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Faneca knows this could be his last Steelers game

PITTSBURGH -- Ten seasons, seven Pro Bowls and maybe one last game.

Few players in Pittsburgh Steelers history have performed as well in a career as Alan Faneca, arguably the NFL's best left guard and a lineman whose personality and work ethic seem a perfect match for the franchise.

Faneca is a team-first player in a sport that has increasingly become me-first, the steadiest of players in an unstable profession where one bad game can ruin a season or a career.

"My agent kept telling me before the (1999) draft he had a feeling I was coming here," Faneca said Thursday. "He kept saying, `I think you're a fit, that's where you're going to go,' and he was right. I think I fit that Steeler mold, I guess."

After a decade with the same team, every game now could be Faneca's last with the Steelers, beginning with their AFC wild-card playoff game against Jacksonville on Saturday night.

The 31-year-old Faneca, for all of his accomplishments, is unsigned past this season and appears to have little chance of returning to Pittsburgh.

With the Steelers seeded only fifth in the AFC field, they can play again at Heinz Field in these playoffs only if they win twice and sixth-seeded Tennessee stages two upset victories.

"Ten years yeah, it's sad, I'll take a moment, man," said Faneca, the player known as "Red" to his teammates because of his long, flowing red hair. "I'll have to take a moment sometime during the game to enjoy it, and think back when the game's over and I'm the last man on the field, stuff like that.

"You just take it and enjoy it."

Even if this season has been his least favorite.

Faneca felt the Steelers misled him in brief and very unsatisfactory contract talks last winter, so much so he was harshly critical of the Rooney family after reporting for a mandatory minicamp in May.

"This will be my last year as a Pittsburgh Steeler," he said.

Few, if any, Steelers players have been so openly hostile while still playing for the team, and there has been no apparent contract movement for months.

His Steelers career isn't officially over, but he fully expects to be on the free agent market in March.

"I think if it (a new contract) was going to happen it would have happened," Faneca said. "The door is never closed, but there is a point where reality sets in."

Faneca won't speculate what he might be worth, even though offensive guards were given some of the biggest deals during last year's market. Cleveland's Eric Steinbach, San Diego's Kris Dielman and Buffalo's Derrick Dockery landed deals worth a combined $52.5 million in guaranteed money and $137 million overall.

The Steelers' offer to Faneca wasn't believed to be anywhere close to comparable money, even though his $25.6 million contract in 2002 helped set the standard for guards.

Based on last year's figures, Faneca could be offered $7 million a year or more in his next contract, or far more than the $4,375,000 he's making in salary and bonuses this season.

How good has Faneca been in Pittsburgh? He was the first guard in team history to make All-Pro in successive seasons, and the first to make the Pro Bowl twice since John Nisby in 1960 and 1962. Faneca has been chosen each of the last seven seasons.

"Ten years here kind of forces you to reflect," Faneca said. "It's a big chunk of my life."

A big hole for the Steelers to fill, too.

The Steelers are known for allowing players to leave late in their careers when they feel they have a comparable replacement on hand.

Last year, they released linebacker Joey Porter, who immediately signed with Miami for $20 million guaranteed. The Steelers' lower-paid replacement, James Harrison, wound up being the team MVP and a Pro Bowl pick.

But the Steelers don't appear to have a replacement lined up for Faneca.

Their options are to plug in backup Chris Kemoeatu, draft a guard in April and start him immediately or sign a guard on the open market. Given how salaries keep increasing, it might cost them more to sign a guard than it would have to re-sign Faneca a year or two ago.

Despite the unsatisfactory contract talks, Faneca will always consider Pittsburgh to be a second home.

"There's been a lot of good times, a lot of good teams here," he said. "It's been fun here."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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