Monthly Archives: January 2017

Magic Need a Trade, Immediately

Magic fans across central Florida just let out a collective “Duh!” when they read that headline. The team is 18-29 and 5 games out of the 8th seed coming into Friday night’s game against the Boston Celtics. At this point in the season they are in the 13th seed of the Eastern Conference. If that stands, it would be the 5th consecutive season they were disqualified from postseason play. So yeah, they need to make a move.

But ask those same fans what players can they get or, who are the players they’re willing to give up, and all at once they go silent and give a befuddled look.

Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan needs to make a move so quick and impactful or like former Philadelphia 76ers GM and President of Basketball Operations Sam Hinkie, he won’t be around to see his rebuilding process unfold either.

But he also can’t make a trade just to make a trade. When it comes to making moves in the NBA, getting what you want is harder then a teenager getting their parents to buy them the latest pair of $200 sneakers.

But before I go into who Hennigan and head coach Frank Vogel should target, first we must look at what they need and be realistic about who Orlando will have to say goodbye to.

The Magic needs scoring, particularly outside shooting. They are 24th in the Association in field goal percentage (44.1%) and 28th in 3-point shooting (33.4%). Orlando is 26th overall in points per game (99.7). So the players they should target should know a thing or two or three about how to put the ball in the basket.

So who should they be willing to part ways with?

Aaron Gordon. Is the 6’9″ super athletic wing a small forward or power forward? That’s the riddle Coach Vogel and former head coach Scott Skiles have yet to solve when it comes to the third-year pro. But Orlando can no longer waste time trying to figure it out. His display in the Slam Dunk contest at last season’s All-Star Weekend made him a fan favorite, but highlights don’t win games. Moving him would also unclog that long jam they have at the 3-spot.

Nikola Vucevic. “Vooch” is a very talented offensive center, but he’s yet to become a consistent go-to-guy in crunch-time over his five seasons in the 407. Defensively he leaves plenty to be desired as he’ll never be confused as a rim protector. It really is the weakest part of his game, which is why interior defense has been an issue since Dwight Howard left nearly five years ago. Have we seen Vooch’s ceiling? If it is, it’s not enough to get them into the playoffs and beyond in years to come.

Bismack Biyombo. As I just mentioned, this team had a huge whole in the middle defensively, that’s why they traded for Serge Ibaka and signed Biyombo to a huge deal in free agency last summer. So far it hasn’t panned out and offensively he clogs things up for Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier and other guards when they try to slash. It’s better to cut loses now and admit it was a bad fit before going on too long and hand cuffing him to your roster.

Those are the names that will have the most value at the trade deadline. Another name you’ll likely hear thrown out is Mario Hezonja, the 5th overall pick in the 2015 draft. Hezonja has only played in 34 of 47 games this season and his minutes played have dropped from 17.9 per game to 9.5 per game. He hasn’t yet become a proven commodity that GMs around the league would seek. Although, entering the draft his stock rose quickly. So maybe some of them will remember that and be wiling to take a chance on a project.

The Magic’s goal for this season was to make the playoffs. If that’s going to happen they’ll need to target a player that’s either an All-Star or borderline All-Star on a team that is on the verge of just barely missing the playoffs.

With all that being said, here are some realistic options Hennigan should be throwing all the marbles in hopes to acquire.

DeMarcus Cousins, Center, Sacramento Kings. He’s unhappy in Sacramento and both the Kings and he could benefit from a fresh start. A deal for the surly big man would likely need to include Vucevic. It would also likely involve losing Gordon who is from the Northern California area. Cousins is worth it. He’s a dominant low post presence averaging 28 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, which fits into the style Frank Vogel wants to play. He also has expanded his game to the three-point line, connecting on 36.5%. Pairing him up with Serge Ibaka, who is a more of a perimeter big, would give the Magic the physical presence they want on both ends of the court.

CJ McCollum, Guard, Portland Trailblazers. He and Damian Lillard are a good one-two punch and are the second best backcourt to “The Splash Brothers” in Golden State. But with both of them at 6’3″ there are some defensive deficiencies with them in the lineup together. The Trailblazers overachieved last season when they made the second round of the playoffs after losing four guys from their starting lineup the previous season to free agency. They need interior offensive and defensive help and could benefit from taking Biyombo, Vucevic and a draft pick for McCollum. McCollum can create his own offensive, which the Magic desperately needs. He’s averaging 23.5 points per game and is an efficient shooter making 48% of his field goals and 42.1% of his three’s.

