Articles by Andy Benoit

A listing of all the articles written by Andy Benoit for the RotoWire Blog.

NFL Touchdown: 5 Reasons the Pro Bowl in Miami Idea Stinks

By Andy Benoit,

A few years ago I wrote in one of my NFL Touchdown preview books that the NFL should move the Pro Bowl from the week after the Super Bowl to the week before, in order to make the event part of the Super Bowl hype. I was proud of myself at the time for constructing what I thought was a shrewd idea.
However, I had a conversation with my close friend, Jeff Coruccini, owner of the website Jeff told me my idea was, basically, terrible. He said the point of the Pro Bowl is not to draw fans and big ratings, but rather, to reward players, media and major NFL sponsors with a fun, relaxing trip to Hawaii. I found myself changing my mind and agreeing with him at the time.
Now that the NFL actually has moved the 2010 Pro Bowl to the week before the Super Bowl, I find myself agreeing with Jeff even more. In short, hosting the game two weeks early in Miami next year is a bad idea. A horrendous idea. We’ve heard players such as Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis speak out against the plan. Here are five reasons why the 2010 Pro Bowl idea stinks.

1. The NFL is indeed hoping the Pro Bowl can add to the Super Bowl hype. But none of the players in the Super Bowl will be able to play. Plus, there’s already so much Super Bowl hype that adding an event as major as entire game will be overkill. The Pro Bowl won’t build the Super Bowl hype, it will just make fans less receptive to the rest of the ubiquitous Super Bowl hype.

2. Super Bowl players won’t be the only guys sitting out. You’ll probably see most of the players from the losing teams of the AFC and NFC championship game pass on the opportunity, as well. Think about it. A player’s season comes to an end on Championship Sunday. Do you think he really wants to pack his bags on Monday, get on a plane and immediately endure another week of practice? And do you think he’ll want to be down in Miami, surrounded by Super Bowl hype, which constantly reminds him that he came so close but fell short? And normally the Pro Bowl is coached by the staff of the losing team from the championship game. Are any of those coaches going to want to immediately go back to work for a meaningless game?

3. On top of the Super Bowl players and championship game players sitting out, you’ll still get your usual slew of veterans and injured guys passing on the game as well. Usually a fourth of Pro Bowlers stay home. With the game being two weeks earlier, that means players will have had two less weeks to rest and heal up after the season. Don’t be surprised if more than 50 percent of players sit out.

4. Miami is not Hawaii. As Ray Lewis said: Hawaii is a vacation; Miami is where a lot of players go to work out. Everyone in the NFL has been to Miami. Not everyone has been to Hawaii. Players’ families aren’t going to get excited about Miami.

5. No matter when it’s played, the Pro Bowl will never count for anything. Teams can only run base packages offensively, and blitzing is not allowed defensively. Nobody cares who wins. No players are willing to get hurt, or even sore. In a lot of ways, the Pro Bowl is the antithesis of professional football. The league thinks it will have more media coverage because of all the reporters already in town to cover the Super Bowl. Perhaps. But if there were, say, 100 reporters covering the game before. And now say there will be 500. All that means is, there will be five times as many people unenthusiastically reporting that the Pro Bowl stinks.

So what can the league do? Here’s a thought: nothing. The Pro Bowl has always been bad TV. It’s okay – the NFL has managed to become America’s superpower sports league anyway. As long as people within the NFL enjoy the experience (i.e. get to rendezvous in Hawaii) and sponsors are compensated just enough to feel the event worthwhile, everything’s fine.
Everything is fine this year, but it won’t be next year. The Pro Bowl in Miami will be a disaster.

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NFL Touchdown Super Bowl Snide Remarks

By Andy Benoit,

This goes down as the second greatest Super Bowl of all time. Super Bowl XLII still has the edge because of the magnitude of the Giants upset and New England’s perfect season.

At around the fourth quarter’s 2:30 mark, I found myself praying that this game wouldn’t go to overtime. The worst thing that could happen for the league would be to have the game go to an extra period and be decided on the first possession.

Santonio Holmes was spectacular Sunday, but Ben Roethlisberger was the Most Valuable Player. Just about every one of Holmes’s catches was a result of Roethlisberger somehow extending the play. Big Ben was simply a magician. He has now joined Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the NFL’s top tier of quarterbacks.

