In which the 2005, 2008 and 2010 teams head for the playoffs and the 2012 team cleans out their lockers.
Game 16 is one out of only four games in which all four teams have a W in the win/loss column. (The others were Game 2, 6, and 8.) It is one of only two games in which the opponent was the same in three out of the four games—Game 6 had Cincinnati as the opponent in three out of the four games.
How did the four teams get to a W? In rather different ways, despite the common opponent:
The AP writeup of the game began thus:
Jerome Bettis acted like a man ready to retire. He received two standing ovations, signed dozens of jerseys and footballs for his teammates and posed for pictures on the field for a half-hour after the game ended.
What Bettis hopes is the Pittsburgh Steelers delay his anticipated retirement for four more games. Bettis matched his career high with three touchdown runs in what likely was his final game in Pittsburgh...Bettis could think of only one better way to end his career -- playing in the Super Bowl for the first time.
"I told the guys, `We've got to get there -- I'm running out of time," said the 33-year-old Bettis, who came back this season mostly for the chance to play in the Super Bowl in his Detroit hometown.
Other than Bettis’ touchdowns, the offense produced little that day, with Ben Roethlisberger having an uncharacteristically bad game. He was only 7-of-16 for 135 yards and threw his first two interceptions in four games.
The Steelers defense wore Detroit Lions No. 44 throwback jerseys to honor defensive coach Dick LeBeau, who played DB with the Lions for 14 years. I expect LeBeau would have preferred they just play like he had coached them to. The defense was uncharacteristically sloppy, allowing quarterback Joey Harrington, someone I’m pretty sure isn’t in the pantheon of great passers, to throw three touchdown passes. They had allowed a total of one touchdown and 12 points in the previous three games. This was, furthermore, against a 5-10 Lions team who was 0-10 against Pittsburgh since 1955.
But a Randle El punt return at the start of the game, combined with Bettis’ touchdowns, was enough to put them over the top and clinch them a playoff berth. The berth they clinched was the sixth seed.
No one gave Pittsburgh much hope at this point, as a sixth seed had never even won the conference championship, much less the whole enchilada. The Steelers caught a break when the New England Patriots lost to Miami, and their first game was in Cincinnati instead. However, Troy Polamalu said "It didn't make any difference to me who we play. We have unfinished business with both of them." (A loss to the Bengals on December 4th lost them the division title. The Steelers had twice lost the AFC championship games to the Patriots, in 2004 and 2001.)
Despite the odds being stacked against them, Polamalu was optimistic: "...I think if any team could do it, it's this team. Maybe that's why our season has gone the way it has." Polamalu believed the 11-5 Steelers were a better team than the previous year’s 15-1 club.
Lion's Head Coach Dick Jauron lost his job after the game.
I was at Heinz Field on this day, watching my very first live NFL game. My choir had sung Christmas carols before the game, standing on the midfield logo, which was pretty awesome.
The Steelers generously gave each singer a game ticket and a concessions coupon. The Pirates also expressed interest in my group singing at a game the following summer, although I don’t think they wanted Christmas carols. However, this not only came without perks, but we would have to sell 400(!) game tickets. I declined. An interesting commentary on the two organizations, though.
Anyhow, I was at that point a complete neophyte, but even I could tell it wasn’t good when Ben Roethlisberger fell to the turf. He was there for almost 15 minutes, furthermore. Like the rest of the stadium, I breathed a sigh of relief when he waggled his fingers as he was carted off the field.
As James Walker, then the AFC North correspondant for ESPN, said:
It will be a decision that is questioned for a long time in Pittsburgh. Against a division rival, should the Steelers still play their starters in a meaningless regular-season finale?
It’s always the question, isn’t it? The second-seeded Steelers would not be playing the first week of the playoffs, and if the starters hadn’t played they would have been sitting for the better part of a month by their first playoff game. Most of the players lobbied Mike Tomlin to play, including Troy Polamalu, who sneaked back onto the field late in the game, long after Tomlin thought he had pulled him from the lineup. And as Hines Ward said, "We rested last year and it didn't get us anywhere."