Danilo Gallinari, Forward, Denver Nuggets. He’s a stretch four with great range on his jumper, and can create off the dribble and consistently get buckets on the block as well. In the two games versus Orlando this season he showed his value going for 21 points on 5-8 shooting, 2-3 from 3 and grabbing 6 rebounds in Denver’s 121-113 win in the Amway Center on December 10th, and 15 points on 5-11 shooting and 6 rebounds in the 125-112 win over the Magic in Denver on January 16th. He’s averaging 16.8 points per game on 43% shooting from the two and 39% from three. The Nuggets have plenty of young talent on the wings so they should be impressed by an offer of Vucevic or Biyombo, but a deal involving Gordon and Hezonja could be also be very tantalizing to pair with Emanuel Mudiay, Kenneth Faried and emerging big man Nikola Jokic.

Paul George, Forward, Indiana Pacers. This is my long shot, my EXTREMELY LOOOOOOOOONG SHOT. George is a perennial All-Star and Gold Medalist with team USA. The Pacers are underachieving right now at 22-22 and their pieces don’t seem to fit. PG-13 is also getting very frustrated with the decline this franchise is on since competing against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals a few seasons ago. He’s very familiar with coach Vogel and a reunion would do wonders for both player and franchise. The Pacers can benefit from completely moving on to their rebuild.

For the last half decade Magic management has collected assets in young talented players, but not franchise changing players. It’s time to flip those for one. Change is necessary. Not just for the Magic, but also for these guys I mentioned. Getting one of them will help better shape Orlando’s roster and not only get them into the playoffs this season, but also expedite this rebuilding process that has left Magic fans desperate for wins.

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A Successful Pro Bowl Increases Orlando’s Case as a Major Sports City

Orlando is ready to make its mark as a true major sports city. Photo Credit: Kavis Peak

The 67th NFL Pro Bowl takes place this Sunday in Orlando. It’s only the third time in 38 years it’s been held away from its mainstay location of Honolulu, Hawaii. Next season it will be in the “City Beautiful” as well, and there’s an option for 2019. What an opportunity for Orlando and Orange County leaders to show the sports world that we are a major league sports city. Not just a family-friendly tourist destination.

The NFL is the king of pro sports in America. Whatever they decide to do, you can bet the commissioners of the other major sports are taking notes. That’s why a very successful week of hosting the Pro Bowl and its events, official and unofficial — ahem, parties at nightclubs — will go a long way in enticing other major sporting events to make their way to central Florida.

Let me say this first, I know the Pro Bowl is a meaningless game that leaves much to be desired from hardcore football fans. Many of the top players have either withdrawn or are playing in the Super Bowl. Even with that said, the game has sold out the 65,000 capacity stadium including standing room only. Score one point for Florida Citrus Sports and their CEO Steve Hogan for making people care to spend their hard earned money for this game.

The great thing about moving the Pro Bowl to central Florida is it gives true football fans a chance to come out and get up close and personal with their favorite gridiron stars. That wasn’t the case when the game was held in Hawaii. It’s much easier and less expensive for NFL fans to get to Orlando for the game and week, then it is to get to Honolulu. Sure players would rather have that trip to the 50th state, but it’s not like central Florida weather and beaches is anything to sneeze at this time of the year with highs in the mid-70’s. But also in this day in age where the players are more worried about their brands, I’m looking specifically at you Antonio Brown, Mister Facebook Live, it would benefit them to be in the continental U.S. where their fan base can get to them. Score another point for the 407.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs want to be considered for future Super Bowls, NCAA National Football and Basketball Championships. We have the state-of-the-art facilities to host those events.

The 80-year old Camping World Stadium, better known and still affectionally called the Citrus Bowl, just underwent a $207 million dollar renovation. No it’s not the billion dollar playpens in Dallas, Minnesota and Atlanta, but It is already the hosts of three college football bowl games annually. Last season it was the site of Florida State’s spring game and a regular season matchup against Ole Miss. In the coming seasons, Louisville, Alabama, Florida and Miami will play in the Camping World kickoff game here. Just last November, the ACC moved its conference championship game from Charlotte to Orlando due to the controversial North Carolina House Bill 2 law. It has hosted Wrestlemania’s and it will host another this April. It can host major events.