For the Cardinals…it was a great run. They had an opportunity to win this game, but their secondary wasn’t able to manufacture any big plays. Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie was a huge reason this team reached the Big Game. On the surface, it seems that his struggles Sunday night were a huge reason his team came up short, as well. But thanks to Roethlisberger’s magnificence, Rodgers-Cromartie was asked to hold his coverage for a drastically extended period of time. And he didn’t get a whole lot of help from his safeties.

The Kurt Warner Hall of Fame debate is going to be extremely interesting. I think the fact that Warner has been insanely prolific in all three of his Super Bowl appearances will get him in. But there may be some voters who hold onto the memory of his to James Harrison interception at the end of the first half.

Speaking of that James Harrison interception….it was one of the greatest plays in NFL history. Earlier this year in a Monday Night game, Cleveland’s Brandon McDonald picked off Donovan McNabb in the end zone at the end of the first half and nearly ran it back as time expired. But he didn’t I happened to be sitting up in the Monday Night booth for that game and asked Ron Jaworski at halftime if he’d ever seen a play like that. I was surprised when he said No. That’s the first thing I thought of when Harrison reached the end zone to end the half in this game. Not only was this an incredibly rare play for a Super Bowl – this was an incredibly rare play for a football game.

A little tidbit that no one seemed to notice after the game was Harrison saying to Andrea Kramer that the Steelers had called a max blitz for that play, but that he figured Warner would release the ball quickly, so he decided to drop back. Dick LeBeau was lauded for the play-call, but it sounds like the NFL Defensive Player of the Year just improvised.

You could easily make a case for Harrison as the Super Bowl MVP. Besides the huge interception return, he also collapsed Warner’s pocket all night, and drew three holding penalties from left tackle Mike Gandy. LaMarr Woodley was equally as dominant on the right side.

A few more notes on the Steelers…

Ike Taylor was excellent for most of this game, though he slipped down the stretch once Arizona found its offensive rhythm in a hurry-up.

Heath Miller might be the best blocking tight end in football.

Credit Pittsburgh’s defense for being flexible enough to alter its scheme. Troy Polamalu is normally a force in the box, but with the Cardinal receivers being as potent as they are, the Steelers moved their best player back deep in coverage. And, for the most part, the tactic worked.

Mike Tomlin is going to be a legend when all is said and done. He is so focused and preternaturally cool in his job. Even after the game, the youngest Super Bowl champion head coach maintained his “matter of fact” demeanor.

A few more notes on the Cardinals…

Arizona needed to get Larry Fitzgerald more involved early on. By the way, will there ever be a quieter two-touchdown Super Bowl performance than this one? Wait and see….Fitzgerald’s output in this game won’t be well-remembered in 10 years.

One more by the way…NBC missed it, but Fitzgerald’s first touchdown should have been ruled incomplete. The ball hit the ground.

Steve Breaston was tremendous.

A lot of people will cite the penalties as a big part of the Cardinals’ failures. But almost half of their penalty yardage came on the second half possession where Pittsburgh finished with only three points (to go up 20-7). In other words, the penalties weren’t quite as costly as they appeared. Still, they were a factor.

If the Cardinals had won, you could have made a case for Darnell Dockett being the game’s MVP.

A few final Super Bowl notes…

Great game coverage by NBC, particularly with their studio crew. Cris Collinsworth, Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren and Matt Millen were awesome. And they even had a segment featuring Bill Belichick breaking down film!

I’m waiting for the rest of America to wake up and realize that 95 percent of the Super Bowl commercials stink. There’s this fantastic lie that the Super Bowl ads are something special when, in fact, they usually come up short in their laborious effort at humor, and they usually target the more impressionable (i.e. stupider) members of society.

Great, great national anthem by Jennifer Hudson. I was nervous for her. It was a lot to ask to perform on such a grand stage in her first appearance back in the spotlight since her family tragedy. She was flawless.

I guess a lot of people were giddy about Bruce Springstein. I’m not a rock and roll guru. I found myself listening to his bizarre mini-anecdotes and asking, “Who does he think he is?” and “What the hell is he talking about?”

Visit for more from Andy Benoit Super Bowl Matchups Breakdown

So many Super Bowl matchup features this week will breakdown how Ben Roethlisberger compares to Kurt Warner. Or how Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin compare to Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. The problem is, none of these things matter. The Cardinals don’t care how Fitzgerald stacks up against Ward. They care how Fitzgerald stacks up against Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor.

