The "Six from Sunday" for Week 14 has to be amended. We've got five observations from the 14th Sunday of the NFL season, but we'll start with one from Thursday.
1. What's wrong with the Steelers?
The Steelers are still the reigning world champion, but you would never know it watching them lose to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night. I watched their last few game tapes and talked to a few coaches and players who have faced the Steelers this year, and the consensus is that numerous factors have caused this five-game losing skid. In no particular order here are some things to consider:
a) The Polamalu Factor. The Steelers are 3-0 and have allowed just 14 points per contest when Troy Polamalu has played the entire game. In the other 10 games, the team is 3-7 and has allowed an average of 20 points.
b) The Steelers gave up two touchdowns on returns all last season. In 13 games this year, they have already given up eight.
c) The 2009 Steelers have lost three games in which they had a fourth-quarter lead. If they would have won those games, they would be 9-4, not 6-7.
d) The irony of the Steelers' five-game slide is that their best chance to win came in a Week 12 overtime loss to Baltimore, when Dennis Dixon started for an injured Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers ran the ball 38 times in that matchup and almost won. Against the Browns, they ran the ball just 22 times.
e) Roethlisberger still gets sacked too often. He was sacked eight times against the Browns. For the season, he gets dropped once every 12 pass attempts.
So what is the answer? As one coach said, they must get back to their roots: "Practice outside in the cold, practice in pads more often and bench anyone that doesn't play Steeler football."
2. Overcoming nose bleeds
It is amazing what a rough year it's been for nose tackles this season. But it's been equally impressive how 3-4 teams around the league have overcome the injuries to their nose tackles. Miami, San Diego, Cleveland and the Jets all lost starting nose tackles earlier this season. Green Bay lost its guy last week and the Patriots had Vince Wilfork leave the game Sunday. What's amazing is that all six teams, while trying to cover up for the absence of the key player in their scheme, were winners in Week 14. My hat goes off to the coaches that are able to adjust their schemes and the backup players that are asked to fill in.
3. Three lines hit the trifecta
The first thing I like to look for when analyzing the games each week is to find the offensive lines that helped their teams rush for at least 100 yards, while not allowing a sack, and winning the game. There are weeks when no teams accomplish the trifecta; this week, three teams got the job done. New England rushed for 185 yards, while Tom Brady threw 32 passes without getting sacked in a win over Carolina. Baltimore rushed for 308 yards, had no sacks in 23 passes and beat Detroit. Tennessee rushed for 160 yards, had zero sacks in 27 passes and beat the Rams.
4. Are better backups the answer?
Injuries have been a factor all season, but the list of quarterbacks that took snaps in Week 14 really made a statement. By the end of the games on Sunday, seven backup quarterbacks played in games. Daunte Culpepper (Detroit), Matt Moore (Carolina), Chris Redman (Atlanta), Kellen Clemens (N.Y. Jets) and Keith Null (St. Louis) all started. JaMarcus Russell (Oakland) and Kerry Collins (Tennessee) were pressed into action. These seven quarterbacks went 2-5 as a group.
More than that, where would teams be if this was Week 14 in an 18-game schedule? The NFL has got to figure out how to develop more quarterbacks that can play in real games.
5. Over by halftime
Coaches love to go to the locker room at halftime with a lead. If they don't, the next best thing is coming up with the halftime adjustments that can lead to a comeback win. That didn't happen this weekend.
All 14 teams leading at halftime won this weekend. The Panthers-Patriots game was tied at 7 at intermission before New England pulled it out in the second half. It was not a good weekend for comeback adjustments.
6. These three will have a say
Playing the spoiler role is a tough sell to some players who feel like when their season is mathematically over, so is the desire to play hard. A true professional relishes the idea of ruining another team's chances for the postseason. As one coach told me Sunday night, "I believe our guys will accept the challenge to play the spoiler role."
The three teams that have the best opportunity to destroy the plans of their remaining opponents, all have three games left against teams with playoff dreams. The Redskins, Panthers and Steelers have the schedules to do the most damage.
Some would argue the Steelers, at 6-7, are still in the playoff race and that might be true in a theoretical sense but they also lost to the Raiders, Chiefs and Browns. Washington has the Giants, Cowboys and Chargers. The Panthers have the Vikings, Giants and Saints. Pittsburgh has Green Bay, Baltimore and Miami.