In the past seven years, a the $480 million dollar Amway Center was built and hosted the 2012 NBA All-Star game and first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Orlando City Lions of the MLS opens its $155 million dollar soccer specific stadium this spring. 10 miles east of downtown on the campus of UCF, there’s the 10-year old 45,000+ capacity Bright House Stadium and 10,000+ seat CFE Arena.

City leaders have spent the money and made the efforts to make sure everything needed is in place for central Florida to prove it has more to offer than Disney World, Universal Orlando and other touristy attractions. Another point on the board for Orlando.

With the new soccer stadium, there can also be an opportunity to draw National team events.  Maphre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio is currently the adopted hometown for the Men’s team, but  Orlando could extend an invitation to become the home base for the U.S. Women’s National team who recently played in the Citrus Bowl in 2015. The city was successful when it was one of the host sites for the 1994 FIFA World Cup.

All that can be decided in the future. But for the present it’s important that the city and its leaders maximize these rare opportunities. Orlando is ready to explode onto the national and world sports scene. And a great working relationship with the NFL will be the key that unlocks several other doors.

Dawn of More Steelers Championships

The 2016 Steelers story could very well be the first chapter in a book filled with future championships. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Nation is reeling the disheartening and embarrassing 36-17 AFC Championship loss to the Evil Empire, also known as the New England Patriots. For the third time, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick prevented them from advancing to the Super Bowl, this time on their home turf in Foxborough.

But the 2016 season wasn’t and shouldn’t be a total disappointment for Pittsburgh fans. This playoff run and the second half of the regular season showed all the pieces necessary are in place for a potential Steelers dynasty.

It obviously starts with the franchise QB. Ben Roethlisberger is already the best quarterback in Pittsburgh Steelers history over Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw. He’s already won two Super Bowls and played in a third. He has every important quarterback statistic in franchise history. This should no longer be a debate.

Of the key significant players on the Steelers offense, he’s the oldest at 34 years old. Barring significant injury, which has been an issue through this career, Big Ben should be able to play at an elite, pro-bowl level for another four years or so. That is if Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Warren Moon to name a few are the new norm. Roethlisberger will be protected by a top rated offensive line and have arguably the most talented and explosive collection of skill players in the NFL at his disposal, as well as a young emerging defense.

Look first at the guys who will protect #7. Everyone raves about the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line, but the Steelers underrated line, which has two Pro Bowlers in David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey who have also been All-Pro’s, was the second ranked overall unit in the NFL. They only allowed 21 sacks, the second fewest in the league. They allowed the third fewest hits on the QB at 56. The starters average age is 28.2 with an average of 5.6 years of experience. They’ll hold down the trenches not only keep him clean, but also open up holes for Le’Veon Bell.

Speaking of Bell. As Roethlisberger ages, he will become the focal point of the offense and carry the load. Think of it how Kyrie Irving has now become the closer for the Cleveland Cavaliers, even though LeBron James is still their most important player. The Steelers were 9-0 this season when he rushed for 90+ yards.

Bell, the guy I call “the most lethal weapon in the NFL”, is only 24 years old. In the 12 games he played, “Juice” led the NFL in scrimmage yards per game at 157 (105.7 rushing; 51.3 receiving), and was the first back in history to average more than 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards per game. His yards per carry average of 4.9 ranked 2nd of those who qualified and his total 1,268 rushing yards was 5th best in the League. The guy many say is the best all-around back in the game is only going to get better.

At this point, we already know what to expect from Antonio Brown. Arguably the League’s best wide receiver, he once again finished in the top 5 in receptions (106; 2nd), receiving yards (1,284; 5th) and touchdown catches (12; tied for 2nd). The key was finding other guys to step up when opposing defenses doubled and bracketed AB. Eli Rogers and Jesse James became those guys and were third and fourth in receptions. James (39 catches, 338 yards & 3 TDs) played more than expected with all the injuries high-priced free agent tight end LeDarius Green suffered through all season long. The second-year tight end from Penn State showed he has the size and athleticism to fill the void in the middle of the field left by Heath Miller’s retirement.

