didn't much care for him. I thought he was pretentious and annoying because he was pretentious and annoying. Also, he wore purple. Lots and lots of purple all the time and I don't think I ever saw him when he wasn't wearing at least one article of purple clothing. He had a simply shocking propensity for purple. Not a dignified purple, like Northwestern or Minnesota Vikings purple, either. It was more like the shade of purple preferred by pre-pubescent little girls, the shade they would squeal with delight to find in a pen and then proceed to sign everything in purple and write on the fronts of their notebooks and stuff. That purple. He even wore purple socks. In the summer. With shorts and running shoes. (I am not making this up.)

But I started thinking about him, and this particular evening of performance art because the over-arching theme was time. It was made up of many different vignettes, some of which were more monologue and others more, em, performance artsy, if you know what I mean. And when one of them was finished, Mr. Purple would bang this little gong he was carrying around and call "Time!," only he did it in a really annoying way -- like, "TIIIMMMMMMMMEEE!" -- he really laid on that "M" and dragged it out. Then we'd all walk, like lemmings, to another spot in the park for another vignette.

I found myself thinking about Mr. Purple calling "TIIIMMMMMMMEEE" yesterday morning when I was reflecting on the Steelers-Jets game because it seems to me it was all about time, it was about the Steelers offense's ability to drain nearly all the time out of the first quarter and about the defenses's ability to make the Jets use more time than they wanted to down the stretch.

They opened the game with a 15 play, nine minute touchdown drive. Nine minutes is an insanely long time for the Steelers offense (any offense, really) to be on the field. The Jets offense must have felt helpless, just standing there on a freezing night, watching the slow, inexorable tour of destruction that was the Steelers offense at the start of the game. They were down by seven points, with one-sixth of the game gone before Mark Sanchez even touched the ball. It felt like that opening drive set the tone for the whole first half, that the Jets had been almost lulled into a coma by the first drive. In fact, the Jets held the ball for just 8:04 in the first half. TIIIMMMMMMEE!

After the Jets gamely fought back to make it a two score game, they took over near the end of the 3rd quarter on their own 13 yard line. Though they drove the length of Heinz Field, James Harrison et al. forced them to use 17 plays to do it, and chew up eight minutes of clock before Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel stoned LaDainian Tomlinson at the goal-line. This was a muther of a goal-line stand.

I realize that the Jets got a safety on the very next snap of the ball, and scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive. Of course. But think of it in terms of time. The Steelers forced them to use 12:38, almost a full quarter of the game, to score just nine points. TIIIMMMMMMEEE!

None of it works, mind you, if the Steelers offense cannot close them out.

In David Mamet's brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross, Blake tells the assembled sales team (selling what, I was never clear on) that they should:

"A-B-C. A-Always. B-Be. C-Closing. Always be closing. Always be closing."

QB rating be damned, Pig Ben is a closer. It may not be pretty and you may not be able to look at a stat sheet to see it, but he's got a killer instinct, an innate, uncanny ability to put a dagger in the other team's heart at just the right moment.

I've been critical of Bruce Arians from time to time (mostly, I just wish he'd take that little delayed handoff to Mewelde Moore and the reverse just out of his playbook. Out. Gone. Banished to the trash heap), but I have to applaud his play-calling at the end of the game, twice calling pass plays to pick up first downs when most other coaches would have just run the ball, punted and tried to pin the Jets deep. It doesn't look like much on the stats sheet:

2nd and 9 at PIT 42 B.Roethlisberger pass short right to H.Miller to NYJ 44 for 14 yards (A.Cromartie).


3rd and 6 at NYJ 40 (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short right to A.Brown pushed ob at NYJ 26 for 14 yards (E.Smith).

Just two relatively routine pass plays, but what those two plays really are is: "You see pal, that's who I am, and you're nothing. Nice guy? I don't give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here - close!"

I love the calls. Of course, I love the calls because they worked. But lets face it, only a handful of coaches would do it, have the ability to to do it, because there aren't that many closers out there. Pig Ben has never thrown for a bigger 28 yards in his life.

It is a synergy of a quarterback who can make those kinds of plays and a coaching staff that trusts him to do just that. Always Be Closing. That was a closing.

"Fuck you. That's my name. You know why, mister? 'Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an eighty thousand dollar BMW. *That's* my name."

Play big or go home. Once again, the Steelers are going to the Super Bowl. And they're not going in a Hyundai.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Steelers Are Dallas Bound

I think this pretty much says it all. We're from the town with the great football team. We cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

5 Reasons the Steelers Will Win the AFC Championship Game

These are the five most compelling reasons I can think of that the Steelers will win on Sunday and advance to the franchise's eighth Super Bowl appearance, in search of their seventh Super Bowl victory.

1. Pig Ben. Love him, hate him, think he should be incarcerated or wish to smash his face in with a cricket bat, it doesn't matter. The tremendously gifted Jets DB's will have to play an entirely different game this week than they have the past two weekends. Both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are rhythm, timing quarterbacks who make tremendous pre-snap reads and can throw balls into tiny spaces. But both are pure pocket passers, neither of whom can do what #7 can do, which is break contain, break free of tackles and extend plays. The difference is not just Pig Ben, but the Steelers receivers, who have adapted to him, know what to do and where to go after that little alarm clock in their heads goes off that says, 'that big idiot is running around back there again -- get open!'

If you're the Jets, do you blitz a safety and risk Pig Ben escaping to find Wallace or Sanders in one on one coverage deep? Or find Miller underneath? Do you spy him? Do you rush three like the Ravens did and risk ending up on the wrong end of a 58 yard completion (which I'm sure is still burning up T-Sizzle.)

Pig Ben's critics always point to Brady, Manning, Brees and now, even Aaron Rogers as being much better than Roethlisberger, claiming that he's not in that class of elite quarterback. To that I say, piffle. You can have your fantasy stats and I'll take the guy who is built for the post-season, for the 4th quarter. Simply put, he is a big game quarterback. Plus, the forecast is for a windy evening at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger has proven than the can throw in the wind, but the verdict is still out on Jets pretty boy, Mark Sanchez.

2. James Harrison. Harrison is an unstoppable force, a class 5 hurricane, a tsunami lined up at linebacker. When the Steelers need something big, there's a good chance that #92 or #43 will provide that play. With Troy Polamalu having kind of an off week last week (due to injury, but still, he was off), Harrison (and Ryan Clark) filled that void. Reading through the official gamebook is like a Harrison highlight recitation: sack, tackle for loss, in coverage on an incompletion, pressure on the quarterback, sack. He is a game changer.

