Steelers eyeing AFC's No. 1 seed after controversial win

PITTSBURGH -- There is no disputing this: If the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Titans on Sunday and the rival Browns the following weekend, they will own homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

Even if they lose to the Titans and/or Browns, they will be the No. 2-seeded team and would travel during the AFC playoffs only if they met Tennessee (12-2) for the conference championship.

In either case, the NFL won't need to go to replay or its rulebook to make the call. Even if every Steelers game seems to be ending this way as the season winds down.

"I know we've been in a bunch of these (tight) games and we found a way to see our way out of some of them," coach Mike Tomlin said.

Four weeks after losing a touchdown -- but not the game -- when the officials incorrectly stripped a defensive score from Troy Polamalu, the Steelers (11-3) benefited from a disputed ruling Sunday while beating Baltimore 13-9 for the AFC North title.

Santonio Holmes didn't initially appear to have gotten the ball to the goal line after catching Ben Roethlisberger's last-minute pass, but referee Walt Coleman reversed the call and awarded the touchdown upon review.

Coleman, the referee who made the famous Tom Brady "tuck rule" call during a Raiders-Patriots playoff game in January 2002, decided the ball touched the goal line while Holmes was in possession.

The Ravens, of course, thought the ball came up short -- as was initially ruled. If that call had stood, the Steelers would have faced a tough choice: Go for the win on fourth-and-inches against the NFL's No. 2 defense or kick the tying field goal.

Unlike the taken-away Polamalu touchdown, the NFL backed its officials Monday and decided they made the right call.

"(NFL officiating chief) Mike Pereira supports the call," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Monday in an e-mail. "He sees the same thing Walt Coleman sees."

Coach Mike Tomlin had the offense huddled around him as Coleman watched the replay, an indication the Steelers would have gone for it on fourth down. Afterward, neither Tomlin nor Roethlisberger would say for certain.

Not that it was certain the Steelers would have scored on fourth-and-inches, given how Mewelde Moore (twice) and Gary Russell (once) recently were stopped on fourth-and-1 gambles.

An interesting twist: The Titans might have had a two-game conference lead with two games to play if they had chosen to kick a winning 49-yard field goal as time wound down Sunday in Houston. Instead, coach Jeff Fisher decided the kick was out of Rob Bironas' range and they went for it on fourth-and-3. Kerry Collins overthrew Justin McCareins and Tennessee lost 13-12.

But for a couple of inches -- and, in the Titans' case, 9 feet -- Tennessee is in position to lose home-field edge. And the Steelers, rather then being tied for the AFC North lead with Baltimore, might end up not having to leave Pittsburgh until the Super Bowl.

Not that Tomlin is looking that far ahead, especially given how many tight games the Steelers are playing -- beating the Chargers by one, Baltimore by four and Dallas by seven, all in the last couple of minutes, and losing to the Giants by seven and the Colts by four.

"There were several reasons and instances where the faint of heart would have let go of the rope," Tomlin said. "They (the Steelers) didn't. ... Tennessee is next, so we'll prepare for that. We'll go play that one. Not thinking about things too deeply, truth be known. When you're running the gauntlet that we've had to run from a schedule standpoint, looking at it any other way is not helpful."

Should the Steelers win at Tennessee and wind up being top-seeded, they can only hope they defend that homefield advantage better than they have in the past.

When Bill Cowher was coach, the Steelers repeatedly squandered that edge, losing AFC Championship Games in Pittsburgh during the 1994 (Chargers), 1997 (Broncos), 2001 (Patriots) and 2004 (Patriots) seasons. They also lost to Buffalo in a divisional-round game during the 1992 season when they also could have stayed at home throughout the playoffs.

The last six times they owned homefield advantage throughout the conference playoffs, they reached the Super Bowl only once.

"We would love to have that No. 1 spot, and try to get the easiest path there," Hines Ward said. "But in the AFC, I don't think there is any easy way."

Maybe that's one reason why the Steelers briefly put on AFC North championship hats on Sunday night, but quickly put them away.

"You won't see any of us wearing this hat Tuesday, because it's time to bear down and finish this thing off," Roethlisberger said.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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