Rogers (48 catches, 594 yards & 3 TDs) and Cobi Hamilton (17 catches, 234 yards & 2 TDs) appear to have passed up Sammie Coates and Markus Wheaton–who can’t stop dropping passes or stay off the injury list–on the depth chart in the wide receiver rotation and were a welcome surprise. The biggest addition will be, IF he can stay clean and IF he gets reinstated, getting a proven commodity in Martavis Bryant back to go with all this new firepower.

But the offense hasn’t been the concern in recent years, it was the defense. The kryptonite to the offenses Super Powers in recent seasons has been their aging defense, specifically in the secondary. Even with 38-year old James Harrison playing a significant role, and who knows what his future will hold, it’s still the 11th youngest unit in the NFL.

The secondary started two rookies in safety Sean Davis and cornerback Artie Burns. Second-year pro Ross Cockrell finished his first season as a full-time starter at corner. 23-year old outside linebacker Bud Dupree only played half of his sophomore season, and maybe it’s coincidence or not, the 9-game win streak began when he returned from a groin injury that kept him out the first 9 regular season games. 24-year old Ryan Shazier was first on the team in forced fumbles (3), interceptions (3) and second in tackles (87). Oh, and they’re getting back from injury, the guy who was the most consistent in the early part of the season in defensive end Cam Heyward. The guy who replaced him, rookie Javon Hargrave, got valuable experience in his absence registering 27 tackles, 2 sacks, and another one in the playoffs.

As the 2016 season carried on, Keith Butler’s group steadily improved in his second season calling the shots. They’re now almost as explosive as the Killer B’s in the way they get after the quarterback and create turnovers. Surely they’ll draft a linebacker in the first round, and hopefully draft another athletic, rangy defensive back to pair with what they have. But, it’s looking a lot better on that side of the ball than it did mid-season.

Some say the only difference between the teams that didn’t make the playoffs and the ones that did, is the extra weeks of practice time. Well then it was worth it. The young guns got thrown into the fire and gained valuable, much needed experience.

Remember when Big Ben was a young pup and Pittsburgh relied on a strong running game with Jerome Bettis and a stout defense with Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and James Farrior to name a few, to win games? As he ages, they’ll revert back to that formula and increase his championship window. Only this time as the elite running back and defense ages, they’ll be entering their prime. Where as the roster Roethlisberger inherited was exiting their prime as he was entering his.

I no longer think it’s a question of if he’ll win another Super Bowl, in my opinion that’s a given. The question is will he catch Bradshaw’s four Super Bowl victories and pass him? The hope and possibility of that should enough to get Steeler Nation through the winter.

The Steelers showed promise that another Lombardi is close. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Third Time Wasn’t the Charm

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Mike Tomlin drops to 2-1 in AFC Championships after losing to the Patriots 36-17 in the ’16 AFC title game.

Steeler Nation has seen this horror film before. It’s a now a trilogy. And each one ends the same. Disappointing and embarrassing.

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots thwarted another Pittsburgh Steelers trip to the Super Bowl 36-17.

The 4-time Super Bowl Champion QB carved the Black and Yellow defense for a postseason career high and franchise record 384 yards with 3 touchdowns. Chris Hogan ran free in the Steelers secondary to score 2 touchdowns while setting a Patriots franchise postseason record 180 receiving yards on 9 receptions. Julian Edelman also got loose for 118 yards on 8 catches, one going for a touchdown. The 298 combined receiving yards is the most by a duo in conference championship history.

The Pittsburgh defense that led the way to victory in many games during the 10-game winning streak going back to week 11 was no match for Brady’s offense. Coming into the game New England averaged 386.2 total yards per game. They went for 431 in the AFC title game. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler went back to a game plan that he implored at the beginning of the season; Bend, but don’t break. Those type of calls get you burnt. All season I’ve said that an elite quarterback would slice and dice that plan. Sunday night was that night.

Critics of Mike Tomlin, ahem… Terry Bradshaw, will use this game as an example of him not being an elite or a great coach because the lack of adjustments made.