Like Pig Ben, he is a big game player. Earlier in the season, I heard some local radio talking head fielding questions about who was the Steelers MVP of the season. I think he was of the mind that it was Lawrence Timmons (although I could be remembering wrong) and Timmons would be a fine choice, as would Troy. But Harrison has once again dominated his side of the line of scrimmage and even changed the game as it is now played.What's amazing about all of that is that he had to adjust his game mid-stride to avoid penalties (both legit and ridiculous -- yes, I am looking at you Tony Corrente for the "falling on the qb with his full body weight" absurdity) and still be the dominant presence his teammates count on.

Sanchez may be calm and confident now, but he hasn't run into James Harrison lately, not the playoff version of James Harrison. Sanchez' current sang froid is subject to change.

3. Heeeeaaaaattttthhhhh. Yeah, that's right, Jets, the Steelers didn't have Heath Miller during that first meeting and instead, Pig Ben had to throw to Matt "Head of Granite and Hands to Match" Spaeth.

The underneath and middle routes, typically the domain of tight ends, were open enough that Pig Ben threw to Spaeth seven or eight times, even though Spaeth only managed to haul in three of those passes. Who knows? That game might have a different ending with Heath in there. Maybe he doesn't run interference on the 3rd down pass intended for Emmanuel Sanders in the back of the endzone? Maybe he makes the difficult catch in the endzone to win the game on 4th down? I'm not here to bury Spaeth; rather, I'm just making the point that those routes, the ones generally covered by a safety or linebacker, were open.

Whereas the greatness of the Jets corners is evident, the safeties, particularly in the absence of Jim Leonhard, can be exploited. This is a match up that favors the Steelers. Apparently in the last game, the Jets put Revis on Hines and Cromartie on Wallace, leaving either Eric Smith or Brodney Pool to cover the tight end. Certainly the Jets will have all kinds of new schemes, twists and stunts in store for the Steelers (Rex is no dummy), but the personnel is what the personnel is, and I like the Steelers' chances a whole lot better with Miller in the offensive arsenal.

4. Young Money Crew. Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown make up the Young Money Crew and, per Sanders, he is Easy Money, Wallace is Fast Money and Brown is Quick Money, although I did hear an interview wherein Brown said he was Cash Money, which made me howl. Defenders, however, are not laughing. Not one bit.

In truth, there were legitimate questions about the Steelers wide receiving corps coming into this season. Wallace had a great rookie season, but how would he handle the attention paid to him with Holmes gone to New York? Ward, though a Hall of Famer, is getting older. We knew that the Steelers had three good passing options (including Miller), but after that it was a black hole of unknown.

Enter Brown and Sanders -- Mo' money, Mo' money, Mo' money!

Sanders, listed as third on the depth chart, contributed 28 receptions for 376 yards and two touchdowns, an unexpected bounty. He has shown that he is capable of stepping up his game on a big stage and none is bigger than this Sunday.

Brown didn't getting much playing time in the beginning and wasn't even dressed for a handful of games, but still he managed to contribute 16 receptions for 167, none more beautiful or important than the 58 yarder against the Ravens. (I don't know how fast Brown is, but it sure looked like he kicked it into another gear to gain separation as he passed Lardarius Webb.)

One more note about the addition of Brown. There has been some serious garment rending over the Steelers giving up Santonio Holmes for just a 5th round draft pick, but that draft pick was used to bring Bryant McFadden back and then go and get Brown. If you say Holmes for a 5th round pick, you say, we was robbed! But if you say Holmes for McFadden and Brown, it's a pretty good deal, particularly when you factor in salaries and such.

It is a particularly popular football cliche to say that you need a speed receiver to stretch the field and that, without one, it all turns to pain, misery and tears. That the Steelers can deploy three speedsters at one time gives them speed at the receiver position that is nothing short of an embarrassment of riches.

5. Brett Keisel. Ah, to sing the praises of the great unheralded one, he of the Nordic God-like beard, the man who, quietly mind you, took over as the anchor on the defensive line when Aaron Smith was lost for the season. Now, nobody other than Aaron Smith's family loves him more than I do. I was positively crestfallen when he was injured. But Keisel has stepped in and stepped up to not only anchor the line, but, it seems to me, to step into the leadership role that has always been Smith's.

His stats are good, but like any defensive lineman in a LeBeau scheme, they're not eye-popping. But if you're watching a replay of last week's game on the NFL Network just watch #99 for a series or two. Or do the same this week. The guy is always pushing the line back, or stringing out a running back so that Troy or Clark or Timmons can get there. He is an unseen playmaker, a virtual puppet master who allows other guys to get lots of camera time. When Keisel was out for a five game stretch, the Steelers went 3-2 and struggled to get by Buffalo. I think he's enough of an impact player that he might have altered the outcome against the Saints or made the Buffalo game a less cardiac arrest inducing affair.

The Jets did a nice job of keeping Mark Sanchez clean last week, but the Patriots don't have anybody on their defensive line who is anywhere near as good as Keisel. I'm hoping to see lots of Brett and his luxurious, multi-hued beard on Sunday night.

Bonus Reason -- The Terrible Towel. I hear tell yarns of Jets fans defiling the Terrible Towel, and worse yet, that some desecrations took place on the streets of this very hamlet, in the Strip District, no less. Not to go all Walter Sobchak on you, but we're talking about unchecked aggression here. And the Towel has drawn a line in the sand that you DO NOT CROSS.

Now, the legendary Myron Cope wrote in Double Yoi, "... I did not see the Terrible Towel as witchcraft to hex the enemy. It would be a positive force, driving the Steelers to superhuman performance ..." I'm not in direct contact with the Towel as Myron was, and do not know if the Towel will smite a team for the idiocy of that team's fans, but it is possible that these cretinous Jets fans have awakened the great might and power of the Towel. You know, I just don't know how to say this more clearly: Respect the Towel, bitches.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

5 Reasons the Jets Will Win the AFC Championship

Don't worry, yinzers -- I'm doing the Top 5 Reasons the Steelers Will Win tomorrow, but today, here are some reasons Jets fans have to be confident:

1. Rex Ryan. Say what you will, let loose all the foot fetish puns in your arsenal and make all the fat jokes you want (Lord knows I made my fair share of fat jokes at Charlie Weis’ expense), but this guy is a great coach. He somehow handles, juggles, manages or whatever you want to call it, an inordinate number of huge personalities on the Jets roster and he does it in the Circus Maximus known as the New York media. His players have undisciplined mouths, but they are disciplined on the field. Go figure. And I know that chafes a lot of folks out there -- Brady, Belichick, and at least half of the talking heads -- but it works.

Consider this, from the miracle of Super Bowl III until Big Rex’s arrival in the Big Apple, the Jets had missed the playoffs 29 times and played in just two conference championship games. Just TWO. Suddenly, they're in the Final Four in back to back seasons.