Here is how the actual personnel matchups we’ll see on the field come Sunday.

Cardinal quarterback vs. Steeler safeties

Pittsburgh thrives on using superstar strong safety Troy Polamalu in a variety of ways. He is both the focal point and X factor in Dick LeBeau’s defense. However, no QB in football – other than Peyton Manning and Tom Brady – is as good at diagnosing a defense presnap as Kurt Warner. With two weeks to prepare, Warner shouldn’t have much trouble figuring out what the Steelers are doing with Polamalu on each play. Of course, once the ball is snapped, Warner will be facing not just the best strong safety in the game, but also one of the shrewdest free safeties (Ryan Clark). The seventh-year veteran Clark is rock solid and alert in coverage, and isn’t likely to give up anything deep.

Advantage: Push

Cardinal running backs vs. Steeler linebackers

The resurgence of Edgerrin James is a big reason why Arizona has won three consecutive games to reach the promise land. Youthful as James has looked in gaining 203 yards on the ground this postseason, he’s going up against perhaps the most physical quartet of linebackers in the NFL. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodely are primarily pass-rushers, but both men have enough speed to cover the flats against the run. Larry Foote is a demon against blockers inside, and his partner, James Farrior, is as smart as they come. The Cardinals won’t be able to get a lot of linemen to the second level against the Steeler front three, so the play of fullback Terrelle Smith will be critical. That is, when Arizona actually runs. Teams simply can’t move the ball on the ground against this Steeler defense. Expect James to play far more than Tim Hightower for pass-blocking purposes. But also, expect James to see no more than 11-13 carries in this game.

Advantage: Steelers

Cardinal receivers vs. Steeler cornerbacks

The unsung heroes of the league’s best defense are the cornerbacks. Veteran Ike Taylor drops interceptions but makes up for it with stifling, physical coverage. No. 2 starter Deshea Townsend is brilliant when he slides into the slot, and reserves Bryant McFadden and Willie Gay almost never get caught out of position. Best of all is that the Steeler corners can all thrive in man and zone coverage.

That said, there’s no defense for the way Larry Fitzgerald is playing right now. The Steelers are such a good tackling secondary that Anqaun Boldin, who led the league in average yards after the catch this season, should be contained fairly easily. And Pittsburgh has shown that they can eliminate just about any slot receiver if need be, so the speedy Steve Breaston doesn’t make many people nervous. But what to do about Fitzgerald?

Advantage: Cardinals

Cardinal offensive line vs. Steeler defensive line

Russ Grimm has done a tremendous job developing this fairly ho-hum Arizona front five. Left tackle Mike Gandy is consistent in pass protection, and second-year monster Levi Brown is starting to show the power that got him drafted early in the first round. Between the tackles, Reggie Wells is an unsung hero, Deuce Lutui has improved his fundamentals and Lyle Sendlein is nothing if not consistent.

But improved play from Arizona doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers front line is flat-out more powerful. The Cardinals won’t be able to move nose tackle Casey Hampton inside, and no team has been able to stymie the lateral dexterity of end Aaron Smith. Brett Keisel and Travis Kirschke rotate at the other end position often. Both operate at an elite level, thanks to their innate knowledge of Pittsburgh’s system.

Advantage: Steelers

Cardinal offensive coaching vs. Steeler defensive coaching

This is the matchup that could decide the Super Bowl. For Arizona you have perhaps the hottest young head coaching candidate in the game, Todd Haley, calling plays. For Pittsburgh there’s perhaps the most revered defensive pioneer, Dick LeBeau, dialing up blitzes. So far, Haley has drastically out-coached every defensive coordinator he’s come across in January. Having Ken Whisenhunt, a former Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator, for a head coach certainly helps. But LeBeau has a defensive mastermind for a boss, as well (Mike Tomlin). And he hasn’t lost as chess match all season.

Advantage: Steelers

Steeler quarterback vs. Cardinal safeties

Ben Roethlisberger is a step below mediocre when it comes to making presnap reads, but he’s two steps above marvelous when it comes to improvising after the snap. The key Sunday could be what the Cardinals do with utility star safety Adrian Wilson. They’ll blitz him on multiple occasions, but if Big Ben can bide time and get outside the pocket (which you have to assume he will) then Arizona will be depending on Antrel Rolle and often-used backup Aaron Francisco to maintain deep coverage. Rolle has become a ballhawk as of late, and Francisco has blossomed into a more reliable tackler. But neither is spectacular. Roethlisberger, at his best, is spectacular.

