Garafolo's Sunday Wrap: Steelers happy to be in control of their destiny
CINCINNATI -- There was a helpless feeling inside the Pittsburgh Steelers' postgame locker room exactly one year ago Monday.
The Steelers had lost to the Miami Dolphins by the length of Antonio Brown's toe -- the one that touched the sideline to turn a near-miracle final play into a fitting image of their frustrating season. They'd go on to win their final three games but didn't get the help they needed from elsewhere to get into the postseason.
"How I put a situation like that, man, is you're going to a party and you've got your VIP invitation -- if you win," cornerback Ike Taylor told FOX Sports from a much happier locker room at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. "But if you wind up losing a few, you don't have a VIP invitation, so you've gotta know somebody to get in.
"And somebody might not answer the phone when you're at the door."
Taylor told that story with a grin, which was much easier to do after the Steelers had knocked off the host Bengals 42-21 to move to 8-5 on the season and pull within a half-game of Cincinnati for first place in the AFC North. It was an enormous victory, as a loss would have all but knocked the Steelers out of contention in the division and relegated them to a position of needing help from elsewhere to be playing in January.
But they didn't lose. They won in convincing fashion, with an outstanding running game led by LeVeon Bell (185 rushing yards, many of them coming on old-school counter runs to the left side) and a once again dynamic passing attack highlighted by a 94-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to rookie Martavis Bryant against an overly aggressive Bengals secondary.
The way this game ended, with four lead changes and 63 total points in the final three quarters, it was tough to remember these teams were scoreless in the first quarter, or that the inconsistent Steelers looked like they'd be falling back into their early-season offensive doldrums.
Tough because they didn't lose their poise. Not with their fate in their own hands the way it is this year.
"Definitely confident. We don't have to worry about anything else," wide receiver Markus Wheaton said of the team's attitude. "No panic. Everything we're worried about is right here in the stadium we're playing in. We don't have to worry about anything else. That brings a little bit of comfort.
"We get our business done, everybody's great."
Wheaton was right. No one in the locker room asked for the score of the Baltimore Ravens' game. And with the Cleveland Browns holding a slim lead over the Indianapolis Colts at the time, there didn't appear to be any players on their phones looking for updates on that game.
"I didn't see it at all. I don't even know who they're playing this week," Wheaton said of the Browns. "That's how not worried about it I am."
Wheaton is right to not be worried. The Steelers will see the Bengals again in Week 17 at Heinz Field, so the half-game gap between the teams (courtesy of Cincinnati's tie against the Carolina Panthers earlier this season) can easily be erased there. Pittsburgh split the season series with the Ravens and will have a better divisional record than Baltimore if it wins the rematch with the Bengals.
It's a freeing feeling to not be concerned with outcomes of games other than the one they're playing in, and the players believe it translated to their performance Sunday.
"We just were not going to live in our fears today," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We needed to be aggressive and create some splash."
Tomlin was referring to Bryant's touchdown, which epitomized the Steelers' poise Sunday.
Up 28-21 with 8:43 to play and backed up at their own 6-yard line, Roethlisberger received the run-pass option call from offensive coordinator Todd Haley and noted the Bengals "showed a coverage and I didn't believe them." Roethlisberger didn't specify what he saw, but his assessment indicated Cincy's defense was trying to bluff him into thinking it was protecting on the back end.
On the sideline, Wheaton said he and his teammates saw Bryant go in motion, watched cornerback Leon Hall follow him to the edge and thought, "This could be a touchdown."
They were right.
Roethlisberger's play-action fake froze the defenders just enough, leaving Bryant in single coverage on Hall. Bryant won easily, streaked past Hall, caught a ball that was 49 yards in the air and sprinted the rest of the way to the end zone.
So on a day when the Bengals were having trouble containing Bell (whose 235 total yards made him the first player since the late Walter Payton in 1977 to have three straight games with 200 or more yards from scrimmage) and stopping Brown, the sensational rookie receiver delivered the knockout punch on a gutsy play call.
"I've underthrown him in practice because when he gets running, he's fast," Roethlisberger said of Bryant, whose seven touchdowns are tied for second-most ever by a Steelers rookie. "I just put it out there, let him run under it and he did the rest."
Bryant wasn't buying Roethlisberger's compliment about his speed.
"Ben's the type where he'll underthrow the ball in practice, see how you come back to it and see what you do," Bryant said. "It's pretty cool he does that so he can develop trust in you."
Wins like these develop trust across the board. Combine that with the comfort of knowing they're much more in control of their playoff hopes than they were last year, and the Steelers are feeling very good about themselves right now.
"We stayed with it. In the past, a couple of times, we'd go down and the energy would fade a little bit," Wheaton said. "But we know what we're playing for now and we're staying with it."
FIVE QUICK THOUGHTS
1. Mike Pettine claimed he didn't give any thought to changing quarterbacks during Sunday's loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and there's reason to believe him. The Browns were in the game the whole time. The plan going in was to stick with Brian Hoyer unless and until the Colts built a big enough lead to warrant a move to Johnny Manziel. Since the Colts got off to one of their patented slow starts and didn't move ahead until Andrew Luck's 1-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton with 32 seconds left, there was no reason to pull Hoyer. But Pettine's saying Hoyer "did not play well enough for us to win" and his reminder "we're in a bottom-line business" seems to set up a move to Manziel. At this point, the Browns are tied for eighth place in the AFC and have the worst conference record of the five teams in that cluster. In short, they're all but eliminated. It's time for Manziel to get a taste of the NFL and for the Browns to set him up to be the starter next year. Because that's where this is headed.