And it's no fluke. It’s not simply Ryan's bluster or freakish ability to manage personnel, it is because he also happens to excel at scouting and scheming. Last week, his defensive gameplan stymied the great and wondrous Tom Brady throughout the game. The Jets managed to bring heat, sacking Brady five times and hitting him seven more times, but they covered his receivers to the point of outfoxing Brady. There was one play late in the game where Brady dropped back and looked for a receiver for about eight or nine seconds before throwing the ball away in disgust. That's what Ryan's scheme was designed to do, but he does have the luxury of having the personnel downfield who can cover like stink on a skunk. Which brings me to

2. Darrelle Revis. If any corner in the league can shut down The Flash, Mike Wallace, this is the guy. The Jets lead the league in the lowest percentage of passes completed, with opposing QB’s completing just 50.7% of their attempts per game. Revis Island is a big reason why. He takes away the opposition’s biggest downfield threat, leaving Antonio Cromartie on the other side of the field to handle the secondary receiver. Let’s face it, Wallace has been able to simply outrun just about everybody in the NFL, but I’m not sure that he can just run away from Revis.

Who cares that Revis doesn't have any interceptions this year? Quarterbacks rarely throw to his side of the field anymore and his nearly flawless coverage allows his teammates to reap the fruit from the turnover tree. It all works out in the end. The Jets picked off Tom Brady for the first time since, god, it felt like since the George W. Bush administration (actually the Ravens picked him off twice in October.) It is notable, even, that Brady threw only five picks all year but three of them against the Jets. The week before that, this same defensive secondary shut down the world’s greatest living quarterback, Peyton Manning, and basically erased Reggie Wayne from the game. Its like he wasn't even there. I believe this is the best corner tandem in the NFL.

3. Brad Smith. To me, the difference in the December 19th which the Jets won 22-17 was the opening kick off return for a touchdown. In fact, I wrote a post about special teams miscues and how they come back to bite you in the ass like a hungry grizzly bear every time.

Last week, Baltimore's Lardarius Webb returned two kicks and two punts, for a total of 96 yards. And, not that our friends in Baltimore would ever let us forget, one of those punt returns was a touchdown save for a (correct) holding call, which would add another 29 yards to his totals. If you're counting at home, that's 125 yards on four returns, or 31.25 yards per return. Oy.

The combination of the Steelers specious special teams coverage units with the Jets Smith (who has two touchdowns this year and averages 28.64 yards per kick return) scares the bejeezus out of me. The Jets best chance of winning may be to win the special teams battle, give Sanchez and Co. a short field, or just score on a kick or punt return. Smith was inactive with a groin injury for the New England game, but I think he's playing this Sunday night. Even if he doesn't go, they'll send Antonio Cromartie back there and he's no return slouch, himself.

4. Santonio Holmes. No, it's not his deep and wide-ranging knowledge of the Steelers defense that scares me, it's his ability to make ridiculous plays at crunch-time. Oh, sure, he'll drop a ton of passes (and I'll be damned if I can find that stat anywhere; damn you internet!), but he can make the catches that make you say, 'no effing way!' The easy ones? Not so much. But if time is ticking away and Sanchez launches the ball to a ridiculous spot nobody can get to, 'Tone will get to it. That could be a tipping point.

5. D’Brickshaw Ferguson, Matt Slauson, Nick Mangold, Brandon Moore and Wayne Hunter. This would be an even more compelling reason, had the Jets not lost line stalwart Damien Woodey to an achilles injury, but still, this is an impressive front five. The Jets averaged 148.4 rushing yards per game (5th) and ran for 2,374 yards total (4th). They allowed only 28 quarterback sacks (8th) all year. In the playoffs, they've rushed for nearly identical numbers - averaging 144.5 yards per game -- and have allowed just one sack in two games.

A big part of the reason that the Jets have advanced this far is that they've won this battle by an overwhelming margin -- keeping Sanchez upright and unhurried. He may not be a seasoned vet and he certainly has his detractors, but he's playing his best football right now. With enough time and good passing lanes, he can beat any team.

Tomorrow, five reasons that the Steelers will win. For now, I've managed to psych myself into a harried state of anxiety that has morphed into actual heart palpitations. Nice work on my part. Yeah.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Serenity Prayer for the AFC Championship

Chief (or God, whatevs),

Grant me the serenity to make it through this week's game without throwing anything or actually physically injuring myself. (You know what I'm talking about. January, 2006 ... Indianapolis ... I don't think I need to go on.) Grant me the courage and grace to wish the Jets well should they outplay my Steelers. And grant me the wisdom to take a xanax after the game Sunday night so that I can get some sleep.

Truly, I am trying to go into this game with a sense of perspective.

Back in August, did anybody seriously expect the Steelers to even be playing in the AFC Championship game? Be honest, now. Nobody expected this [except Peter King, who predicted a Packers-Steelers Super Bowl.]

But most of SteelerNation wisely lowered our expectations, given that the Steelers were coming off a heinous 2009 season with the defense looking old, pliable, to be brutally honest, fair to middling. We thought the playoffs might be out of reach, given that the team was heading into the 2010 season without Pig Ben for the first four games, with Santonio Holmes gone to the Jets (of all freaking places), with Willie Colon lost for the season before the pre-season even started. Think back to those days when it was hot, rather than a sheet of ice outside and who among us thought they could win even 10 games? Personally, I figured it would be another disappointing 9-7 year.

The fact that the Steelers are playing in this game is gravy and I will do my best to be mindful of that Sunday night, despite the temptation to get swept up in the emotion of the thing.

That the Steelers are not only playing in this game, but hosting it? Well, that's some Top Chef worthy gravy on top of gravy.

Hosting this game is an absolute good. No matter the outcome.

I heard on the radio yesterday that the Winter Classic brought $22 or $23 million in revenue into the city. Last year, when the Steelers missed the playoffs altogether, the Trib reported that losing just one game was a loss of about $18 million in income. Anecdotally, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see how good it is for the city. Go down to the Strip District on Saturday morning and just try to find a parking space anywhere closer than the 31st Street Bridge. It's not just revenue from Polamalu jerseys, Terrible Towels and black and gold t-shirts that read, "Drink Up Yinz Bitches" -- it's hotels, restaurants, bars, etc., and I remain convinced that supermarkets and beer distributors see an uptick in sales, as people load up with game day fixins'. Bartenders and waitresses all over Western Pennsylvania rejoice!

As to the opposition, well, first a big, big thank you to Mark Sanchez and Company for sparing us all from a Steelers trip to Foxboro.

Next, let me run down the list of Jets players I hate ... um ... Surely there are some. Wait, I'm sure there's somebody, one player, per my friend Smiley:
"Antonio Cromartie stomped on The Towel when he ran out of the tunnel before kickoff of the Chargers playoff game I went to two years ago. Welcome back to Pittsburgh, Antonio. The Towel never forgets."
So there's that. One must never, ever disrespect the Towel. But that's only one player, a woefully low percentage of players for whom I harbor any enmity compared to say, the Patriots or my historical pantheon of hatred for the Cowboys and the Raiders.