Advantage: Steelers

Steeler running backs vs. Cardinal linebackers

Willie Parker is playing his best football of the season for Pittsburgh, while Karlos Dansby is playing his best football as a pro for Arizona. If this were a one-on-one matchup, it’d be a push. But there are other factors involved. For the Steelers, they’ll rely on Mewelde Moore for six or seven carries, plus whatever he can bring in the passing game. And they’ll call on the powerful Carey Davis in short-yardage situations. But neither of these players strike fear in opponents, which is why Arizona D-coordinator Clancy Pendergast can trust that his other linebackers, Gerald Hayes and Chike Okeafor, will make plays. Hayes is golden when he’s reacting instead of thinking. Okeafor is more of a pass-rusher.

Advantage: Push

Steeler receivers vs. Cardinal cornerbacks

Everyone talks about Hines Ward, but in fact, the key to slowing Pittsburgh is containing Santonio Holmes. Holmes is the only veritable big-play threat on offense. And he uses his speed not just vertically, but also horizontally (which, as the Ravens found out in the AFC title game, can lead to big plays vertically when Holmes finds daylight in running after the catch).

Fortunately for Arizona, they have a young corner who can be a stopper: rookie Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie. The first-round pick from tiny Tennessee State has been almost perfect the last two months. If Rodgers-Cromartie gets an opportunity to handle Holmes, the Steelers could be forced to play dink and dunk with Ward and tight end Heath Miller. That’s not an entirely bad thing. Ward is a flat-out better player than Cardinals cornerback Rod Hood, and Miller could soften the Cardinal run defense with a few seven-or eight-yard receptions. One more critical matchup that could prove huge: Pittsburgh No. 3 receiver Nate Washington vs. Arizona nickel back Ralph Brown. Washington is great downfield, while Brown is terrific underneath.

Advantage: Steelers

Steeler offensive line vs. Cardinal defensive line

Both of these units were their team’s Achilles heal for much of the season. Now, whichever side wins the battle in the trenches could very well hoist the Lombardi Trophy afterwards. The Steelers are going to have trouble handling defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. Center Justin Hartwig and right guard Darnell Stapleton have improved their game down the stretch, but Dockett is one of those rare players with uncanny initial quickness, followed by immovable strength.

The Steelers occasionally struggle to pick up blitzes and stunts, which, coincidentally, is exactly what Arizona has used so masterfully during the postseason. Neither team has great talent on the edges, which is why this matchup will be decided by in-game strategy and cohesiveness.

Advantage: Cardinals

Steeler offensive coaching vs. Cardinal defensive coaching

Perhaps the most significant factor of all in this Super Bowl is Ken Whisenhunt’s familiarity with the Steeler organization. Pittsburgh uses virtually the same playbook that Whisenhunt worked out of when he called plays in Super Bowl XL. The receivers coach working under him at the time was Bruce Arians, Pittsburgh’s current offensive coordinator. Arians has a better relationship with Roethlisberger than Whisenhunt did, and he’s perhaps a little more pass-oriented. But when these teams met a year ago in Arizona, it was boldly apparent that Whisenhunt’s knowledge of the Steeler offense gave the Cardinals a tremendous advantage. Not to be forgotten in this equation is Clancy Pendergast. He’s one of the best game-preparation defensive coordinators in the NFL.

Advantage: Cardinals

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NFL Touchdown’s 10 Super Bowl Storylines That Will Drive You Crazy

No world event builds hype like the Super Bowl. The average NFL nationally televised game bringing in 10-15 million viewers; the Super Bowl attracts around 100 million. In the two weeks leading up to the game, the media feels obligated to bring the 80-85 non-football fans up to speed on all that’s been happening with the two final teams. Those of us who have followed the NFL all season will hear more Cardinals and Steelers stories repeated these next two weeks than we could have ever imagined.

Here are the 10 that will soon drive us absolutely crazy.

1. Underdog Story!

1947. 1947. 1947. 1947. 1947. The last time the Cardinals organization won a title. Nobody – nobody – expected the Cardinals to be here. And here they are, facing one of football’s most hallowed franchises, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The reality is that the Cardinals have never won anything because they’ve been a God-awful franchise. The Steelers have won throughout history because they’ve been a model franchise. But America won’t appreciate this. Instead, casual observers will root for the Cardinals because they’ll see it as a case of the little guy trying to overtake the big bully.

