December 17, 2008 1:05 PM
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky and James Walker
The Steelers' visit to Nashville Sunday for a game against the Titans is just the kind of late-season game the league, and the networks, love. On the line, the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Our AFC South blogger, Paul Kuharsky and AFC North blogger, James Walker, will both be at the game. As part of the build-up, they went back and forth on a variety of game-related topics for a joint venture shared by their two pages.
Paul Kuharsky: Sunday's giant AFC showdown features two starting quarterbacks I'd call tough, but Ben Roethlisberger and Kerry Collins are different kinds of tough. Every time I've seen pieces of Steelers games this year, I've seen Big Ben throwing passes with defenders hanging off his limbs or dusting himself off as he gathered himself after a hit. Kerry Collins isn't so sturdy tough; he's more life-experience and game-smart tough. Where Roethlisberger will stand in as long as it takes, sometimes too long, Collins' internal clock tells him to get rid of the ball or give up on a play and live for the next. Watching them and how they react to what two very good defenses throw at them will be one of the best story lines of this game.
James Walker: The physical ailments that Roethlisberger (shoulder, thumb) has dealt with this season are well-documented. But his mental toughness should be noted as well. Roethlisberger never gets down. I've seen several games this year where he cannot make a significant play for three-and-a-half quarters but keeps his head in the game for the key moments in the fourth quarter. That was the case in the two wins against the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens. Roethlisberger has a certain mental toughness and clutch factor that permeates Pittsburgh's entire team. The Steelers play very well from behind and they never feel they are out of it.
PK: I've been thinking in the weeks leading up to this matchup that while the Titans would have problems moving the ball against the Steelers, Tennessee's biggest strength -- its ability to rush the passer with only its front four -- would line up well with the one thing Pittsburgh isn't very good at -- protecting Roethlisberger. I really expected Albert Haynesworth, while he'd also see one of the guards -- Chris Kemoeatu or Darnell Stapleton -- to make life extremely difficult on center Justin Hartwig. At a much different stage of his career when the two were both Titans, Haynesworth kicked Hartwig in a training-camp fight. Alas, we don't get to see the matchup as Haynesworth is out for the remainder of the regular season. And with end Kyle Vanden Bosch also out, the Titans' pass rush can't be as good as it would have been at full strength. It's a big break for the Steelers.
JW: I agree, Paul. A week ago this would have been a much tougher matchup, but this is no longer a big mismatch. As you mentioned, Tennessee's defense hinges on getting pressure with its front four, and without Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch, it could force the Titans to alter their scheme and compensate by bringing extra defenders more often than they would like. That could compromise the back end and leave more room for Roethlisberger to make plays in the passing game against man-to-man coverage. The absence of Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch also helps Pittsburgh's running game, which hasn't been consistent all season.
JW: The Steelers like to take away what offenses do best. So expect defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to have his unit focused on stuffing the running back tandem of LenDale White and Chris Johnson.
Pittsburgh will take its chances to see if Collins can beat the Steelers through the air. Sometimes the strategy hasn't worked. Sometimes it does, such as last week when Collins struggled against the Houston Texans. I think this game will be very similar to Tennessee's game against the Baltimore Ravens earlier this year. The Ravens stuffed the run the entire game and Tennessee's offense struggled. If you're going to beat the Titans, that is the blueprint.
PK: The Titans got a break on a penalty call to convert a third-and-long when they were in Baltimore, but like the Steelers, they managed to drive to a game-winning score at the end of the game. I think the Titans will struggle to move the ball with any consistency, but they could set themselves up with a big play on defense or special teams and if it's the sort of defensive battle I'm expecting, that could prove to be enough to swing things in the home team's favor.
PK: Not to circle back to a guy who's not playing, but ... Another sidebar to this game that we're going to miss out on is the campaign for Defensive Player of the Year. From what I've seen, James Harrison has been spectacular. I thought in a game featuring both him and Haynesworth, they would both have a chance to really make a statement regarding their candidacies. With Haynesworth missing, we don't get that. But those of us who haven't seen the Steelers regularly will get a closer look at Harrison and Troy Polamalu.
JW: This is a nice sidebar to the big game. The school of thought was that Harrison and Polamalu were going to split the Steelers' votes so much that Haynesworth would take the award. But his injury opens the door for Harrison or Polamalu to make an impression. My vote goes to Polamalu. He is a unique talent that is always around the football. Pittsburgh's defense would not be as dynamic without him, while I think the unit would be able to compensate pretty well without Harrison.
JW: Without question, there is a huge amount of pressure on Tennessee to win this game. The Steelers have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Pittsburgh already has clinched its division, a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed. That will not change if the Steelers lose Sunday. But a win would give Pittsburgh the top seed with one game to go and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The Steelers will be very loose.
PK: Yeah, considering how much of a buffer the Titans had in their bid for the No. 1 seed not long ago, it'll be a major shock to the system if they can't win this game and wind up having to travel for the AFC Championship Game if they and the Steelers both make it that far. The Steelers have some wins over some better teams and the Titans know a loss here will have a lot of people saying they were overrated for much of the season. They've got more pressure, but that doesn't mean they'll be tight. This has been a loose bunch all season and I don't expect that to change.
JW: I see Pittsburgh winning another low-scoring game, 17-13. The Steelers are 6-1 on the road and know how to win in hostile environments. Injuries to Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch will be huge, and as long as the Titans can't run, they will struggle offensively.
PK: You're braver than me -- I love that the blog network crew isn't asked to pick games. It makes it so I don't find myself rooting for the "right" result or having to justify picks to players or teams. But I will promise you this: After what happened at the end of the 2002 playoff game in Nashville with premature pyrotechnics, if the Titans win at end, the fireworks guy will count to 10 and wait for the go-ahead from multiple high-ranking officials before pushing the button on any explosives.