Plus, I was a big Darrelle Revis fan back when he played for Pitt, so if we're being honest here, I would root FOR the Jets over a good number of possible AFC opponents. Hate the Jets? Nah. Not really.

What about Rex Ryan, you say? It's true that many (maybe most) of my friends have had enough of the Sexy Rex Ryan show, but I love Rex. The guy is funny, he's entertaining, he seems to be really, very much himself and that's refreshing. Last year, going into a game with the Colts, he said, "We're going to start with the injury report. Manning, Clark, Addai, Reggie Wayne, Freeney, Mathis, Brackett. ... All those guys will not play. Tom Moore, Howard Mudd and John Teerlink should get more extended Christmas break, it says here. Oh, hold up. That was my wish list for Santa Claus."

This year, before a game with the Browns, Rex showed up in a wig and Browns cap, mocking his brother Rob, the Browns defensive coordinator. I swear, I watched it every time they ran it on SportsCenter and laughed my ass off every time.

But it's not all bluster and trash-talk. After his team went out and got their asses soundly beaten (45-3) by the New England Patriots in prime-time about a month ago, Ryan took the heat off his guys, saying that the loss was on him, that Bill Belichick outcoached, "I came in here to kick his butt and he kicked mine." And even after the Jets stunning upset of the Pats on Sunday night, Ryan said that Belichick still outcoached him, but that his players, Ryan's players, outplayed the Pats. Nice. Take credit for the losses, give credit for the wins. I'm not quite sure why people dislike this guy. Seriously.

So, I am going to do my best to remain calm, keep things in perspective. It's a football game, after all. One I never expected the Steelers to be in, one I never expected the city to benefit from hosting, so I'm going to try to remind myself of all of the above, if things start to run off the rails sometime around 8:00 on Sunday night.

All bets are off, however, if the Steelers give up a special teams touchdown.

Monday, January 17, 2011

They Said What?

Just starting to turn the engine over on the AFC Championship Game build up, I thought I'd post some links and quotes from out of town or national analysts on both the Steelers victory and the Jets victory. On with it.

Here's what people were saying after the Steelers came back to beat the Ravens:

From Peter King at SI:
That it was. In a cruel twist that will hurt coach John Harbaugh and GM Ozzie Newsome even more when they realize it, the nobody rookies for the Steelers beat the rich free-agents for the Ravens. Anquan Boldin, the $8 million receiver acquired from Arizona last spring, caught one ball for minus-two yards. Veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped what would have been a fourth-down conversion pass from Joe Flacco with 63 seconds to go and Baltimore trailing 31-24. "I can't believe it happened,'' a stunned Houshmandzadeh said later. "I can't ever recall dropping the ball when the team needed me. It's almost like it's not real.''

Inexcusable on both counts, those two guys coming up so small ... and Flacco (an underwhelming 16 of 30 with two turnovers) and Ray Rice (a crucial fumble) helping the collapse.

From Gene Wojciechowski at
The Steelers didn't fold. They unfolded. For the first 30 minutes they played like they were still on a bye week, but then came the playoff smelling salts.

"I think both teams think they can impose their will," said Farrior. "We always believe we can do that. It's a little tough when Baltimore thinks it can do the same thing.''

Thinking and doing are two different things. You could see it in the Ravens' body language. You even could see it in the Heinz Field press box, where members of the Ravens' front office, including general manager Ozzie Newsome, spent much of the second half shaking their heads in disbelief, burying their heads in their hands, slamming tabletops (not Newsome, by the way), and delivering loud, exasperated sighs.

From Peter Schmuck at the Baltimore Sun:
Who knows why fate frowns at certain times, but it made a very ugly face at the Ravens at that point. Ray Rice hadn't fumbled all year, but he exposed the ball and the turnaround began. Joe Flacco, who is known for his cool demeanor under pressure, suddenly looked like a guy desperately trying to make up a big deficit instead of a guy trying to protect a lead. You saw what happened.

It would be easy to throw this all on Flacco for making two turnovers on consecutive possessions, but it wouldn't be fair. Just about everybody the Ravens depend on to make an offensive play failed — at some point — to make the kind of play that good playoff teams make. And you can't just look at this game in a vacuum

The Ravens have been doing this kind of thing, in one form or another, throughout this strange (and sometimes wonderful) season. It hasn't been a failure of the offense, though the offense certainly seemed to play well below the potential ascribed to it after the arrival of quality receivers Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte' Stallworth. There were defensive breakdowns, too, though the defense certainly carried the team to the threshold of what would have been a huge and potentially historic victory on Saturday.

From Kevin Van Valkenberg at the Baltimore Sun:
3. The Ravens still have issues at wide receiver. And it may be time to cut ties with a few of them.

Derrick Mason looked old against the Steelers. He couldn't get separation all game, and despite being targeted several times, he didn't catch a pass for the first time all year. T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Anquan Boldin dropped key passes when their team desperately needed them to make a play. Donte' Stallworth was a non factor all year, including Saturday.

Wasn't this supposed to be the best receiving corps in the league?

What they were saying about the Jets huge upset of the Patriots:

From Don Banks at SI:
Remarkably enough, the 6-seeded Jets are one of four NFL teams still in that particular hunt, and it's not an overstatement to say Ryan is clearly the biggest reason why. Love him or loathe him, Ryan gave his team the difference-making edge on Sunday with a defensive game plan that left Tom Brady and the high-flying Patriots befuddled and off-balance for most of the day.

It was a masterful performance by the Jets, and player after player in the New York locker room gave credit to Ryan and his ability to disguise New York's pass coverages and create the schemes that brought consistent pressure on Brady.

From Jason Whitlock as FoxSports:
Trailing 7-3 with 74 seconds left in the half and facing fourth and 4 at the New England 38, Belichick called for a fake punt. Defensive back Patrick Chung dropped the direct snap and the Jets tackled him for a 1-yard loss.

The Jets capitalized, scoring a quick TD to take a commanding 11-point lead.

The fake was ignorant. There was no reason to force anything at that point. The Pats were getting the second-half kickoff. New England panicked. The alleged “smartest” team in football played a dumb football game.

From Mike Freeman at CBSSportsline:
The Jets are what happens when fearlessness has a one-night stand with cockiness.

The Jets couldn't help themselves, in the end, taunting and talking on their way to the AFC title game against Pittsburgh. They left with a metaphorical middle finger raised high to the critics while simultaneously embracing an almost metaphysical belief in themselves. Would you expect them to be any other way? Would you want them to be any other way?