2. Kurt Warner

Football experts will pound his new Hall of Fame campaign into the ground. Okay, that’s fair. It’s an interesting debate (except nobody is going to argue on the anti-Warner side all week). But the non-football experts are going to rehash the Kurt Warner rags-to-riches story that we all grew tired of eight years ago. You know, the grocery store bagger turned Arena League star turned unknown backup turned savior in St. Louis turned goat turned backup in New York turned unexpected starter in Arizona turned savior again. That story.

3. Larry Fitzgerald

He’s known as the best receiver in football right now – and probably rightfully so. But come February, he’ll be known as the best human being since Jesus Christ. Get ready for hearing about how Fitzgerald’s dad is a sportswriter and how Fitzgerald was a ball-boy for the Minnesota Vikings during his early teenage years. Also, more than a few people will remind us that Fitzgerald has already broken Jerry Rice’s playoff receiving record and that, unlike most receivers, he doesn’t try to hog the spotlight and demand the ball.

4. Ben Roethlisberger

He’s been here before, he still has some doubters to disprove and, oh yeah, he gets banged up a lot! He get beat around all the time. He’s tough. He takes a lot of hits. He’s battled injuries all year. He even got hurt in a motorcycle accident one time.

5. No one giving us a chance

This sort of falls in the underdog story category, but we’ll put it in its own section because the Cardinal players themselves will be trumpeting this one. The Arizona defense will probably start calling itself a no-name defense and talk about how everyone just plays together, does their job and doesn’t care about what people say. Is all this valid? Perhaps. But just know, Arizona will be about 10,000th team to play this card.

6. Ken Whisenhunt vs. former team

This story may actually be interesting, simply because there was a hint of animosity when Whisenhunt – and his top assistant, Russ Grimm – were turned away from Pittsburgh. What will ruin this story, however, is when reporters start suggesting that Whisenhunt would love to defeat his former team. Yes, he would, but not because the Steelers didn’t hire him, but because if he defeats them, it means he’s WON THE SUPER BOWL!

7. Anquan Boldin

Is he or is he not a prima donna? He was caught yelling at Todd Haley during the NFC Championship game, and then he bolted from the locker room without participating in the celebration afterwards. Oh, and don’t forget, he had the contract issue at the front of the year.
Again, this is actually another intriguing story, but with Boldin sure to avoid any discord all week, it’s a story that will go nowhere. Plus, those writers who will play contrarian and do a huge feature piece on how Boldin is really just a blood and guts competitor will also become obnoxious, because with Boldin returning from that agonizing facial injury earlier this season, this story has already been told.

8. Edgerrin James

A lot like the Boldin story only with a different tone in the end. He wanted out of Arizona, he’s had a huge resurgence down the stretch, and now, he’s trying to stamp his legacy. What could make this story interesting is if an intelligent Hall of Fame debate emerges. One could argue strongly on both sides whether James deserves to be in Canton (though most will agree that a Super Bowl ring this year would cement his placement there).

9. Mike Tomlin

Thank God for Super Bowl XLI. If we didn’t have the Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith Super Bowl, Tomlin would have to assume the burden of possibly being the first African American head coach to win a Lombardi Trophy. Tomlin probably doesn’t want this story, but with Barack Obama taking office this week, the head coach’s race is bound to be examined. Overall, this is a great thing, as it highlights our country’s progress as a free nation. But every reporter who tells the story will smother it with righteousness. And that’s what will drive is crazy.

10. Economy and Commercials

Did you know the Super Bowl is a huge event for the advertising world? Did you know our economy is in a rut right now? Hey, how will the economy impact the Super Bowl advertising?

NFL Touchdown Championship Game Snide Remarks

Arizona Cardinals 32, Philadelphia Eagles 25

The story of this game was Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley out-coaching Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Aside from the third quarter, Haley was one step ahead of Johnson’s blitzes all afternoon. Those who know Haley from his days as the receivers coach in Dallas can see that he has a far more authoritative demeanor on the sidelines. He’ll be the hottest head coaching candidate on the market this time next year…assuming he doesn’t get a new job before then.

