Collier: Steelers-Bengals shows folly of larger playoff field


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Before Sunday's events at Heinz Field get flushed thoroughly, forcefully from memory, we should point out the one way in which this Steelers-Bengals spectacle was perfectly useful.

Remember that nonsense from earlier this month about expanding the NFL playoffs?

Please, give it your best Jim Mora:

"EXPANDED PLAYOFFS?! EXPANDED PLAYOFFS?!"

It's practically criminal that either of these teams as constituted would turn up in the postseason at all, but at least the Steelers had the good manners to recognize their persistent incompetence and bow out. Can't say the same for the Bengals, who'll be eliminated at their earliest convenience, confirming all suspicion that they are just another AFC North pretender.

There's been no coherent argument yet for contracting the playoffs, but Bengals 13, Steelers 10 could withstand any forensic analysis of what the league likes to call indisputable visual evidence that there are too many teams in the playoffs already.

You didn't have to ask either Mike Tomlin or Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis if they agreed with that premise, as both head coaches did everything they could in the fourth quarter to avoid the postseason, each apparently from repeated attacks of conscience.

For his part, Lewis not only went for a first down on fourth-and-22, but sent kicker Josh Brown onto the field to try a 56-yard field goal that, had it failed, would have set the Steelers up at their 46-yard line with 3:18 left in a 10-10 game.

Guess what? It failed.

Asked what he told the fellas afterward, Lewis was as honest as could be.

"I told them, 'thanks for bailing me out,' plain, flat, and simple," Lewis said. "I made decisions to try to win the game today. It kind of backfired on me a little bit."

Fortunately for Lewis, Tomlin seemed just as eager to bail him out as the boys in Tiger stripes. Not two minutes later, Tomlin let Sean Suisham try a 53-yarder into the notoriously capricious open end rather than pin the Bengals deep, then Lewis countered by throwing long on a third-and-1 from the Steelers 48, the incompletion and resultant punt giving the Steelers the ball at their 11 with 44 seconds on the clock.

From there it was just a matter of getting set for overtime, but Tomlin was having none of that. Ben Roethlisberger threw three times in the next 30 seconds, the third toss turning into his second interception (the first was returned for Cincinnati's only touchdown).

"You don't win by being safe," said Ryan Clark, which sounded like an odd thing for a safety to say. "We went for it. But Reggie Nelson made a play."

Nelson caught Roethlisbeger's overthrown pass to Mike Wallace along the sideline, Andy Dalton whipped his next throw 21 yards to A.J. Green, and Brown, from the reasonable distance of 43 yards, put the Steelers out of the misery that was 2012 with a winning field goal.

"It's disheartening," Tomlin said, "because we had chances as a football team."

Chances it usually doesn't get, as it happens, because a defense that hasn't come up with three turnovers in a game since November 2011 suddenly took the ball away three times in the second half.

Three precious takeaways that led to absolutely nothing.

Roethlisberger completed only 14 passes, the fewest in a full game since October 2011, and the running game failed to produce a 100-yard rusher for the seventh week in a row. On third down Sunday, the offense went 2 for 14, making it 29 for the last 94. As a direct result, you look up on Christmas Eve and the Steelers haven't had a Heinz Field victory since Nov. 12.

Regardless of the precise nature of the relationship between Roethlisberger and first-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the Steelers have proven twice as likely to score 19 or fewer points than to score 25 or more. They've scored 30 exactly once, as compared to, by random example, the Seattle Seahawks, who've scored 50 exactly twice -- in December.

In December.

So I wouldn't be overtaxed getting used to the idea that the Steelers are not a playoff team; it's harder to get your head around the fact that the Bengals are a playoff team for a second year in a row, the first time that's happened since 1982.

In the two meetings this year, quarterback Andy Dalton's passer ratings against the Steelers were 56.4 and 58.8. On the ground, they unleashed BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the Steelers yesterday, and he managed 14 yards on 15 carries.

This is a playoff team?

So let's agree, at least on this.

Twelve teams in the playoffs is OK, 10 would be better, 14 would be worse, 16 would be a joke. That was a real proposal, 16 playoff teams. Haven't we suffered enough?

So Merry Christmas anyway, or as we like to say in these parts, let the BBVA Compass Bowl hype begin.

mobilehome - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published December 24, 2012 5:00 AM


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