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Hampton's Penalty Sets Stage for the Rest of the Year

Can one play make a season? Does one string of plays have the ability to change a team's momentum for the whole year?

The common story surrounding the New York Giants' Super Bowl run in 2007-08 was how the team was positively affected by the absence of Jeremy Shockey. Now they're saying the same thing about the former Steelers wide receiver (and possibly former NFL player) Plaxico Burress.

Fortunately, the Steelers have a much smaller event in comparison. Early in the third quarter of their Week 13 road match-up against New England, the usually-quiet nose tackle Casey Hampton was called for a dubious defensive holding penalty. It negated a 3rd and 2 situation, and gave the Patriots a first down.

Big Snack blew his lid.

He's not a guy who shows his emotion on the field often, but he lost his composure as he gestulated toward the officials, signaling his disagreement with the call.

Everyone watching the game felt the momentum of that 10-10 game swing. The Patriots picked up a first down, and then Hampton completely destroyed the middle of the line, busted through and recorded his first sack of the season, knocking Matt Cassel back six yards.

And oh boy, did he ever let the Patriots - and the officials, it seemed - know about it. His teammates were jumping all over him and he flailed his arms wildly, a sign of in-your-face defiance for the percieved slight against him.

That energy shifted over to the offense, who put together perhaps their most complete drive in their last four games, going 79 yards, but settling for a field goal, and a 13-10 lead.

Then came the huge special teams fumble from Matthew "A.C." Slater that was recovered by Keyaron Fox. The momentum was growing. A quick Hines Ward touchdown, 20-10 Steelers lead.

Did anyone want to be Matt Cassel at this point?

He knew the defense was going to be coming after him through any means necessary - land, air and sea - and they were going to put him on the ground. James Harrison picked up two sacks, causing two fumbles, both recovered by Pittsburgh. Short of a gutty Patriots red zone defense that forced two Jeff Reed field goals, and one miss, the Steelers ran the defending AFC Champions out of their own stadium.

It's all about momentum.

Was this Butterfly Effect truly caused by Hampton's penalty?  We'll never know conclusively, but leaders lead through decisive action, and perhaps more importantly, reaction. Hampton isn't a player whose contributions are readily noticeable, but his teammates know he's good enough at what he does, when he speaks, they should listen.

Hampton told the NFL loudly and clearly, "don't poke the bear." You're not going to like what happens.

Free safety Ryan Clark's Hit of the Year nomination on Wes Welker fired up the defense even more (yet another penalty on that), and at this point in the season, judging by the team's response to that hit and Hampton's penalty, it's clear to say the defense has obtained that crucial "us-against-the-world" mentality all Super Bowl champions have. After Clark's hit, LaMarr Woodley got into it with Randy Moss. Every defender wanted a piece of New England at that point. It was as if they wanted the offense to take three knees and punt, and getting back to beating the blue off of Cassel's jersey.

The momentum they gained in that win will have to carry them into perhaps their toughest match-up of the season with Dallas. While the media darling Cowboys are building some momentum of their own, they have to be asking themselves, very bluntly, "how much do we want to be Tony Romo right now?"