From my vantage point the only adjustment they could’ve made would’ve been to play ball control offense, and that option went out the window in the first quarter when Le’Veon Bell injured his groin after only 6 carries for 20 yards. Had Bell been available, and been able to do even half of what he did in the Wild Card and Divisional rounds, that could’ve done the trick. The Steelers were 9-0 this season when he ran for 90+ yards. That’s because he eats clock, while also wearing down defenses, but mostly because it would’ve kept Brady on the sideline. He was also missed in the passing game, as New England was able to double team Antonio Brown who had a quiet 7 catches for 77 yards.

Still, Bell doesn’t play defense and that’s where this team was exposed once again like they were during their mid-season 4-game losing streak from weeks 6 thru 10.

Offensively, Ben Roethlisberger came to play going 31 of 47 for 314 yards with a touchdown and interception. But not many others with him. At one point in the first half, he completed a career high 13 consecutive completions. This was his moment to get payback on #12 and “The hoody” for the loss he suffered as a rookie 12 seasons ago, and he looked poised to take advantage of it. With Brown double teamed, Eli Rodgers (7 catches for 66 yards) and Jesse James (5 catches for 48 yards) made plays to keep drives moving. But key drops by Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton sucked the life out of promising drives.

The key turning point was Pittsburgh’s last drive of the first half. The 19-yard touchdown catch by James that would’ve brought the score to 12-17 was reversed when replay showed he was down at the one yard line, was followed by three unsuccessful plays that yielded negative 4 yards before Chris Boswell came in on 4th down to make a 23-yard field goal to bring the score to 9-17.

Had they got the touchdown and headed into halftime 13-17 after the extra point or 14-17 if they went for a 2-point conversion, with them getting the ball first to start the second half it would’ve been a different game. Instead they went three-and-out on their first second half possession, then proceeded to give up 19 unanswered points, and it was pretty much a coronation for New England as they broke a tie with the Steelers for most AFC title championship in NFL history with 9.

I honestly didn’t expect this. I thought this was the one. The one win to wipe away the pain from losing in 2004 and 2001 at Heinz Field. This one will be tough to digest. The last 9 weeks gave Steelers fans a sense of hope the Lombardi number seven was within reach. Tonight showed this team is probably a year or two away. I’ll have more on that later this week, because my final takeaway from this season is, 2016 may have been the dawn of a new Steelers dynasty.

When you’re an organization playing for World titles it’s hard to accept a 13-6 finish. But when you look at where this team was in mid-October, if you told me this would be the final result, I would’ve taken it after I laughed at you.

Next up, the offseason.

EXTRA POINTS

  • Sunday was the 11-year anniversary of the Steelers 2005 AFC Championship victory over the Denver Broncos.
  • Ben Roethlisberger started his 20th career postseason game, passing Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount and Franco Harris for the franchise record by an individual player. He also passed Bradshaw for most 300+ yard passing games in franchise postseason history.
  • On his third carry of the night, Le’Veon Bell passed Franco Harris (343) for most rushing yards in a postseason. He now has 357 yards in his first three playoff games.
  • This was the first playoff game since 2006 with no penalties in the first half.

Will the Third Time be the Charm for Pittsburgh?

Tomlin is 2-5 vs. Belichick in the regular season. The AFC title game will be their first playoff meeting.

Here we are again. For the third time, the Pittsburgh Steelers will play the New England Patriots for the right to go to the Super Bowl. This time, the New England Patriots have the number one seed and home field advantage. A scenario the Steelers were in the other two times they met with the AFC crown on the line.

Those other two times, New England has beaten Pittsburgh. Each loss ended a sensational season by the Steelers that appeared to be destined to bring home another Lombardi trophy. 2001, the second seeded Pats defeated the 13-3 and number one seeded Steelers 24-17 in Heinz Field. That was the game Tom Brady was knocked out and Drew Bledsoe had to be dusted off from the bullpen to rescue the Pats. New England would go on to win their first of four Super Bowls in the 2000’s.

2004, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season. The Steelers were 15-1 and the number one seed again. In the regular season, Pittsburgh defeated New England 34-20 and ended their record 21-game winning streak. Steelers Nation thought they finally had Brady and Bill Belichick’s number. But in the playoffs, the second seed Pats thumped them 41-27. Roethlisberger threw three interceptions, one returned for a touchdown by safety Rodney Harrison.

It feels like they have their number. Four of the last five times these two teams have played, Pittsburgh has lost. It’s payback time.