The Jets talk. And they talk. And they talk until their throats are dry and everyone is tired of hearing from them. But the Jets also back up that talk with action. There was no greater example of this than Tom Brady being sacked five times. Or looking frustrated. Or hands on hips. Or cursing at himself on the bench.

From Tim Graham at
There will be a crow shortage in butcher shops across the country. I'm eating mine with a little Caribbean jerk sauce as I write this. It's a bit gamey.

With conviction, I wrote and said on television and radio throughout the past week the Jets would not win. Like so many of you, I was certain the Patriots would smack them around. Sure, I gave conciliatory analysis on how the Jets could win: dominate on the ground, dominate on third downs and Jeff Gillooly kneecapping Tom Brady during the national anthem.

But as I mentioned in my weekly AFC East chat, people in their right mind couldn't predict the Jets to win Sunday after watching them get razed in Week 13.

Not even Jets icon Joe Namath could bring himself to pick the Jets.

From Bob Ryan at the Boston Globe:
What do you say when you are whipped, fair and square? What do you say when there are no freaky happenings, when there are no loose ends, when there are no overtly bad calls, when the other team makes the big plays when it has to and stops you when you need to make some of your own?

What do you say when the other team does exactly what it wants to do and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it? What do you say when the other coach runs his mouth and his team backs him up? What do you say when a verbose rival gets to keep playing and you must pack up and go home, beaten, 28-21, on the field where you hadn’t lost a game all season?
Of course, the main reason the Patriots fell down in the execution was the play of the Jets. Brady looked comfortable only on rare occasions, the best example an eight-play, 80-yard drive that, combined with a direct snap 2-point conversion by Sammy Morris, got them within 3 points at 14-11 late in the third period. But that was the exception on a late afternoon/early evening when he was sacked five times, harassed into many ugly incompletions, and even threw his first interception in two months. The coverage of the Jets defensive backs was positively brilliant.

From Greg Bishop at the New York Times:
Momentum, conventional wisdom and common sense pointed toward the Patriots. They had the league’s best quarterback (Brady), best coach (Bill Belichick) and, according to many pundits, best team. Brady had just led them down the field for a touchdown and 2-point conversion.

Yet it was Sanchez who took over the fourth quarter, who found receiver Jerricho Cotchery for 58 yards, who lobbed a perfect 7-yard fade that receiver Santonio Holmes caught in the corner of the end zone. Holmes landed his right knee inbounds, then his left foot, as an official’s arms extended toward the sky.

The Jets led, improbably, 21-11. All their bluster, threats and name-calling had been backed up.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Tale of Two Games

In "The Fighter" with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, Wahlberg finally gets a big fight. After years of toil, of watching other, younger guys get opportunities, of having his face beat in from time to time, he gets a break. And then he goes out and is getting his ass soundly kicked. He's losing the fight just as much as he's being beaten. Suddenly, when he's just one or two good punches away from being knocked into an assisted living facility, he changes tacts. He starts taking the fight to his opponent, rather than just reacting to his opponent. He delivers some body blows, stuns the other, 'better' fighter. And he wins. It's not pretty, but its a win.

Boxing analogies, redolent with antiquity, blood, guts, and nothing more than sheer will driving competitors to get up and take more punishment, are like crack to television analysts and writers alike, and in the week leading up to Steelers-Ravens III, boxing language was tossed about like Pepcid after an ill-advised late-night trip to Primanti's. Bluster. Hyperbole. Hype and amplification that I myself was guilty of, knowing full-well that it might end up being both balder and dash. But I gave into it, letting the literary nature of the sweet science wash over me.

And then something crazy happened. The football game really did live up to the heavy weight bout paradigm, ridiculous as that seems.

The Steelers, with lots of veterans on the field, let a live ball lay on the ground while they stood around as though they were waiting in the considerable Heinz Field bathroom lines until Baltimore's Cory Redding picked the ball up and just sauntered into the endzone. I've seen guys move with more urgency on their way to visit the in-laws. How can veterans like Hines Ward and Heath Miller not even have the sense to pick up the ball? You know, just in case? How can a smart rookie like Maurkice Pouncey not just fall on the ball? It was the equivalent standing there, arms down, chin hanging out, just daring your opponent to knock you into the third row.

Terrell Suggs did his best to knock the Steelers senseless. It felt like a seismic, tectonic shift in the game -- if not a knockout blow, then the haymaker that sets up the inevitable knockout.

And I wondered, just how do you come back from that kind of thing?

The Steelers came back from that epic brainfart by going three and out, and then on their next possession, Rashard Mendenhall fumbled the ball over to the Ravens just 12 yards away from the endzone. Joe Flacco hit Todd Heap for an easy TD and the beatdown was on. The Steelers offense played careless football and played themselves into a deep hole. They let the Ravens beat them in the face and pound their midsections. The 21-7 deficit felt like a knockout.

Somebody throw in the towel before it gets too ugly.

It was at this point, I have to admit, that I thought, "Oh well, with the Steelers playing like this, at least I won't be tense."

But on the 8 count, the Steelers dragged themselves off the mat. And started to deliver head-body combinations of their own.

Ryan Clark knocked the ball out of Ray Rice's arm and the Steelers turned that into 7 points quickly. A word, and perhaps you've heard this before, or maybe you even read it here, but Rice never fumbles. Like never. That he did at that particular moment, was the turning point in the game, the one landed punch that gave the Steelers a chance to collect themselves, re-focus, re-load.

I have a simple-minded theory about turnovers. When an offense is unable to score after their defense sets them up with a turnover, it dampens the fire of the defense, breaks it's resolve. It's hard to get amped up when you give somebody a gift and they literally pee on it. But a touchdown following a turnover? That cranks the defense up to 11. Which, as you know, is one louder.

Pig Ben's pass to a wide open Miller in the back of the endzone fired up the Steelers defense and lit a fire under the Heinz Field crowd. That place was as loud as I've heard it in a long time, probably since the 2002 Tommy Maddox playoff comeback against the Browns.

Emboldened by the 7 point swing, the Steelers defense went out and forced a definitive three and out. Then, next time out, Clark (again) read Flacco beautifully and pulled in the overthrow intended for Heap. A bullet from Pig Ben to Hines Ward later and the game was tied.

What the??? How the hell did that happen?

Ray Lewis looked dejected. Don't believe me? Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun:But really, how did it happen?

It happened because the Steelers defense, statistically dominant all year, showed just why they owned all the numbers -- never caving in, never giving up, even after Rice ran through Troy Polamalu on the way to the endzone, even after all the offensive ineptitude. They gave up just 126 total yard. 126 total. Heck, Tom Brady throws for 126 yards in a single quarter and the entire Ravens offense was able to generate that over four quarters.

