Wow, what a game. December football. The Pittsburgh Steelers fall in Week 15 to the New York Jets, 22-17, in a game that was, generally speaking, very well played by both sides. If you missed the contest and are looking for some basic information on what transpired at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon, you can watch the game highlights here or read a recap here. More on the AFC Playoff Picture soon, but the Steelers actually still clinched a playoff berth after Sunday's action. They fell back into a tie with the Ravens for first place in the AFC North, but due to strength of victory tiebreakers, the Steelers at worst will be back in the playoffs as a No. 6 seed. I'm sure Mike Tomlin & Co. aren't feeling too good about themselves at this particular moment, but a quick congratulations nonetheless to the black and gold for clinching a return trip to the playoffs.
To some introductory post-game thoughts...
* I really though the Steelers had a great shot at winning this week even without Troy Polamalu or Heath Miller in the lineup, but I wrote more than once that I was worried about the Jets playing at a very high level being that their backs were squarely against the wall in the wake of their consecutive losses the past two weeks. Well, the Jets did that. Credit to the Jets, Rex Ryan, the rest of the his coaching staff for crafting an outstanding game plan and then executing at a very high, mistake-free level for an entire 60 minutes. The Jets were far from spectacular on either side of the ball, but they ran the ball well enough, they converted a healthy percentage of their third down attempts, and most importantly, they didn't turn the ball over in large part because they protected Mark Sanchez well. Really nice game from them at just the right time. I don't think the Jets have quite enough to win it all this year (I'd love our chances in a playoff rematch provided Polamalu and Heath Miller were playing), but they're 10-4 for a reason and have more than enough tough-minded leadership on their roster to gut out a huge win when they most needed it.
* The Steelers also played a solid game offensively and defensively. They converted 11-of-17 third downs, the offensive line protected Roethlisberger much better than it had in recent weeks, and they too committed zero turnovers.Also of note was the decreased number of penalties committed by the Steelers. After averaging nearly 100 yards of infractions the past few weeks, the Steelers committed just three penalties for 35 yards. This game was too well played to fixate on the refs, but while we're on the subject, it's worth noting that the 15-yard unnecessary roughness call on Ryan Clark that helped the Jets in their game-tying touchdown drive in the third quarter was definitely bogus and an incorrect call. Anyway, good to see the Steelers eliminate some of the mental mistakes that almost cost them during their recent winning streak.
* The most important play of this game was the 97 yard touchdown on the opening kickoff by Brad Smith of the Jets. What can you say? The Steelers have been nails all season covering kicks. On the opening kickoff of Week 15, they had a breakdown, the first huge mistake by the group all season. The special teams touchdown was definitely the difference in the game, as the Steelers won or matched the Jets in just about every other facet of the game. Even though the Steelers have a short week to prepare for the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, I guarantee you one of the points of emphasis will be shoring up the special teams for the final two-game stretch.
* Worth mentioning once more - kudos to the offensive line for their collective work. Rashard Mendenhall finished with 100 yards on 17 carries, marking the first time all season that the Jets defense allowed a 100-yard rusher.Of course, the line was responsible for the untimely safety with roughly three minutes remaining - ahem, Jonathan Scott. But all in all, the line did a sound job opening up running lanes and protecting Roethlisberger well enough.
* This is designed to be a quick reaction to the game, so more on this throughout the week, but a quick word on the chess match between Dick LeBeau and Jets' offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. A few days ago, I wrote about being interested to see how LeBeau would attack Mark Sanchez, who of course was coming off two poor performances. Specifically, I was curious to see if LeBeau would risk the big play deep and bring relentless heat from all places, or if he would force Sanchez to patiently take what was given to him and accurately pick apart the Steelers' defense with short and intermediate passes. For the most part, it appeared as if LeBeau opted the later option, and I don't blame him. As shaky as Sanchez has been with his mechanics, no reason not to. I thought the difference though was the great play-calling in certain situations by Schottenheimer. More on those specific plays this week, but all in all, Schottenheimer did a fantastic job putting Sanchez in advantageous situations. He helped Sanchez build some early confidence, then found creative ways to keep the Steelers' defense just enough off balance to piece together a few scoring drives in the second half.
* Please get healthy Troy Polamalu. Your teammates fought valiantly without you, and there's no reason to think they can't get it done in the playoffs without provided they play their A-game. But each game you are forced to miss only reinforces the fact that you're an irreplaceable difference maker.