2. Colin Kaepernick and his supporters often scoff at those who criticize his inability to see the field and go through his progressions, but how can anyone who has watched the San Francisco 49ers quarterback's recent games argue that he reads a defense the way one has to at the NFL level? Kaepernick has five interceptions in his past three games, which is the most over a three-game stretch in his career. He's not seeing defenders, as he showed on his second interception in Sunday's loss to the Oakland Raiders when he apparently had no idea Charles Woodson was lurking underneath Vernon Davis' route. Kaepernick's struggles make the offensive coaching staff's decision to put more on his shoulders this season in a pass-oriented attack all the more confusing. I've written it before and I'll write it again: Jim Harbaugh's personality was a quirk when he was winning; it's a fireable offense now that he's not and that the offense is struggling.
3. There was a report Sunday stating Adrian Peterson's "six-game suspension" could carry over into next season, which the NFL Players Association believes is a scare tactic designed to nudge the union into working out a deal instead of waiting for the arbitrator's decision, two union sources told FOX Sports. The problem is the league never stated Peterson would be suspended for six games. Rather, Peterson was informed he would be suspended "for at least the remainder of the 2014 season," with the earliest date for reinstatement consideration being April 15. The league knew exactly what it was doing on this one and is leaving the uncertainty of next season to hover over Peterson's head. But to say Peterson's appeal will push back the duration of a penalty that was never defined is a tough sell. As an NFL official put it on Sunday afternoon when asked about the suspension's possible overlap into 2015, "Let's see where the appeal comes out."
4. I'm not sure how I feel about Jeff Fisher sending the six players the St. Louis Rams got in the RGIII trade onto the field as game captains Sunday. Part of me feels like Fisher should be classier, especially since the Rams haven't exactly started a dynasty with those players. (Although, as I've stated in this space before, a healthy Sam Bradford would have made the Rams a very interesting team the last two years.) Another part of me says screw it, the Rams took the Washington Redskins to the cleaners in that deal. So why not celebrate it? After thinking about it and writing this item, I say more power to you, Fisher. Even if the Redskins are an easy target, take your shots where you can in this prideful game.
5. How many times must a coach go for two far too early in a game before the rest of them learn? On Sunday, it was the Colts' Chuck Pagano who made the mistake when he went for two with 4:01 left in the third quarter to try pulling within a field goal. The attempt failed and Pagano had to chase the point when he went for two again following the Colts' game-winning touchdown. Those saying Pagano was vindicated by Indy's win are completely missing the point. (No pun intended.) Had he kicked the extra points, Pagano would've been sweating less when the Colts had to kick off with 32 seconds left because a field goal would only have tied the game in that spot. Though Hoyer threw an interception, Pagano put his team in the wrong spot there. He has a high-scoring offense. There's no need to play it the way he did with more than a quarter to go.
TEN EVEN QUICKER THOUGHTS
1. Cam Newton: Sunday's performance (three passing touchdowns, 83 rushing yards) should be a reminder his issues this season were about health, not skill. He can still play, and on Sunday he looked as spry as he has all season.
2. New Orleans Saints: Newton's performance came at the expense of Rob Ryan's defense as part of the Saints' worst home loss since 2003. Their inability to play well at home this season (3-4 at the Superdome) is baffling.
3. Odell Beckham Jr.: You know you're good when you bore people by catching a touchdown with two hands. This kid is sensational and a reason for the New York Giants to hope for the future when there aren't many of those for them to grasp.
4. Teddy Bridgewater: His audible on the game-winning touchdown for the Minnesota is yet another reminder of what many forgot in the over-analysis that is the annual lead-up to the NFL Draft: He was considered the most pro-ready quarterback when the college season ended last year.
5. Bill Belichick: I wrote earlier this season the New England Patriots' trading Logan Mankins right before Week 1 and then shuffling the offensive line smacked of not having a plan. The plan was for the line to come together as a unit, and that's happened. I apologize for doubting the Patriots' philosophy ... again.
6. Seattle Seahawks: With a win against the 49ers on Sunday, they can all but eliminate their divisional rivals from the playoffs. Although the Niners have struggled, there's no chance Seattle would want to see them in January. Look for a fired-up bunch of Seahawks on Sunday.
7. Manti Te'o: Remember him? The San Diego Chargers' plan to let him come in, get his career off to a quiet start in a small market and put his past issues behind him has worked well. The only things missing have been health and production. He took care of the latter on Sunday night with a pass defensed in the end zone and then an interception of Tom Brady.
8. Peyton Manning: His 179 passing yards, which were the second-fewest for him as a member of the Denver Broncos, shouldn't be as alarming as some will make them seem. The Buffalo Bills' defense is very, very good. Let's see how Manning rebounds this weekend against the Chargers before jumping to any conclusions.
9. Arizona Cardinals: That's the way they're going to have to win games the rest of the way -- with defense in low-scoring battles. Their three remaining games are against their NFC West rivals, all of whom have struggled to score at times. It's doable.
10. Elvis Dumervil: He has 25 1/2 sacks in his first two seasons with the Ravens. At $13 million for the first two years of a deal made possible by a botched fax, the Ravens should thank Dumervil's former agent ... and his current one.