It happened because the Steelers forced three turnovers of their own, had five sacks and seven more tackles for losses. They did it with the other safety making all the big plays, with Casey Hampton looking like the 2005 version of Casey Hampton and Ziggy Hood looking very much like he was worth taking in the first round. It happened because Ike Taylor shut down one side and William Gay held down the fort on the other.

It happened because the Steelers offensive line, much maligned (by me) through the year, greatly diminished through the course of the season, and with the Ravens turning them into an on-field triage unit, somehow found a way to battle through. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't dominant, but it was admirable. You have to hand it to a bunch of guys who are back ups to back ups, going out there and giving their all against a defensive front and linebacking corps as good as Baltimore's.

Even so, the teams were even on points late in the game. Pittsburgh already had 17 points off of turnovers. Baltimore had 14 points off of turnovers, plus 3 more off of special teams, which woes the Steelers just cannot seem to banish once and for all. Each offense had driven the length of the field for one touchdown. I'd say, using the boxing judge's scorecard analogy, that's even on points, both literally and figuratively.

So this game, as games of this magnitude often do, came down to who was going to make just one or two big plays late in the game.

Facing a 3rd and 19, Pig Ben somehow found Antonio Brown deep behind the Ravens defense and the rookie clutched the ball to his helmet a'la David Tyree, tripping his way to the 4 yard line. Pig Ben is 9-2 in the post-season, an .818 winning percentage. Of quarterbacks who have started at least 10 post-season games, only Bart Starr (9-1 in the post-season) has a better winning percentage. And the reason is, I believe, because, inelegant though his game may be, he has an ability to make one big play when it matters. It maybe ugly, and it may only be one or two plays, but he has a knack for getting it done. It's inexplicable, but it's a fact.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens had every opportunity to make that one big play, but Flacco and his receivers couldn't do it. Anquan Boldin dropped a sure touchdown that would have put the Ravens up by 4 points. On a pass, I would point out, that was nearly identical to the pass Ward hauled in to tie the game.

With plenty of time left to score a touchdown and send the game to OT, Ziggy collapsed the Ravens pocket and dropped Flacco bringing up a 4th and 18. Then T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped a pass that Flacco put right between the 8 and the 4 on Whoseyourmama's jersey. Yes. That Whoseyourmama, the one who once wiped his feet on a Terrible Towel, the one who earlier complained that the Ravens were not throwing to him enough. With a drop like that, is it any wonder that, when he has his druthers, Flacco looks for Derrick Mason?

The Ravens had their chances. Actually, the Steelers gave them every chance to win, opening up their midsections and daring the Ravens to punch them there.

The Baltimore offense couldn't come up with one big catch when they needed it and the Baltimore defense let Antonio Brown get behind them. Two plays. Two plays where the Steelers executed and the Ravens didn't.

Brown gets deep and hangs on.

Whoseyourmama drops a sure first down.

The Steelers made a lot of mistakes they need to correct, but they have a ton to be proud of, too. All that means is they get a chance to fight another day. That is way more than I anticipated back in September.

Sunday Recipe: Cuban Roasted Pork/Cuban Sandwiches

Did I ever tell you about the time I ordered a Cuban Sandwich and got a fried egg? No. Seriously, it happened.

Several years ago, Geargirl and I were traveling in Peru, far up in the Andes in the old Incan capital of Cusco. One night, we walked in search of some specific restaurant in some specific neighborhood, probably just one of the hundred places specializing in potatoes and tubers, but that's a whole other story. At any rate, we didn't find that restaurant. I should mention that simply walking a dozen blocks at that altitude (11,200 feet) made us pant, so not wanting to press on too much further, we just milled around in search of dinner. We found a little sandwich shop -- it was clean, it smelled good and it was right there. I was sold.

Despite my less than stellar menu Spanish, which has gotten me into some hairy situations (pan fried tripe anyone?), Cubana sandwiches were on the menu board. Great. I love Cuban sandwiches. Roasted pork, ham, cheese, pickles. What's not to love, right? We ordered two. In the land of the Incas, I didn't expect a sandwich straight out of Little Havana, but neither did I expect what arrived -- a hamburger on hamburger type roll, with fried plantains and a fried egg. It was most definitely not a Cuban sandwich. But it was strangely delicious.

All of which has zero to do with preparing traditional Cuban sandwiches, but I just like that story. Also, one of these days, I swear I'm going to serve burgers with fried plantains and fried eggs.

Basically, I roasted the pork in the morning and assembled the sandwiches later in the day (i.e., closer to kickoff.) I did consider making a ham, too, but that seemed excessive, even to me. I will say that the roasted pork is fantastic and stands on it's own as a dish.

You will need:

2 pound pork loin roast
about 10 cloves of garlic
1 shallot
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
the juice of 2 oranges
the juice of 1 lemon
the juice of 1 lime
1 spanish onion, minced
2 teaspoons oregano (Mexican if you have it)
1/2 to 1 cup white wine
1/2 cup olive oil

The prep:
Coarsely chop the garlic and shallots. Toss them in the food processor with the juices, peppercorns and oregano. It doesn't haven't to be perfectly smooth, but I found that pulsing it about 10 times gave me the consistency I wanted. Add the onion and olive oil and let it sit while you deal with the pork.

I used regular pork loin roast, so I trimmed the fat from the top of the roast, but you don't have to. But do pierce the roast a whole bunch with the tip of a sharp knife. Pour 2/3 of the marinade over pork, cover and refrigerate overnight, or at least three hours. Refrigerate the remaining marinade, too, because you'll use it later.

When you're ready to roast, add the wine to the remaining marinade, put the pork on a rack in a roasting pan and pour the remaining marinade over the pork. Cook uncovered at 325°F. It should cook about 25-30 minutes per pound, so check it after about 20 minutes and baste it occasionally. When the pork is done, let is rest before you start hacking away at it or you'll have a big mess on your hands. Like I said, I made enough pork to feed the Fidel Castro's cabinet, so I'm going to live on it for days and serve just the roast with some Black Beans and Rice.

You will need:

1 pound ham sliced thin, but not shaved (go to a good market or butcher shop and get it freshly sliced -- look for a slightly sweet, soft textured ham with a mild taste. You don't want the flavor of the ham to overpower the rest of the ingredients)
1/2 pound Baby Swiss cheese, sliced (gotta be Baby Swiss. Adult Swiss is not creamy enough. Insert bad joke here.)
thinly sliced dill pickles
yellow mustard
sandwich rolls, preferably fresh from a proper baker (Cuban bread is used for the real deal, but that's about impossible to find in Pittsburgh. I tried using a french roll, not a baguette, but even that was a bit too crusty. The bread needs to be dense and the crust should come from the toasting, so next time, I'm going to try an Italian sub roll. I am open to suggestions, though.)

Preheat a large frying pan to low to medium hot. You don't want it too hot or the crust will burn before the cheese melts and the meat warms up.

