Monday, October 26, 2009

Reigning Super Bowl champs dethrone comeback king Favre

"Yo, Brett Favre. I'm really happy for you, and imma let you finish, but the Steelers are one of the best football teams of all time."

The bigger they are the harder they fall. And comeback king Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings certainly fell a long way in terms of fan and commentator expectations as well as season predictions after their first loss of the season Sunday.

The loss came courtesy of reigning Super Bowl champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a big wakeup call for the Vikings and a huge confidence boost for the Steelers. The Vikings came to the field 6-0, but the truth is their record is built largely on wins over abysmal teams like the Cleveland Browns (1-6), Detroit Lions (1-5), and Saint Louis Rams (0-7). In fact, the only really tough team the Vikings have faced this year is the Steelers, and we know how that ended.

The Steelers led the game with a Ben Roethlisberger touchdown to wide receiver Santonio Holmes... or it would've been a touchdown but for a pass interference call against Heath Miller. Pittsburgh settled for 3 points courtesy of a 39-yard Jeff Reed field goal.

The teams each scored a touchdown before heading into half time, Pittsburgh leading 10-7.

Thanks to some fast footwork by running back Rashard Mendenhall and a 15-yard face mask penalty against Minnesota, starting to play rough since they weren't getting their way, the Steelers were looking good early in the third quarter. Another Mendenhall run was followed by a QB keep for two yards by Roethlisberger, who, in a low blow, was speared as he ran out of bounds by Vikings' cornerback Benny Sapp. Sapp got a personal foul and the Steelers got added motivation on the field to 'protect this house' from Minnesota, who, at that point appeared willing to play dirty to attempt win at any cost. The drive ended in another Steelers field goal. 13-7.

The Vikings answered with a field goal of their own, 13-10.

The next Pittsburgh drive, a 45-yard Holmes run, put them on the Vikings' nine-yard line. Unfortunately, all Holmes' effort appeared to be for naught as Minnesota recovered a Mendenhall fumble on the next play at the four-yard line. Steelers fans had now watched two would-be touchdowns slip through our fingers; the Holmes penalty-negated touchdown and now this.

A relentless sports optimist, I found solace in something wide receiver Hines Ward had said last week in an interview on local Pittsburgh radio station, 96.1's morning Freak Show. [Podcast "Hines Ward Calls the Show" from Oct. 20 available here: ] In the interview, the DJ's talked about a touchdown he should've had against the Cleveland Browns, but for some poor reffing. The always smiling, always composed Ward's response? "Oh well. I'll get it back somewhere down the line."

That in mind, I knew if the Steelers put in all that work for two touchdowns we didn't get in this game, we would get them back.

The next Vikings' drive lead them to the red zone and to a called-back touchdown on a tripping call against Minnesota's Jeff Dugan. The next play was a Favre sack by Brett Keisel (in a nod to one fan's sign "Our Brett is better than your Brett") for a 15-yard loss and fumble. Lamar Woodley recovered the ball at the 23-yard line and returned it 77 yards for a touchdown. Fumbles taketh the ball away from us and fumbles giveth it back.

Quick to reroute any Steelers' momentum, the Vikings ran the resulting kickoff back for a touchdown, closing Minnesota's point deficit to a one field goal difference. 20-17.

The Steelers' next drive didn't earn them any points, due in part to a Roethlisberger fumble which, thankfully, rolled out of bounds. Now the Vikings once again had the ball with only minutes remaining. I knew, however, thanks to Ward's mantra, the Steelers were still owed their due.

1:15 remaining in the game: Vikings' second down with three yards to go on the 19-yard line, linebacker Keyaron Fox intercepted a Favre pass and ran 82 yards giving the Steelers a touchdown, giving the Vikings their first loss of the season, and making all things even in this game's karma.

Though safety Troy Polamalu returned to the Steelers last week, he was not 100% until this game. With his return, Pittsburgh's steel curtain defense is once again showing why they are consistently one of the best in the NFL. The game was won by two defensive touchdowns. The Steelers' offense looked strong, but our defense was stronger and it won the day.

It appears the Vikings and Favre aren't the unstoppable force so many thought they were, and they are going to need to examine their game more critically and play more carefully in the future if they are to continue racking up the wins and points they couldn't pull off against the Steelers.

As for Pittsburgh, they finally have Reed back to being the reliable kicker they knew he was, Polamalu back in the ranks of the defense, and Willie Parker back from injury to deepen our line of running backs. We have re-solidified the team that won the Super Bowl last year, but which, this season, had been missing a few crucial pieces due to injury or just having fluke off-weeks. We were missing some puzzle pieces in the form of key players until Sunday's game, and now that they're back, the picture is complete.

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