In the event, Roethlisberger had no injuries other than the concussion, and was good to go for the first playoff game.
To return to the game at hand, though, it was a debacle for Cleveland, with either Roethlisberger and the other starters or Byron Leftwich and the backups. (Actually, "Byron Leftwich and the Backups" would make a great name for a band.)
The Browns ended their season without scoring an offensive touchdown in the final four games, the most of any team since 1966. The Steelers had not shut the Browns out since 2005, although they had won the previous ten games against them. However, the Browns had also been shut out the previous week, by the Bengals. It was the first time in franchise history they were shut out twice in a row. This gave them a 4-12 record for their third consecutive season. As Larry Foote said, "We were so upset we had to practice on Christmas, we had to take it out on the Browns."
They were starting their fourth quarterback of the season, Bruce Gradkowski, who threw for only 12 net yards. In the whole game. He actually threw for 18 yards, but was sacked three times for a total loss of six yards. There was a 27-minute stretch of the game in which the only completion he threw was to Tyrone Carter, who returned it for a touchdown. Unfortunately for Gradkowski, Carter played for the Steelers.
Joshua Cribbs, who had two attempts in the wildcat, had an eight-yard completion. Cribbs’ passer rating, while only 36.6, sparkled in comparison to the 0.7 rating Gradkowski received.
The Browns’ GM was fired on the day of the game. Head Coach Romeo Crennel was fired soon after. He was the only full-time coach in Browns history to never beat the Steelers.
Hines Ward had six catches for 70 yards, giving him his fifth career 1,000-yard season and a team-record 800 career receptions. Willie Parker had his first 100+-yard game since the beginning of the season.
By 2010 I was a fully seasoned, somewhat knowledgeable football fan, and had been watching games regularly. But this one was also unusual for me, as it was the first game I ever watched from a foreign country. I watched it in a Mexican sports bar, and you can find an account of the experience here.
The game itself was such a laugher that near the middle of the fourth quarter the TV feed switched to a competitive game. But in fact the Steelers entered the game needing a win to sew up the AFC North and secure a bye week. Which they did.
As Browns’ Head Coach Eric Mangini said after the game, "I thought we got beat in all three phases. They had a better plan than we did and when that happens against a team like this, you have a day like today. It's difficult to feel any positives in the wake of what happened." This game did indeed secure Mangini’s ticket out of Cleveland, something which seems to be a trend for the last game of the Steelers season.
Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson assumed he was playing his last game in a Cleveland uniform. He was the only player left from the 1999 expansion team, and was a free agent. However, he was re-signed, and was still playing in the 2012 tilts. This time it might really be the end, as he is once again a free agent.
Ben Roethlisberger played the entire first half and part of the third quarter, running the score up to 38-3 before being pulled. The first Pittsburgh pass of the game was a 56-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace. Although Wallace has had longer TD passes in the two subsequent years, he has never again matched the total yardage of that season (1,257 yards.)
This gave Roethlisberger and Wallace the team record for 40+ yard touchdown passes, with eight. The number two duo was not, as I would have guessed, Bradshaw and Stallworth but Buddy Brister and Louis Lipps.
On the defensive side of the ball, Troy Polamalu had his seventh pick of the season, tying a career high. The defense gave up an average of 62.8 rushing yards per game, shattering by almost 30 yards per game the team record set in 2001.
I watch the vast majority of Steelers games on my computer, in the comfort of my home office, as I have done ever since I began watching them on a regular basis partway through the 2009 season. But once again I found myself elsewhere for the season finale. This time I was in Colorado Springs, and, surprisingly, the local stations weren’t showing the Steelers game.
