Let the Tebow talk begin
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CLEVELAND -- In the whirling snow of the wind-battered Ohio lakeshore, Steelers-Browns came down to the final play on the NFL's climactic weekend, which meant nothing in the moment and just about everything to the politics of the AFC playoffs.
Its essential meaning was that not a lot has changed since that Thursday night little more than three weeks ago at Heinz Field, when the Steelers led these same dogged Dawg Pounders by only four points with three minutes left.
Sure Mike Tomlin's team won both games on its way to another 12-4 season, but what does it say when you roll that bus homeward on the Ohio Turnpike along with the haunting sense that it's a good thing you don't have to play Cleveland in the playoffs?
"We've got our marching orders," said a demonstrably upbeat Tomlin after a brutal Russian novel of a football game. "We're on our way to Denver."
Well that's certainly good news for those of us who just can't get enough Tim Tebow analysis.
I try to restrict my Tebow intake to the dialogue Saturday Night Live's writers create to lampoon the Bronco quarterback's presumptive link to a higher power, but maybe you noticed the way Denver powered down Sunday on Tebow's 8-for-22 in a 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Tebow has lorded over three consecutive losses that somehow got his team a fourth seed in the tournament that starts Saturday, mostly because somebody has to be the AFC West champion, even if they're 8-8.
"He's great at getting out of the pocket," said Brett Keisel, "and we'll have to adjust to the option. It's gonna be wild. Denver is gonna be pumped to be back in the playoffs.
"It's the playoffs and [I'm] very proud of what we've done to get there. We just need a couple more turnovers."
After two more takeaway-free weeks against San Francisco and St. Louis, Troy Polamalu finally came up with one Sunday and all it meant was the difference in a 13-9 victory that was delivered principally by the Steelers defense.
When Troy swiped a short Seneca Wallace pass intended for Browns tight end Evan Moore at the Cleveland 44, the offense punched in the only touchdown of a long afternoon.
Isaac Redman got home from 7 yards out, then fumbled to end two of the next three Steelers possessions, but Redman also wound up gaining 92 yards on 19 carries in a game when he joined Ryan Clark as a kind of dual story line at the doorway to the postseason.
"We had some injuries sustained in the game, many of which are minor, [but] of course the Rashard Mendenhall injury is not," Tomlin said in his best business-like tone. "Obviously you should anticipate that he won't be participating next week for us."
Yeah, it's that bad, and it means that the Steelers will go to the playoffs with Redman displacing their lead horse in the running game, and, because the venue is mile-high Colorado, potentially without safety Clark as well.
Clark carries a sickle cell trait that can cause a serious blood disorder in high altitude.
"We've got to circle the wagons and try to be better on the road than we have been," Clark said an hour after Baltimore won the AFC North Division and earned the No. 2 seed by holding off the Bengals in the opposite corner of Ohio.
"I'd like to have gotten a bye, obviously, but this team is not about me. If I can't play, then that's what it is."
Cleveland was on its way to a tying touchdown Sunday when Dick LeBeau sent Clark on a safety blitz that floored Wallace 7 yards deep in his backfield, so Clark's value remains very much evident. If he can't play, that will certainly further pressurize an offense that hasn't produced a single touchdown pass since Dec. 8.
"They've got a great defense," said Ben Roethlisberger, who somehow managed a 23-for-40 performance in spite of a still-tender ankle and some unforgiving lake-driven winds.
"They've got a great pass rush, linebackers, great secondary. I've seen and heard of the havoc that they wreak."
On top of that, this is an offense that nearly got wreaked twice by the Cleveland Browns.
"They always play us tough," said Lawrence Timmons, "and they converted some big third downs.
"Tebow can run like Wallace ran, so we'll have our hands full. Tebow's been a very inspirational leader for them."
So I've heard.
And this week, I have a feeling I'll hear it again, and that you will hear it again and again and again and again until you'd like to see the Broncos beaten by about 50-0.
Then see what that inspires.
First Published January 2, 2012 12:00 am