These aren’t the same Steelers the Patriots defeated in week seven 27-16. Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play that game due to injury. James Harrison wasn’t starting and wasn’t heavily used in the linebacker rotation. Bud Dupree was still on the injury list. Those rookies in the secondary, Sean Davis and Artie Burns were still inexperienced. And Brady had Rob Gronkowski in the lineup. Number 87 won’t be there Sunday.

What does that mean? As I sit here on Monday afternoon and write this, not much. But the Steelers defense that allowed 362 total yards, 127 rushing and two touchdowns to LeGarrette Blount, and 93 receiving yards and a touchdown to “Gronk” on that late October afternoon, is very much improved.

In this 9-game winning streak dating back to week 11, the defense allows 87.6 rushing yards per game and 230.6 passing yards per game. They’re also plus 7 in turnover margin. The D is the only thing anyone worries about when it comes to Pittsburgh, and in the divisional round against Kansas City, they showed they can be counted on to do their part and even win a game.

Offensively everyone knows Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have the weapons to put up points with Brady and crew. After the divisional matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs where they only mustered 5 field goals, and went 0-4 in the red zone, Pittsburgh has several questions to answer. Can Big Ben minimize his turnovers? Will he get rid of the ball instead of trying to extend plays, risking taking sacks that put the offense behind the chains? Will they learn from the stalled drives against the Chiefs and give the ball to Le’Veon Bell and let him wear out the defense while eating time off the clock, keeping Brady on the sidelines?

The Steelers will likely need to score the 27 points per game they’ve been averaging in their win streak to pull off the upset. The defense will need to come up with that one turnover, or that key sack on third down to get the ball back for the Killer B’s.

This is it. Brady is nearing the end of his career. This will likely be Roethlisberger’s last, and best shot to get a major win over the four-time Super Bowl Champ and prove he belongs in the top of the elite QB conversation that so many times he’s mentioned in as an after thought.

This is also Mike Tomlin’s moment to get his critics, like Terry Bradshaw and a significant portion of Steeler fans, off his back. Legacies are at stake on both sides. I can’t see a more better way of alleviating the pain and frustrations this organization has caused Steelers Nation than celebrating an AFC Championship in their building, the same way they’ve ended so many promising seasons of ours. Third times gotta be the charm.

Kickoff is set for Sunday at 6:40 pm in Gillette Stadium.

EXTRA POINTS

  • The last team to win a playoff game without scoring a touchdown was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, also in the divisional round, against the Baltimore Ravens. The next week, they played and beat the New England Patriots in the AFC title game, then went on to win Super Bowl XLI.
  • New England is making their 6th consecutive AFC Championship game.
  • The Steelers are making their 16th AFC Championship game appearance. That’s the most since the 1970 NFL-AFL Merger.

 

 

Steelers Revenge Tour is on to New England

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Chris Boswell set an NFL record six made FGs in Pittsburgh’s 18-16 win at Kansas City. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, all anybody wants to talk about is the Killer B’s of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Go ahead and add another B, kicker Chris Boswell. Without his NFL postseason record 6 made field goals, Pittsburgh’s season is over.

He was the difference as the Steelers pulled out the win 18-16 without scoring a touchdown. The first team to do that since the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, who went on to win Super Bowl XLI. By the way, that team also played the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

But back to the Steelers and Sunday night. Pittsburgh dominated Kansas City, especially the much maligned defensive unit. Who would’ve thought back in October, that the Steelers defensive would win them a gutsy playoff game?

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Ryan Shazier and Mike Mitchell led a dominate Steelers defensive performance. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The 11th youngest unit in the NFL, held the Chiefs to 227 total yards (166, passing, 61 rushing). In the first half they allowed 7 first downs, and a total 106 yards (20 rushing, 86 passing). 55 of those yards came on the six play 3:29 minute drive that led to the first opening drive touchdown the Steelers have given up all season, regular or postseason. They were the only team in the NFL to not allow one.

The only time Keith Butler’s unit looked overmatched was on Kansas City’s first offensive possession. And that came after kicking short to avoid Tyreek Hill’s explosive return ability, and allowed Kansas City to return it to their own 45-yard line.