Cut the bread into sections about 8 inches long. Cut these in half make each sandwich with the ingredients in this order: pickles, roasted pork, ham, cheese and mustard.

Spread a little butter on the hot frying pan and place the sandwich on the pan. Use a heavy skillet or foil-wrapped brick (or Norton's Anthology of English Literature) to flatten the sandwich. Grill for 4 to 6 minutes then flip over to toast the other side.

Once the cheese is melted and the bread is golden brown on both sides, the sandwiches are done. Slice the sandwiches in half diagonally and serve. If you've never had a Cuban Sandwich before, plan on falling in love. Hard.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Steelers 31, Ravens 24

Nuff said.

Except to say, suck it Whose! Your! Mamma! Karma's a bitch. Bitch.

You can take the receiver out of the Bungles organization, but you cannot take the Bungle out of the receiver.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Steelers Versus Ravens in the Octagon

The two most physical teams in football will meet at mid-field on Saturday afternoon, shake hands and then try to kill each other for the duration of the 2010 rubber match. In their last contest, Terrell Suggs had a bloody mouth that made him look even more intimidating, Haloti Ngata broke Pig Ben's nose, a development that delighted Raven's coach John Harbaugh, and Troy Polamalu went all Chuck Norris on Joe Flacco's throwing arm. It was quite the bout.

T-Sizzle (known to his mama as Terrell Suggs -- although, I don't know, maybe she call's him T-Sizzle, too?) has declared that this game will be Armageddon. The teams hate each other. And I know this to be true because Hines Ward said so. The pundits have stopped just short of declaring that this football game will be as bloody as the Battle of the Bulge (and for that we should all be thankful), but one thing seems to be clear -- the forecast for the game, with all due respect to the peerless Mr. T., is pain. Pain with a chance of agony, to be specific.

So, given the tone and timbre of the conversation in the sports-talk-ocracy, I thought a boxing style tale of the tape was in order, by unit, but first, a quick note about the dominance of these teams. Since 2000, never has a year passed without either the Steelers or the Ravens (or both) in the playoffs. The Bengals are pretenders, the Browns an afterthought. The Steelers and Ravens ARE the AFC North.

The Ravens are 12-18 against the Steelers, but in the first three years after landing in Baltimore, the franchise was a hot mess and went 1-5 against Pittsburgh. Starting with the 2000 season, the Ravens record against the Steelers is 10-12, pretty evenly matched. Each of this season's games have been decided by 3 points. These teams are familiar and similar, which probably accounts for the bad blood. In the playoffs, the Steelers have faced the Ravens twice, winning both (2001 division game and 2008 AFC Championship.) I guess this game is Round Three in more ways than one.

QUARTERBACK: Joe Flacco is by far the best QB the Ravens franchise has ever had and after just three full seasons, he is already the team's all-time leading passer, which is maybe more an indictment of the crap-ass quarterbacking that's gone on Baltimore for the past 15 years than anything else. Flacco is talented, big, strong and can launch the ball. He is 4-2 in the post-season lifetime, a stat made more impressive when you note that all of those playoff games have been road games. Still, in the 2008 AFC Championship game, Flacco threw a momentum swinging pick-six to Troy Polamalu; in the last meeting between the teams, he failed to recognize a blitzing Polamalu, leading to a fumble and the Steelers winning touchdown.

Flacco has never beaten the Steelers when Pig Ben is on the field. Pig Ben's problems all come off the field because on the field, he has an amazing resume: undefeated regular season as a rookie, two Super Bowl rings, about 20 comeback wins in his back pocket, and a post-season record of 8-2. His QB rating is higher than Flacco's (this season and also lifetime), and while he does take some risks running around like a chicken with its head cut off, he plays extraordinarily well in the post-season.

OFFENSIVE LINE: I've written tomes about the faulty, leaky Steelers line, so at first blush, I thought I'd be giving the nod to the Ravens line no questions asked. Upon further review, this is closer than I might have guessed. The Ravens have allowed 40 sacks this year and left tackle Michael Oher can be beat on the first step by a speed rush. He can also be goaded a bit; the guy retaliates and, depending on the officiating crew, this could cost his team on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Steelers O Line, though upgraded at center (Maurkice Pouncey's presence has made the whole line better) has been decimated by injury, so they've constantly shuffled bodies in and out. Given all the givens, they've done better than I would have expected, but they're not reminding anybody of the 1990's Dallas Cowboys line. If you believe in statistics and such, this Wall Street Journal story is an interesting statistical breakdown of offensive line play.

RUNNING BACKS: I love Ray Rice. I'll admit it. I do. I think the kid is terrific. He ran for 1,220 yards with five touchdowns, averaging an even four yards per carry. He hasn't fumbled once this season. And he's a nice outlet to catch passes out of the backfield. Willis McGahee is a great alternative for the Ravens; he added 380 yards and five more touchdowns.

Rashard Mendenhall has very quietly asserted himself in the Steelers offense, rushing for nearly 1,300 yards this season and, more importantly, adding 13 touchdowns on the ground, something very sorely missing from the Steelers offensive attack last year. Despite the fact that Issac Redman has looked sharp in his rare appearances, has averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and the fact that Bruce Arians keeps saying he's going to use him, they just don't use him often. Redman's game winning touchdown in Baltimore was a play designed to go to Mewelde Moore, but they didn't get the personnel swapped out in time. Luckily, because I really don't think that Moore powers into the endzone in that situation the way Redman did. He is a nice weapon to have at their disposal if they choose to deploy him Saturday.

WIDE OUTS/TIGHT ENDS: Todd Heap and Heath Miller are two of the best all-around tight ends in the business and while Miller is a bit better blocking, Heap is more of a deep receiving threat. Both have missed time with injuries, but when healthy, either guy can turn in a huge game for his team.

On the outside, the Ravens don't have anybody who can match the speed of Mike Wallace. But then, other than the Eagles, who does? So there's Mike 'The Flash' Wallace and old reliable, Hines Ward as the possession' receiver, as it were. Rookie Emmanuel Sanders has developed as a threat for the Steelers, but coach Tomlin is not a fan of youth, so one bone-headed move out of him, and Antwan Randal El will be in before you can say El Yeah.

The Ravens counter with three reliable possession type receivers -- Derrick Mason, T.J. Whoseyourmama and Anquan Boldin. Boldin is a tremendous talent, one of the best in the game. He can pick up yards after the catch, he can fight through the most vicious blocks and he finds a way to get open in tight spaces in the endzone. If you had to sum him up in one word, it would be power. Donte Stallworth is supposed to be their speed guy, but with just two receptions all year, I'm guessing that he's not panned out quite the way they had hoped. No, they'll try to stretch the field with Boldin, who is by no mean slow, it's just the everybody else looks like they're running in pudding when compared to Wallace. Do you like unfettered speed? Or pure power? That's what it comes down to. Boldin? Or Wallace?

