Despite loss to Jets, Steelers clinch playoff spot

The Steelers had one big game remaining before they faced the lowly Carolina Panthers (2-12) and Cleveland Browns (5-9). If they could beat the New York Jets (10-4) they could run the table and be the second seed in the playoffs with a bye week. Well, all that went out the window with the 22-17 loss to the Jets.

Once again the offense sputtered, not being able to score in the red zone, and the special teams gave up a touchdown to open the game which was the difference in the game.

SUBPAR PERFORMANCE—Hines Ward looks to see if he got past the first down marker after making a catch against the New York Jets. Ward finished with 2 catches for 34 yards. (Photo by William McBride)

The Baltimore Ravens pulled even with the Steelers with a 30-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints. The Steelers have the tie breaker should they finish the season even, but they can’t afford to lose either of the remaining games because it’s not likely the Ravens, who held the high powered Saints offense in check and were able to move the ball against one of the best defenses in the NFL, will lose. Now they face the Browns (5-9) and Cincinnati Bengals (3-11).

The Steelers, Jets game was everything it was built up to be, a struggle between two of the best defenses in the league. But a special teams touchdown and safety were the difference.

Ben Roethlisberger put the ball in the air 44 times completing 23 passes for 264 yards and one touchdown. Rashard Mendenhall picked up 100 yards on 17 carries. One bright spot was rookie Emmanuel Sanders having a breakout game with 7 catches for 78 yards. Mike Wallace also had 7 catches for 102 yards, moving him over 1,000 yards for the season.

Jets’ quarterback Mark Sanchez stood up to the pressure created by the Steelers’ defense and his team’s two-game losing streak, scrambling for the Jets’ first offensive touchdown in 12 quarters and leading a decisive field-goal drive in leading his team to the victory.

Despite losing, the Steelers (10-4) were told by the NFL that they secured a playoff spot via a series of complicated strength-of-schedule tiebreakers. Pittsburgh also owns the division tiebreaker and will beat out Baltimore (10-4) for the AFC North title if it defeats Carolina on Thursday and Cleveland on Jan. 2. The Jets, nearing a playoff spot, won in Pittsburgh for the first time since the 1970 merger after going 0-7.

The Steelers had to go for a touchdown on the final drive rather than settling for a field goal because Mewelde Moore was tackled in the end zone for a safety by Jason Taylor with 2:38 remaining.

“I told the guys, let’s be great, let’s go down the field and score. We got close, but not close enough,” Roethlisberger said.

Pittsburgh had just 35 yards in penalties after having 420 in its previous four games.

Over nine seasons as coach of the Carolina Panthers, John Fox has made it a point to hide his emotions but Sunday was different. Minutes after his league-worst Panthers celebrated the end of a seven-game losing streak, with a 19-12 win over the punchless Arizona Cardinals, Fox took a minute to soak in what was almost certainly his final home game on the job. Securing an overall winning regular-season record, Fox left the field with his arms raised and fists clenched.

“We developed a lot of relationships here. There are a lot of high character guys in that locker room that I appreciate,” Fox said. “It means a lot to me.”

Denied a contract extension the past two years and seemingly at odds with the offseason roster-gutting that left the Panthers (2-12) short on talent and experience, Fox is coaching out the string in the last year of his deal.

His youngsters came through for him in a performance that was just good enough to beat a similarly dysfunctional unit. And it didn’t even hurt Carolina’s draft positioning, as Cincinnati also won to keep the Panthers a game up in the race for the No. 1 overall pick.

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen was good enough to get his first win in eight tries, completing 13 of 19 passes for 141 yards and no turnovers. Stewart took advantage of the league’s 30th-ranked rushing defense, and Carolina pounced on Arizona’s mistakes.

So it should be a very easy game for Pittsburgh this week, but the Steelers have a tendency to play down to its opponent.

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