From that moment on, they were on fire, forcing two turnovers (interception, fumble), allowing only 4.6 yards per play and holding the Chiefs to 2-9 on 3rd down. Kansas City looked frustrated and discombobulated all night. Travis Kelce, who many are calling the second best tight end in the game, had 5 catches for 77 yards. Zero touchdowns. Tyreek Hill who has had a breakout rookie season only had 3 rushes for 18 yards and 4 catches for 27 yards. Zero touchdowns. They both scored in the 29-point blowout loss in week four.

The magic number for Pittsburgh is 20. They’re now 10-0 when not allowing teams to surpass that mark.

The offensive stats look similar to the 43-14 week four blowout in Heinz Field, except for the only numbers that count. The ones on the scoreboard. Bell followed up his record setting first playoff game by passing himself in the record books and set a new franchise postseason rushing record with 170 yards on 30 carries. Brown caught 6 passes for 108 yards, and Roethlisberger was 20 for 31 and 224 yards, but a huge pick in the red zone that could’ve changed the way the Chiefs had to play their final possession, had the Steelers turned that possession into any points. On the night they were 0-4 in the red zone.

My main issue in this game was the lack of running the ball in the red zone. Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley appeared to fall in love with the passing game too much. For example, after Roethlisberger hit Brown on a 52-yard pass play on their second possession, Bell didn’t touch the ball once inside the Kansas City 25-yard line. They had several opportunities like that in the half to possibly rip Kansas City’s heart out and save Steelers Nations hearts from the late game tension.

The defense is finally playing close to par with the offense. Defense and running games travel, regardless of the weather. If they can put it all together at the same time in the next sixty minutes, they’ll been on their way to Houston and one step closer to holding Lombardi number seven.

The revenge tour now moves on to Foxborough, Massachusetts to face the New England Patriots. The Roethlisberger-less Steelers loss to the Brady Bunch 27-16 back on October 23rd in Heinz Field. The Pats have also beaten the Steelers the last two times they’ve met up in the AFC Championship Game. Both of those games were in Pittsburgh. Time for payback. Kickoff is set for 6:40 next Sunday.

EXTRA POINTS 

  • With his only sack of the night, James Harrison tied Lamarr Woodley for the most sacks (11) in Steelers postseason history. It was also his 4th consecutive playoff game with a sack.
  • Le’Veon Bell is the first Steelers play to rush for 100 yards or more in the first half of a playoff game. He also now has the record for most rushing yards in his first two postseason games.
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Le’Veon Bell’s 337 rushing yards is the most in NFL postseason history for a player’s first two game. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • Antonio Brown earned his 4th consecutive 100+ yard receiving game in the playoffs tying him with Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald for the most in NFL history.

 

MJ Played Against and Beat Better Competition

The debate between Jordan & James continues to heat up. The focus now is on the competition they faced.

Almost since the moment the clock hit triple zeros in game seven of the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, the LeBron James versus Michael Jordan conversations have only intensified. And it’s not going to change any time soon. So if you’re annoyed and tired of the topic, no matter whose side you’re on, get used to it. Unless you plan on avoiding the litany of debate shows on ESPN and Fox Sports.

The latest chapter is a hypothetical about how and when LeBron will take over as the Greatest Of All Time from MJ.

Case in point, last week Fox Sports One NBA Analyst Chris Broussard said on Fox Sports’ “Undisputed with Skip and Shannon”, that it will happen if James wins the next two NBA Championships, for a Cavs three-peat, giving him five total championship rings. The prevalent thought is that he would’ve beaten a better more talented team in the Golden State Warriors with four perennial all-stars. Assuming the Dubs make it to the Finals four consecutive season as well. Broussard, as well as Shannon Sharpe, said MJ “didn’t beat anyone” to win his titles, and that the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons and “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers were old and worn out by the time those Chicago Bulls teams reached their peak. I think that’s as ridiculous of a hot take as I’ve ever heard.

If I were on the show, I would’ve fired back… “were the Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed & Ben Wallace-led Pistons who had played in five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, two NBA Finals, winning one (2004), before losing to the ’07 Cleveland Cavs old?”

The previous variable used to compare the two use to be that LBJ accomplished more at a younger age than MJ, which I always thought was dumb because one came straight out of high school, while the other played three years of college ball. The only fair comparison would be years of service which I did back in 2013. So now in order to prop James’ legacy up, people want to diminish the competition Jordan faced.