DEFENSIVE LINE: This is an interesting one. That the Steelers line has been so effective without the great Aaron Smith is a testament to their depth. Ziggy Hood is playing better with each passing week, and they got a huge lift when Brett Keisel returned from a nagging leg injury. Still, it'd be nice to have a 100% healthy Aaron Smith in their arsenal, wouldn't it?

For my money, Haloti Ngata is the best player on Baltimore's defense. Yeah, yeah, Ray's still the heartbeat of the team, T-Sizzle can come play for me any day of the week and Ed Reed is the second best safety in the game (more on that later), but Ngata is the most disruptive player on that team. He's fast and powerful. He just blows shit up all the time. To say nothing of his expertise in rhinoplasty.

LINEBACKERS: I see your Ray Lewis and T-Sizzle with my James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. Then I'll raise you a Lawrence Timmons and throw in James Farrior for good measure. Yes, I'll be taking that pot in the middle, thank you very much. Suggs played like a man possessed in the last meeting between the teams and Ray just keeps on going, despite my hopes that he won't, but Harrison, Farrior, Timmons and Woodley have all turned in all-pro years. Farrior, especially, after he appeared to have dropped off last season.

Both defenses stop the run (opponents averaged under 100 yards per game against both teams) and both groups of linebackers are gap sound, but the Steelers are mind-blowing at run-stopping, allowing just under 63 yards per game. Only the Jets (106) and Patriots (103) rushed for more than 100 against them and no single player came close to running for 100 himself. The Ravens D is not quite as statistically impressive, except that they have forced 10 rushing fumbles, many due and owing to the backers.

The Steelers have outpaced the Ravens in the sack department by a mile, putting up 48 sacks to just 27. And while I understand that the Lebeau system is, um, linebacker friendly, shall we say, there's no disputing the fact that the Steelers just frankly kick ass in the sacking of the quarterback department. The four Steelers starters have a combined 29.5 sacks this season, more than the Baltimore defense in total. The Ravens four primary backers have contributed 15.5 sacks, and 11 of those are T-Sizzle's.

SAFETIES: Can we all just agree that Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are the two best safeties in the game? Okay, then. Dawan Landry and Ryan Clark are both good players, but this is all about Reed and Polamalu. I've never seen a safety ballhawk as effectively as Reed and I've never seen a guy pull one big play out of his hat after another, week in, week out, like Troy. I'm giving Troy the edge here and not because of his hair, but because the Steelers defense drops off appreciably when he's not on the field, while the Ravens are better able to tread water without Reed. It's gonna be a safety clinic on Saturday and that is no hyperbole.

CORNERS: Chris Carr is a nice corner. He tackles well and forced three fumbles this year. Josh Wilson ... aw, screw it. Frankly, none of the corners in this game are worth writing home about. The questions are these: (1) how do the Ravens contain Wallace's speed? can they contain him? And (2) how do the Steelers cover Boldin without giving up too much size in pursuit of the speed to cover him? Tough assignments any way you cut it.

KICKING/PUNTING: The Ravens have two kicking freaks in their employ and I mean that in the nicest possible way. I think Billy Cundiff can kick the ball through the uprights on kickoffs at least half the time. He's got a boomer for a leg. Plus, having kicked for the Browns and the Ravens, the guy is used to the quirks of Heinz Field.

Has anybody else noticed punter Sam Koch's ability to drop the ball inside the 10 and have it bounce straight up or bounce back away from the endzone? It's like he's able to kick and also get some freaky backspin on the ball, too. Every time, it bounces straight up and his coverage units can get down there and down the ball. Freak, I tells ya.

The Steelers wisely cut Jeff Reed and signed Shaun Suisham, who has been pleasantly reliable on field goal attempts, but his kickoffs are, like his predecessor, woefully short. Standing in for Dan Sepulveda, the Steelers will send out Jeremy Kapinos, who we haven't seen much of, so it's hard to know what he's got. I think we know this -- he's no Sam Koch. I expect the Ravens will be able to tilt the field with both of their outstanding kickers.

And one last thing, cut me Mick!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sunday Recipe: Pasta Puttanesa

I know that pasta puttanesca means's whore's spaghetti, but I think it's just the kind of thing anybody can whip together without making a massive schlepp to the supermarket. It's basically spaghetti sauce made with stuff you'd just find in a typical southern Italian kitchen on any given day.

Growing up surrounded by crazy cooking Italians (tm), everybody just cooked. My mother, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, great-grandmother and various and sundry cousins were all cooks. They didn't use any fancy terms for dishes or techniques, they never talked about de-glazing or layering flavors or anything like that. They just did it. And the food was good.

To this day, there are staples I always have on hand in my house (garlic, canned diced tomatoes -- hey, tomatoes are only in season for a few months -- crushed red peppers, spaghetti, a tube of triple strength tomato paste, and some pecorino romano cheese) because you never know when you might need to eat an emergency bowl of pasta. If I'm lucky, I have a few other things hanging around to add to the sauce. It took me a long time to realize that I was making a bastardized version of Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, which is more accurately, pasta of the tired or broke, rather than pasta of the whore. This recipe is for my friend Hildy Johnson, who asked me to post a recipe with less chopping and prepping. Also, it's delicious.

You will need:
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
2 shallots, finely diced
2 teaspoon anchovy paste
healthy pinch crushed red pepper
25 (approx) kalamta olives, pitted and sliced in half [more on the olives below]
1 large can crushed tomatoes (San Marzano, if possible)
1 small can of good tomato paste
1 cup red wine
handful of dried basil (I'm posting this in the winter and my herb pots are long gone ... so dried basil will do)
1/4 cup (a couple of handfuls) flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 pound spaghetti

I know that traditionally, capers are one of the ingredients of puttanesca, but I don't think they add much and I'm not generally a fan of these little unripened buds, but if you like them, add 2 tablespoons of capers to this recipe.

The prep:
Heat your saucepan and add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss in the garlic and shallots and sautee until soft and just turning brown. Add the small can of paste and cook the paste until it sticking to the bottom of the pan (about 5 or 10 minutes.) Add the wine and deglaze the pan. Reduce the wine by about half, then add the tomatoes, the anchovy paste, olives, basil and parsley. As to the olives, I like kalamata or Greek olives for this. Some chefs call for black olives, cured in olive oil, so you can substitute those if you prefer. Reduce to a low simmer for about 30 minutes, partially covered.

I like the traditional thin spaghetti with puttanesca sauce, but just about anything works, linguini, penne, troffie, anything you have on hand. Serve with grated pecorino romano. If you have any good, crusty bread around, it's great for dipping the sauce.