The game begins in the middle of church in Colorado, so my eldest son and I headed out afterwards to watch the game from a friend’s house—a friend with NFL Sunday Ticket. We arrived at said house, and the front door was unlocked and the TV tuned to the game, but there was no sign of Donna (said friend.) We walked in and sat down on the empty couch, feeling rather like the guy in the beer commercial who still watches all the games from his lucky spot, even though the spot is now in someone else’s apartment. Donna arrived shortly, having made a quick trip to the grocery store, threw some lemon bars in the oven, and sat down with us and proceeded to yell at the television set. It was awesome.
We all know how it came out. Frankly, I’m just as happy to have missed most of the first half, which I gather was not compelling, and I was in time to see the great performance from Cortez Allen.
As appears to be traditional, this game spelled the end for Cleveland head coach Pat Shurmer. If the Browns ever hire me as their head coach, I think I would only take the job if they would also make sure the Browns were moved into a different division. And possibly a different conference as well. That said, I hope Chip Kelly isn’t actually successful with his up-tempo offense. At least not against the Steelers...
On to the stats:
The 2012 passers ended up with the best average rating, which is interesting given the two distinctly sub-par games by Ben's back-ups. But the really interesting things is, the lowest average rating is in 2008, the year Ben started every game.
I started keeping the stats for just Ben a while ago, and this week I decided to add to the chart the stats just for the back-ups. The four tallest bars are just Roethlisberger's stats. The next tallest is for the 2010 backups, which I suppose isn't too surprising. In that case they knew they were starting in training camp (although there was the usual shuffling due to injury,) and the only really poor game, QB-rating-wise, was Charlie Batch's outing against the Ravens.
I would be okay with the low yards per pass attempt this season if it resulted in additional touchdowns. It didn't, of course. But I still think the Todd Haley offense needs another year before it can be fairly judged—a year in which Roethlisberger is really sold-out to it. I was much heartened by his comments about the amount of time he plans to spend with Haley in the off-season. Unlike many on this blog, I don't blame him for not selling out right away. I think he gave it a fair shake and was increasingly buying in as he saw its effectiveness. It's hard to say what would have been had he not gone down in the Chiefs game, but I think what we saw at the end of the season was a reversion due to the residual effects of the injury and a consequent automatic reset to his default. I do think next season will tell the tale. Assuming, that is, we don't lose Haley in the meantime.
Again, it is surprising to me how similar the rushing average is. But here is the really interesting graph:
The top line is the ratio of passing (gold) to rushing (black) attempts for the Week 16 game. The bottom is the season average. I wouldn't be surprised if I was accused of manipulating the data. If you look at the bottom row, it is almost a perfect anagram, with the two inner years being 49% pass/ 51% rush in '08 and 51% pass/49% rush in 2010. The two outer years are also almost mirror images.
At one point in the season all four teams were within less than half a point of each other. Not that it probably matters all that much. The 2012 Steelers accumulated a total of 336 points. Had they instead made 339 or 340 points, with the extra points coming on the right occasion—say, the Titans game, or the second Bengals game, they might be playing tomorrow, instead of watching on the couch. That means one touchdown instead of a field goal, or a good snap from the usually reliable Greg Warren, combined with the two-point conversion Mike Tomlin was saving for later. On such small matters does a season hinge.
Ironically, in sort of a microcosm of the season, if the 2012 defense had not allowed so many passing yards to Cleveland last week they would have been in the practically unique position of No. 1 against the run and the pass in the same season.
If the regular season was four games longer, Cortez Allen might have been able to get the Steelers back to the positive side of the ledger, all by himself.
There has been an awful lot of moaning about special teams this season, and much of it was justified, particularly in the earlier part of the year. (Again, just one of those touchdown returns not being called back on a penalty, or, for that matter, stopping Jacoby Jones from getting one in the first Ravens game might have put the Steelers in the playoffs.) Nonetheless the 2012 special teams did manage something none of the other teams did - a positive ratio between yards gained and yards allowed. And Shaun Suisham was awesome. I'm going to delve into special teams in more depth in my wrap-up posts, looking at some other stuff like average field position and so on as well. Suggestions are welcome...
Well, there's the story. That's it for this week, folks...