Steelers hope for 'A' team Sunday
The Steelers are as perplexing and unpredictable as any of the playoff teams.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- In a season that has seen them alternate between being very good and very bad, the Pittsburgh Steelers have every reason to be extremely optimistic going into the playoffs.
And every reason to be very concerned.
They have everything a Super Bowl team should have: an ability to run and pass with equal effectiveness, an excellent offensive line, a hot quarterback, a defense that got better as the season progressed and playoff experience.
Despite all they have going for them, including the home-field edge for Sunday's AFC wild-card game against rival Cleveland (9-7), the Steelers (10-5-1) are as perplexing and as unpredictable as any of the 12 NFL playoff teams.
Few quality opponents
They go into the postseason after winning five of their last six, yet only one victory -- last week's 17-7 win at Tampa Bay -- was over a quality opponent. Their most dominating performance during that stretch came in the only loss, when they outgained Houston 422-47 yet lost 24-6 on three turnovers that were returned for touchdowns.
And just when their defense finally seemed to be playing again at the level of a year ago, when it was the league's best, the Steelers gave up 422 yards to one of the NFL's worst offenses as they scrambled to beat Baltimore 34-31 Sunday.
So who are these Steelers? A dangerous, shouldn't-be-overlooked team capable of beating any team at any time? Or one that is merely looking for an excuse to fade quietly into the playoff night?
"I feel we have as good a chance as any," running back Jerome Bettis said Monday. "It's just a matter of not turning the ball over. That's been our Achilles' heel this season, turning the ball over and beating ourselves."
Even during the closing stretch that gave them their seventh divisional title in coach Bill Cowher's 11 seasons, the Steelers showed a peculiar knack for making things difficult on themselves.
In their last four games, six Tommy Maddox turnovers were turned into touchdowns by their opponents, and a seventh such score Sunday was called back by a penalty.
In the postseason, when even one such error at a critical time can send a team packing, the Steelers are aware their margin for error is very slim.
"The No. 1 thing is not turning the ball over," Bettis said. "I can't stress that enough. That's the one thing we haven't been able to get a grip on this season, and we've got to be able to eliminate turnovers in the playoffs or else we won't be going very far at all."
History also isn't on the Steelers' side, especially considering they likely must go very far from Pittsburgh to keep their postseason going.
To win the Super Bowl, they must win four games in four weeks -- something only one team has ever done, Washington during the first and only Super Bowl tournament in 1982. Three wild-card teams won the Super Bowl -- Oakland (1980), Denver (1997) and Baltimore (2000) -- but each benefited from the two-week break between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl that no longer exists.
Also, the Steelers have never won a road playoff game under Cowher, going 0-2 with losses to Kansas City in 1993 and New England in 1996.
If they beat Cleveland, they will play next week at Tennessee (11-5), where they lost 31-23 on Nov. 17.
Still, neither Bettis nor Maddox seems all that concerned the Steelers missed out on a first-round bye, saying it might be better to not take a week off and possibly curtail the momentum they've built.
Take the hand dealt
"Everybody has their opinions on it's easier to be one or the other," Maddox said. "The main thing is you're in the playoffs and it doesn't matter what role you're in. To win the Super Bowl, you've got to get on a run. We're excited about where we're at and we're excited about the situation we're in."
Bettis said, "It would be great to have it (a bye) but we don't have it, so you don't worry about it. If you have it, you say, 'Oh, it's great.' But if you don't have it, you just don't worry about it."
Bettis expects to play against Cleveland despite sitting out the Baltimore game with a sore knee. Also expected to play are linebackers Kendrell Bell (ankle) and James Farrior (sternum, shoulder). Bell was hurt in the third quarter Sunday, but X-rays revealed no problems.
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