JEROME BETTIS: STEELERS IN A MUST-WIN CRISIS
By JEROME BETTIS
It's not a good Monday morning for me. With that loss to the Cleveland Browns, my Pittsburgh Steelers may have lost the opportunity to reach the playoffs.
That loss means every game from here on out is a must-win for Pittsburgh. And if Ben Roethlisberger isn't able to get back on the field soon the chances of that happening are very slim. It's obvious the team is struggling mightily without his leadership, and that they just can't manufacture points without him at quarterback.
The must-win scenario is particularly tough, because the Steelers face a tall order this week in the rematch with Baltimore. On the positive side, Pittsburgh's defense didn't allow Baltimore's offense to score a touchdown the last time they played, and the Steelers could have won if the special teams hadn't beaten them.
So it's not impossible to beat Baltimore, just highly improbable.
The loss to Cleveland was especially hard to watch because of what happened to my good friend, Charlie Batch. It was frustrating, because at the age of 37 he was forced to try to do more than he should have to. The Steelers running backs kept fumbling the ball, all of them. Charlie's arm isn't as strong as it used to be, and he couldn't deliver the deep ball, especially late in the game. But if Pittsburgh plays the game it's supposed to, and pounds the ball, he doesn't have to make those passes. Instead, every one of their running backs fumbled the ball, and it was very difficult to stomach.
GIANTS REMIND THEY'RE STILL THE DEFENDING CHAMPS
Everyone naturally expected the Giants-Packers game to be very close, but New York totally dismantled Green Bay. I think this is one of those situations where even though the Giants had just lost two in a row that you say, "Oh, yeah, they're the defending world champions."
New York's defense simply destroyed a Green Bay offense that's also great, but that right now can't block a pass rush like the Giants have. This game pointed out that the Giants' greatest strength is their defensive line, and also showed that the Packers' most glaring weakness is their offensive line.
It's also clear now that even though we gave the Packers the benefit of the doubt because they're only two years removed from a Super Bowl championship that they're no longer the same team. They're good, but not the team they were.
But the Giants look refocused after their bye week, and are definitely the team we thought they were. And that just emphasizes that these are two teams headed in different directions.
TIME FOR JIM HARBAUGH TO MAKE A DECISION
San Francisco had a big win at New Orleans, but it's time for coach Jim Harbaugh to make a decision about their future. He needs to decide now who his starting quarterback is going to be, and remove any questions his team has.
By not defining the starting QB he's holding up the entire team. That's the one position where you really can't play musical chairs. Everyone needs to know before the game who it's going to be, to establish a comfort level about what kind of team you are.
Sometimes, you know your quarterback isn't all that athletic, so you go in knowing you have to block better. Sometimes, it's obvious he can't throw downfield, so everyone knows the running game must step up. Every team needs that awareness, based on its personnel. So this is a situation that could be detrimental to the 49ers, because if it's not handled properly it forces the players to pick and choose. And whenever you have a divided locker room it's a major problem.
Jim Harbaugh needs to clean this up immediately, or else it could blow up in his face.
If I was making the decision I would go with Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers know what they have in Alex Smith, and they can always go back to him. But Kaepernick is making great progress, and looks like he could be the difference in an NFC championship game. I think San Francisco needs to find out just how special Kaepernick is, because his upside is greater than Alex Smith's upside. That's a potential they need to explore.
SEAHAWKS WON'T BE A DANGEROUS PLAYOFF TEAM
There's no question the Seattle Seahawks are the NFL's Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde team. At home, they are the wild Mr. Hyde, able to overpower anyone. But when they go on the road, as their loss at Miami showed, they put on the glasses and become the mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll. That's very disappointing, because a good team shouldn't have to depend that much on its home crowd.
But home apparently is the only place where the Seahawks reach their full potential. That factor also downgrades them considerably for the playoffs, because it's almost guaranteed San Francisco will win the division and Seattle will get there only as a wild card. So I'll predict the Seahawks won't go anywhere in the postseason, and that if they get there they'll be one and done.
FALCONS KEEP HANGING IN, AND BUCS ARE FOR REAL
Atlanta's win at Tampa Bay was a significant game, for both teams. These are two teams that are playing exceptionally well, as the Falcons' one-point margin of victory on the road demonstrated. The Falcons aren't really playing as well as their record indicates, but they keep finding ways to win despite not playing at their highest level.
That usually indicates a team that's ready for the playoffs. Winning on the road, despite struggling against a good team, tells you they will be a force. But I'm also very impressed with the Bucs, because they have changed their personality and identity with Greg Schiano as coach. Schiano has introduced a physicality that has been lacking forever in Tampa Bay, on a team that used to be the doormats of the NFL. The Bucs are clearly a team on the rise, and it's going to be fun to watch them develop.
MY IRISH WILL PLAY FOR THE NATIONAL TITLE
Here's a shout-out to my alma mater, Notre Dame, which is headed back to the national championship game. I know a lot of people thought their victory at USC would be a no-brainer, because Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley was sidelined.
But that USC offense has a lot of weapons, and with a Notre Dame offense that's never going to put up 40 points it was imperative for the Irish defense to step up. And that's what they did. Notre Dame basically rode that defense all the way to the national championship game.
I know that a lot of people are probably expecting an SEC team to win the BCS championship for the seventh straight time, whether it's Alabama or Georgia that plays. But I think that's the kind of opponent that gives the Irish the best chance to win.
They're both pro-style teams that play with two running backs and two tight ends, and defending that type of offense suits an Irish defense that relies on its front seven. I think playing a team with a spread offense might have been more of a problem for Notre Dame. Notre Dame can stop the run, and both of those teams depend on the run.
Hopefully, that scenario spells a championship for my alma mater. Go Irish!
The NFL's No. 6 rusher all-time reviews each week's action with his "Around the League with Jerome Bettis" blog. Bettis retired after his Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XL in 2006 and The Bus is expected to be a strong candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in January's voting. Bettis was a six-time Pro Bowler and since 1996 his The Bus Stops Here foundation has worked to help underprivileged children in inner cities.