NFL Week 14 AFC North: De Ja Vu All Over Again

The Steeler defense that is defying father time and has vaulted back to #1 in all of Pro Football.

As this wacky NFL season has had ups and downs and surprise first place teams, the AFC North is taking on an all too familiar theme. It’s come down to the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers as it has much of the last decade. Yet just as we described in our Pre-Season spectacular, this is the last year these two teams will be head and shoulders above their division brethren.

On Thursday night, NFL network is going to showcase one of the league’s best defensive players in D’Quell Jackson, who in our estimation is the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. Right now he’s tied for second in tackles with 112, with 2.5 sacks, 4 passes defensed an interception and 2 fumble recoveries. Of the top 5 tacklers in the NFL this year he has more than 15 more solo tackles than the others, showcasing he is the initial defender to the ball. Oh we forgot to tell you, he plays for the Cleveland Browns. He is the anchor of the league’s #8 defense. What would he be doing had the Browns been able to field a healthy Peyton Hillis and were able to get adequate quarterbacking from Colt McCoy?? If next year the Browns can get an Andrew Luck, or Kellen Moore, or Baylor’s Robert Griffin III this could be a turnaround team for 2012.

As for now they’re still looking up at the neighborhood bully from Pittsburgh. After losing to the Texans, the Steelers have won 7 of their last 8 including a 25-17 win over AFC East leader New England. Unlike the beginning of the season where they had lost to teams with winning records, they also bested Cincinnati twice to take the division lead. The Ravens are ahead of them on a tie breaker but face it, as we head through the money games of November, the Steelers defense has come to life and the last two games didn’t allow 10 points in either contest. Experts, including our CEO, are waiting for this elder defense to age. Yet as we go to press guess who is back at the top spot with the league’s #1 defense. Yet lets take a look at the standings

Baltimore 9 3 0 .750 6-0-0 3-3-0 4-0-0 6-2-0 296 192 +104 Won 3
Pittsburgh 9 3 0 .750 5-1-0 4-2-0 2-2-0 7-3-0 268 195 +73 Won 3
Cincinnati 7 5 0 .583 3-2-0 4-3-0 2-3-0 6-4-0 266 250 +16 Lost 1
Cleveland 4 8 0 .333 3-4-0 1-4-0 0-3-0 3-6-0 175 240 -65 Lost 2

The Steelers host Cleveland this Thursday Night in what should be a good defensive struggle. If you expect Pittsburgh to run over the Browns you will be shocked to see Jackson #52 making life miserable for Rashard Mendenhall. Truth be told the Steelers are a passing team. Granted they use the run to set up the pass however more and more they rely on Ben Roethlisberger to make a play on 3rd down to sustain drives. Mendenhall has rushed for 634 yards and 8 TDs and isn’t among the league’s elite in terms of rushing output. Right now they have to ride the wildcard that is Big Ben. He’s on pace to finish with 25TDs and 4,328 yards and only 13 interceptions. His frantic helter skelter comebacks are rarely artistic but they’re more successful than not. Normally there should be an air of worry with the Steelers leading tacklers being Palamalu and Ryan Clark, but that has more to do with they have started every game. Where James Farrior, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Larry Foote have each missed at least two games due to injury. They are coming back healthy for the playoffs and that is scary for most teams.

The Raven defense recorded a team record 9 sacks against the 49ers on Thanksgiving night.

The Ravens have the tie breaker having swept their nemesis in Pittsburgh, yet have 4 interesting games coming up. All season long this team has played up to and beat top competition, then down to and lost to lowly teams like Jacksonville and Seattle. Joe Flacco has been playing better as of late and has matured from that last second touchdown throw in the Steelers game. Coach Harbaugh hopes that is all behind them with the Colts, Chargers, Bengals, and Browns lining up to play spoiler. The Ravens have maintained a menacing defense, currently ranked 3rd overall, without the services of Ray Lewis. In their last two games without Lewis they have given up only 170 yards to the 49ers, and 233 yards to the Browns respectively. On offense Ray Rice is about to cross the 1,000 yard threshold with 926 yards and 9 TDs, yet it’s Ricky Williams who seems to have fresh legs and is rejuvenated in Baltimore.

The stat that jumps out is Baltimore is 6-1 against teams with winning records. If they run the table in these last four games you’d have to say they are a shoo in for the AFC Championship game. With Ray Lewis healthy for the playoffs what do you think?? Could the Ravens best a Steelers team for a third time if they met in the playoffs?? Interesting questions that we’ll have to wait for an answer.

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The Greatest NFL Game Never Talked About

Webster Slaughter’s hauling in a 52 yd TD in the second quarter.

Welcome to another episode of theater of the past. The most famous games in NFL history have always been playoff games. Football is a game of emotion and it’s the finality of knowing your season could be over that can elevate the play of both teams. Yet some playoff games are talked about and held with esteem while others are rarely written about, rehashed, re-shown, or ever discussed among the greats.