Haley’s best move on the day was utilizing a two-tight end set late in the contest to help neutralize Philly’s blitz. Anquan Boldin wasn’t a big fan of it – Fox cameras caught the receiver bickering with the play-caller – but it was wildly successful.

I continue to be shocked – shocked – at how springy Edgerrin James looks.

One Cardinals lineman who has been good for several years but has never received proper recognition is Reggie Wells. His mobility is a big part of Arizona’s run-blocking scheme.

Brian Westbrook did not look like his usual self at all Sunday.

We talked about this a few months ago: one of the biggest differences in this Eagles offense down the stretch was Brent Celek replacing L.J. Smith in the lineup.

Maybe this is a cheap shot, but….do you think Andy Reid will one day be remembered not only as the Eagles head coach, but also as the NFC Pro Bowl team head coach?

Donovan McNabb had some accuracy issues in this game, and who knows, maybe it would have been a different outcome had all his passes been on target. But overall, I thought McNabb played well in the postseason, particularly in extending the play when he had to. Keep in mind, Philly’s offense had a lethargic rushing attack in the three playoff games, and the front five was, at times, inconsistent in pass protection.

Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie might be the biggest factor in Arizona’s stunning turnaround. The first-round rookie is almost a shutdown corner already (he gave up a few catches to DeSean Jackson in this game, though none of them were because of terrible coverage).

Another Cardinal who has really upped his game is Karlos Dansby. Once known for his maddening inconsistency, Dansby is now primed to earn a huge long-term contract this offseason.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Baltimore Ravens 14

I want to make one thing clear: I liked this game. That said, I can’t remember ever seeing such a boring championship round contest. Thanks to a litany of incompletions and penalties, this game lasted nearly four hours! Good thing CBS wasn’t showing 60 Minutes afterwards….otherwise Jim Nantz would have had to start the promos early in the third quarter.

No need to get too complex in the analysis here: the Steelers won because they’re the better club. They’ve beaten the Ravens three times this year. Ben Roethlisberger is more experienced than Joe Flacco. Willie Parker, when healthy, is better than Willis McGahee or Le’Ron McClain. And the Pittsburgh defense was healthier than Baltimore’s unit, and therefore, more consistent.

Speaking of Ravens defensive health, it needs to be recognized that this secondary was without three original starters: Chris McAllister (Pro Bowler), Samari Rolle (former Pro Bowler, and now a reliable veteran) and Dawan Landry (rising star). The reason Baltimore held everything together for so long was a.) leadership from Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and company; b.) the brilliance of Rex Ryan and c.) the play of the front three.

Speaking of Ed Reed….he’s a great player, but Phil Simms gave him a break Sunday. Reed was terrible in run support, showing a true hesitation to be physical. A lot of people believe he’s a hard hitter, simply because most great safeties are hard hitters. But the fact of the matter is, Reed is below average in this department.

Some thoughts on the Steelers….

Why do Pittsburgh fans make the booing sound when Heath Miller catches a pass? The name “Heath” does not have a super natural bass tone to it. The supportive booing cheesr are a grossly overplayed cliché as it is. Stop it, Steeler fans.

Limas Sweed made a play or two in this game, and he may prove to be a fine receiver one day. But the third-round rookie showed some real football character flaws when he laid on the field in embarrassment after dropping what was a surefire touchdown pass. Sweed’s unwillingness to get up cost the Steelers a valuable timeout.

They didn’t play great Sunday, but the right side of Pittsburgh’s line – guard Darnell Stapleton and tackle Willie Colon – both deserve a world of credit for proving doubters wrong all season and correcting so many of their weaknesses.

A story that I hope develops over the next two weeks – and I’m sure it will considering Ken Whisenhunt was the Steelers offensive coordinator last time this team went to the Super Bowl – is that under Bruce Arians, Pittsburgh’s offense has truly evolved into a pass-first system. Ben Roethlisberger, and his preternatural ability to extend the play, is the primary reason why.

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NFL Touchdown Final Four Common Trait

It’s only fair to warn you, what you are about to read is not glitzy. In fact, it’s dull. Dull to the point of boring. The names Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger, Donovan McNabb, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Larry Fitzgerald, Hines Ward and Brian Westbrook are all going to appear only once in this piece: right now. The rest is devoted to the 300-pound hogs who have chaperoned their respective teams to the Conference Championship round. The thesis is this: the strongest common thread between the NFL’s four remaining offenses is laudable front line play.

