By BOB LABRIOLA
In the days following the New York Jets' win over the Titans in Tennessee on Nov. 23, the NFL announced plans to move one of the two conference championship games from Sunday, Jan. 18 to Monday, Jan. 19. This contingency plan would be necessary because the Jets and Giants both play in Giants Stadium, and one facility couldn't host two conference championships on the same day.
A bit premature?
It sure looks that way today, based on what the Denver Broncos did to the Jets last Sunday – at Giants Stadium, by the way.
Such is life in the NFL. Yesterday's odds-on favorite is today's afterthought, and while that wasn't Coach Mike Tomlin's specific message yesterday at his weekly news conference, the way he chose to dissect the game against the Patriots indicated he is far from satisfied with his team.
The Steelers won in Foxboro for the first time since 1997 and won a game against the Bill Belichick-coached Patriots for only the second time in seven tries. But as coaches often do in these situations, Tomlin quickly got around to addressing what he perceived as the deficiencies in the Steelers' performance during what was a 33-10 victory.
"I think more important, as we move forward, are the lessons that we learned from that game and using them as fuel for the battles that lie ahead," said Tomlin.
And then he went on to point out what the Steelers need to improve.
Against the Patriots, the Steelers offense rolled up 161 yards rushing – Mewelde Moore and Willie Parker combined to average 5.5 per carry – and the unit finished with a 10-minute edge in time of possession. Also, on a cold, windy, raw day, Jeff Reed made 4-of-5 field goal attempts, including a 45-yarder in the fourth quarter that built the Steelers' lead to 26-10.
But Reed's other three field goals were from 20, 25 and 20 yards, which means the Steelers offense advanced to the New England 2-yard line, the 7-yard line and the 1-yard line and didn't score a touchdown on any of those occasions.
"We have been good in (red-zone offense) all year, top five in the league, but we kicked a couple of field goals in that game," said Tomlin. "If we don't get the surge of turnovers in the second half, that could prove costly. That is just a part of December football, particularly when you play the caliber of opponents we are going to play. When you get close to the end zone, you have to be able to put seven (points) on the board because invariably when you play good people, those things come back to bite you."
Even after going 3-of-6 in the red zone against the Patriots, the Steelers are ranked No. 4 in the AFC with 23 touchdowns in 37 trips, a percentage of 62.2, but Tomlin wasn't happy at all with the 50 percent the offense managed in Gillette Stadium.
Also high on Tomlin's list were some of the team's eight penalties. The two in particular that irritated him were post-whistle infractions – the unnecessary roughness call on Keyaron Fox on the opening kickoff, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Ike Taylor with 5:33 left in the game and the Steelers trying to protect a 26-10 lead.
"The self-inflicted wounds from a penalty standpoint, particularly the post-snap penalties, we don't desire to be that kind of football team," said Tomlin. "We have to correct that. I expect us to correct those types of things quickly. When you give up 15-yard chunks of real estate after the whistle is blown, that is not going to help you win football games against good people."
The Steelers came into the season with a schedule described as the league's toughest, and while such designations often don't hold throughout a whole season, this one has played out as advertised. They already have faced Philadelphia, Baltimore, the New York Giants, Washington, Indianapolis and New England, and their next three games – vs. Dallas, a rematch with the Ravens and at Tennessee – are against teams that are a combined 27-9 right now.
Will facing that level of competition harden the Steelers for what they might face in January?
"Hopefully," said Tomlin, before adding, "it only helps us if we win. That is what we are focused on: trying to win. We understand if we win and have success under adverse circumstances, that strengthens us for the battles that lie ahead. It is always a good experience if you win, so that is where our focus is."