To us, there is a heavy bias toward the glamour franchises or darlings that the media aid in anointing their games great while others are passed over. One such game was the 1989 AFC Divisional playoff tilt between the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills. Not only was it great, it was as great as “The Epic in Miami”, or in our CEO’s estimation better.

This was a magnificent football game. You have to realize that particular weekend you had John Elway and the Denver Broncos hosting the cinderella Pittsburgh Steelers in one playoff game. Jim Everett’s underdog Los Angeles Rams in New York facing Lawrence Taylor’s Giants, and the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers of Joe Montana hosting the Minnesota Vikings for a third straight post season. Yet it was the Browns v. the Bills that caught the imagination of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was in attendance, and Donald Trump who was in the box with Browns owner Art Modell. Why??

Well the Browns, famous for their “Dawg Defense”, had been stung 3 years before by John Elway’s Denver Broncos in the ’86 AFC Championship, and the following season with Earnest Byner’s fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship. Although the Cleveland Browns had been the NFL’s Team of the decade in the 1950’s, they had been a down franchise for many years. However each time the Browns thought they had a team capable of winning it all, they lost in heart breaking fashion on 3 occasions. The stellar teams they had from 1985-1989 were aging and many pundits thought this was the last chance for this team to get a Super Bowl win for owner Art Modell.

The other side had an up and coming Buffalo Bills team that rose to prominence as a defensive giant in 1988, after nearly a decade of futility. High draft picks,which included future Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, and Shane Conlan carried this team to the 1988 AFC Championship Game. After losing that game to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bills were looked upon as a team of the future. However the team almost imploded in 1989 from infighting and finger pointing, which earned them the nickname ” the Bickering Bills”. The offense of Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas was starting to show signs of life as the defense slumped slightly from the year before.

Better than “The Epic In Miami”?? Yes! This game featured big play after big play and came down to the wire with the Browns prevailing 34-30. To compare it to the great ’81 AFC Divisional playoff: Want to talk excitement?? With touchdowns of 33, 44, 52, 73, and 90 yards out, this game in ’89 had 5 touchdowns from 33 yards or more compared to 2 in that one. The only other playoff game in the Super Bowl era to equal 5 TDs of that distance was Super Bowl XXXVII between the Bucs and the Raiders. This game had 4 lead changes as compared to 3 in the earlier game.

Each had the record holder for receptions in a playoff game with 13 in both Thurman Thomas and Kellen Winslow. (both Hall of Famers) Each had a Hall of Fame Coach, Marv Levy of Buffalo and Don Shula as well as quarterbacks in Jim Kelly and Dan Fouts. Where the earlier game went to double overtime and ended on a boring field goal, this one had a sense of de ja vu. The Bills made a last second march toward their goal line with time running out, just like John Elway and “The Drive.” Although this time Clay Matthews intercepted Jim Kelly at the 1 yard line with :03 left. Now that is a finish!!

The game was also one of the best ever broadcast with Charlie Jones and the late Merlin Olson making the call. Here are the sights and sounds of the biggest plays from that game…

One outstanding aspect of this game was how great the commentary was. Notice how Charlie Jones and Merlin Olsen allowed the viewer to take in the sights and sounds of 80,000 fans going crazy. This is the antithesis to Joe Buck, who our CEO thinks is the worst play by play man ever. One aspect of announcing a football game versus a baseball game: Allow the visuals to stimulate the viewer more so than the commentary and know when to acquiesce to such.

Epilogue: Why is this game not revered like “The Epic In Miami”? This game had more Hall of Famers and neither game produced a Super Bowl winner. We feel that it might have something to do with the media’s growing disdain for the University of Miami football team, from which both Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar hailed. Then NFL Films, who rarely slights a team due to media prejudice, chose NOT to put this game in the Cleveland Browns 1989 Yearbook. Seriously?? That was embarrassing. Yet alas it came down to one play and Clay Matthews made it. So when you saw the 4th quarter fumble caused by his son Clay Matthews III in last year’s Super Bowl, and Casey Matthews forcing a 4th quarter fumble in last year’s National Championship Game for Oregon, you now know it’s in the genes.

The Browns would go on to lose their 3rd AFC Championship Game in 4 years to the Denver Broncos that brought an end to their playoff run. However the Buffalo Bills went on to a record 4 straight Super Bowls which began the following season. From 1986-1993, one of these teams was in every single AFC Championship game for an 8 year period. It was this game that was the birth of the Buffalo “K-Gun” offense and the crossing point where Cleveland conceded to Buffalo as an AFC elite team. For one game, and four hours of sheer escapism magnificence, they played to the highest level worthy of being one of the greatest NFL playoff games ever played and is due more in it’s remembrance.

I dedicate this article to the late Charlie Jones and the late Merlin Olsen for their broadcasting excellence in elevating this game to one of  magnificent lore. Your call on this afternoon in January 1990 was simply the best ever. Gentlemen, thank you for a job well done.

R.I.P. Charlie Jones and Merlin Olsen

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