The Eagles, Cardinals, Steelers and Ravens do not have the best offensive lines in football. In fact, none of these teams even have the best offensive lines in their respective division (the Giants get the nod in Philly’s NFC East, a healthy Seahawks front five highlights Arizona’s NFC West and, although the evidence was not as explicit this season, most experts will tell you that, man-for-man, the Browns have the most talented O-line in the AFC North). But none of the final four teams would be here if they didn’t have an offensive line that – pardon the cliché – overcame obstacles and, more importantly, got better as the season wore on.

We’ll bring Arizona back into the picture in a minute. First, we need to recognize something. The Eagles, Steelers and Ravens all had to replace world-class offensive linemen this season. In Philadelphia, right guard Shawne Andrews battled depression and a slew of injuries and never got on the field in 2008. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers had to move on without seven-time Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca, who bolted for the big green in New York (interpret “big green” however you want). Equally as significant was the loss of right guard Kendall Simmons (torn Achilles) in early October and left tackle Marvel Smith (back) in December. That’s three first-tier veteran offensive linemen. Finally, in Baltimore, the Ravens had to fill the 6’9”, 350-pound void left by future Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden.

Fascinatingly, all three teams replaced their dominant former linemen from within. The Eagles asked undrafted 24-year-old Nick Cole to step away from the fringe and into the starting lineup at right guard. The Steelers turned to unknown Chris Kemoeatu to succeed Faneca, then surprised experts by replacing Simmons with untested Darnell Stapleton, rather than sliding right tackle Willie Colon inside. And, like last December, swing tackle Tra Essex once again filled in for an injured Smith. As for the Ravens, they rolled some very heavy dice by having gifted but green Jared Gaither step in at left tackle to protect franchise rookie Joe Flacco’s blindside.

With unproven commodities replacing formidable cogs, the Eagles, Steelers and Ravens all saw the same pattern unfold: their young replacements struggled early in the season but, thanks to the help of the veterans around them, and the team’s patience and commitment to its scheme, they ultimately prospered by winter time.

This brings us to the common thread of “significant improvement” that defines all four remaining teams. Take a look:

Philadelphia Eagles

In September, there was a passel of questions about the aging bookend tackles on Philadelphia’s front line. Right tackle Jon Runyan and left tackle Tra Thomas both came in as decade-long veterans who had spent their careers gutting out injuries and fist fighting defensive ends. The question was, could they continue to hold up?

Between the tackles, in addition to the issues at Andrews’s right guard spot, Andy Reid and the coaching staff had serious questions about left guard Todd Herremans, who was plain awful in 2007, when he battled a lingering knee injury.

As it’s turned out, Runyan and Thomas have been their usual gritty selves. With no depth behind them, it’s not implausible that Philly could re-sign both men after their contracts expire in a few weeks. Cole has become reliable enough at right guard. Herremans looks like a keeper as well. In fact, he’s been the team’s best offensive lineman in 2008.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals front five was supposed to coagulate last year with the arrival of longtime Steelers line coach Russ Grimm. But, thanks to callow personnel and, oh, about a 60-year history of ineptitude casting a pall over the Cardinal trenches, Grimm’s efforts didn’t pay dividends. Until this season.

Wildly inconsistent young guard Duece Lutui improved his technique just enough to avoid the demotion that was staring him down late in training camp. And mouth-wateringly-talented Levi Brown has started to justify his status as a former No. 5 overall pick. Brown, a right tackle, still needs to rediscover the nastiness that defined him at Penn State. But in the meantime, he has shown flashes of brilliance and cut back on the routine blunders that used to stymie this Cardinal offense.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh’s improvements are perhaps the most impressive of all, given how the Steelers have essentially replaced three standout veterans with three camp bodies. As a unit, the line still has a little trouble diagnosing complex blitz schemes – something that could hurt them Sunday. But they’ve made enough progress to enable Bruce Arians’s now-pass-happy offense to flourish down the stretch. And, as we saw against San Diego in the Divisional Round, all five Steeler linemen also know how to be true Steeler linemen, which is to say they can clobber defenses in the run game when called upon.

Baltimore Ravens

Joe Flacco gets heralded for his magnificent caretaking abilities, but the real source of Baltimore’s offensive survival-turned-surge is the play of the front five. Jared Gaither is maturing on the left side. Opposite him, right tackle Willie Anderson has been remarkably close to the All-Pro form that defined his career as a Bengal. None of the knee problems Anderson had in Cincy seem to have followed him east.

Inside, Jason Brown has shown the leadership abilities coaches coveted when they anointed him the long-term replacement for underrated center Mike Flynn. And last, but far from least, are the two young guards: Chris Chester and Ben Grubbs. Chester, a college tight end who was selected in the second round in 2006, snuck back into the starting lineup after Marshal Yanda went down. Often overpowered as a rookie, Chester has finally found a comfort zone at the pro level, and he has been capitalizing on the quickness and agility that made him a tight end in college. Quick and agile are also appropriate adjectives for Grubbs – along with powerful, smart, nasty and consistent. Simply put, the team’s first-round pick in 2007 is already an elite NFL offensive lineman.

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NFL Touchdown Playoff Quick Keys II

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key vs. San Diego

Offensive balance. The Steelers have not exactly been their usual running selves this season. They ranked 23rd in the league in rushing during the regular season. Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore, neither of whom is a power runner, combined for just 1,379 yards on the ground. Compensating for the mediocre run game is a Ben Roethlisberger-led passing attack that produced four players with over 500 yards receiving (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Heath Miller and Nate Washington).

But Sunday against San Diego, the Steelers stayed vibrant through the air, and also pounded the rock consistently for four quarters, dominating the tempo in the second half (particularly the third quarter). Willie Parker looked fresh in gaining 146 yards on 27 carries. Obviously the Pittsburgh defense – which has carried the load all season – did its part, as well.

Baltimore Ravens

Key vs. Tennessee

Takeaways. It’s easy to look at Tennessee’s 12 penalties and three turnovers and say the Titans gave this game away. They didn’t; it was stolen from them by a furious Ravens defense. The three turnovers weren’t Titan giveaways – they were Raven takeaways. All three turnovers were a result of either ferocious hitting or savvy play-reading by Rex Ryan’s crew. Yes, Baltimore looked tired throughout this hard-hitting contest….and they still won.

Key to Ravens @ Steelers

Pittsburgh’s pass protection. It’s been the Steelers’ Achilles heal all season – Ben Roethlisberger was sacked more times than any AFC quarterback – mainly because all five members of the offensive line have had issues diagnosing opponents’ blitz schemes. Rex Ryan is not as heavy a blitzer as you would expect, simply because Baltimore’s pass-rush is so complex and star-studded that he doesn’t have to bring a fifth guy. If the Steelers can block the Ravens in the passing game, they’ll win. If they can’t, you’ll see more forced turnovers, and ultimately another victory, from arguably the nastiest team in football.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key vs. Giants

Donovan McNabb. This game was pretty simple: Philly’s quarterback played well and New York’s didn’t. While Eli Manning was struggling to push flutter balls through the Meadowland gales, his once-maligned counterpart was constantly extending the play and hitting his second and third options in critical situations. McNabb’s accuracy was spot-on Sunday and, despite having a pick and another tipped interception to his name, so was his decision-making.

Arizona Cardinals

Key vs. Panthers

The trenches. No one – absolutely no one – could have predicted that Arizona would dominate both sides of the ball up front for a second week in a row. The Cardinals offensive line neutralized Carolina’s front four, and shockingly, Edgerrin James was able to produce against the speedy Panther linebackers. Even more remarkable was how Arizona’s defensive line outworked the beefy Carolina front five, disrupting Jake Delhomme just enough to help the QB fully stumble into the worst outing of his professional career.

Key to Eagles@ Cardinals

Quarterbacking. The irony of this matchup is that, besides pitting two nine-win teams against one another, we’re seeing two teams that all season long have been censured for abandoning the run on offense. So far in the postseason, the Cardinals have surprised everyone by running the ball 71 times for 231 yards. But the Eagles have not changed a thing. Philly has attempted only 51 rushes in their two games, at an average of 2.5 yards per pop. Their make-or-break superstar, Brian Westbrook, has been little more than a gilded decoy. And yet here they are. McNabb is a man on fire, his receivers have hit their stride – even Jason Avant has become a consistent weapon – and that Jim Johnson-led defense has, much like the Arizona defense, elevated to an astoundingly high level. With both defenses stopping the run as well as they have the past two weeks, expect this game to turn into an aerial assault by the second quarter. Whichever QB can conduct his team’s dirigible the best will win.