Not only did those 90’s Bulls beat very good teams in the Finals, they also beat top competition in the Eastern Conference playoffs to get to the championship round. Something LeBron hasn’t had to do in his six-year Eastern Conference title runs, aside from playing against the big four in Boston of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo.

Here’s a look at the team’s, Jordan’s Bulls had to conquer on their title runs…

After sweeping the 39-43 Patrick Ewing-led New York Knicks in three games, The 1991 Bulls beat the Charles Barkley-led Philadelphia 76ers four games to one in the conference semifinals. Then they swept the 50-32 Isiah Thomas-led, two-time defending NBA World Champion Detroit Pistons to advance to the NBA Finals. Waiting for them was the 58-24 Magic Johnson-led and five-time NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers who just happened to beat the team with the best record in the Association that season, the 63-19 Clyde Drexler-led Portland Trailblazers in six games. Of course, we all remembered what happened in the Finals. Bulls over Lakers in five, and if it weren’t for a last second jumper by Jordan that rimmed out in game one, they would’ve swept the team of the ’80’s.

The 1992 Bulls team challenged the 70-win mark finishing the season at 67-15. After sweeping the young Miami Heat 3-0 in the first round, The Bulls went to a grueling seven games with Patrick Ewing’s 51-31 Knicks in the conference semifinals. Chicago lost home court advantage in game one, before coming back to win the series. In the conference finals they faced a 57-25 Cleveland Cavaliers team with All-Stars Mark Price and Brad Daugherty. The Bulls beat the Cavs in six.

In the Finals they faced the 57-25 Clyde Drexler-led Portland Trailblazers, who brought back their key nucleus from the same team that had the NBA’s best regular season record the year before and had lost in the 1990 NBA Finals. Some of those names; Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and Danny Ainge who won two titles with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics in the 1980’s. It took those Bulls six games and a 15-point 4th-quarter comeback to win the series.

In 1993 the Bulls went into the playoffs as the second seed. They swept their first two rounds 3-0 over the 43-39 Dominique Wilkins-led Atlanta Hawks, and 4-0 over the 54-28 Cleveland Cavaliers who had three All-Stars in Price, Daugherty and Larry Nance. In the Conference Finals they met up again with the Knicks who had the second best record in the NBA at 60-22 and the number one seed in the East. Chicago dropped the first two games in Madison Square Garden, you may remember the stories that Jordan had went over to gamble in New Jersey in between those first two games. However, the Bulls charged back from the 0-2 deficit to beat their nemesis in six games.

In the Finals they faced the 62-20 Phoenix Suns, with the League Most Valuable Player in Charles Barkley. Most say this is the best team the Bulls faced in their six Championship seasons. The Suns had three All-Stars in Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle. They also had that Danny Ainge guy. Chicago never trailed in the series and was up 3-1 after four-games, it took them a John Paxson three-pointer with just over 3 seconds in the 4th-quarter to win the series 4-2 for their first three-peat.

Flash forward three years and the 1995-96 season and the Bulls set the single season record at 72-10. In the playoffs they swept the 42-20 Miami Heat of Alonzo Mourning and coached by their old foe from New York, Pat Riley. In the second round they faced another familiar foe in the Knicks who were 47-35 in the regular season. Chicago beat New York 4-1 in a physical series without Sixth Man of the Year Toni Kukoc for two games. In the Conference Finals they faced the 60-22 defending Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic, led by All-Stars Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, and won the series in four games.

In the Finals they defeated the 64-18 Seattle Supersonics with All-Stars Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf, coached by George Karl who is the fifth winningest coach in NBA history. The Bulls went up 3-0, and dropped games four and five at Key Arena, before winning the series in game six back in the United Center.

In the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals they faced the 64-18 and 62-20 Utah Jazz led by future Hall of Famers Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jerry Sloan. The Bulls won each series 4-2 to capture titles five and six for their second three-peat. But look at the teams they faced in the two playoffs before the finals.

In the ’97 playoffs they swept a young 44-38 Washington Bullets team with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard 3-0 in the first round, next the 56-26 Atlanta Hawks with Dikembe Mutombo, Christian Laettner and Steve Smith 4-1, before knocking off the 61-21 Miami Heat with Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn and Dan Majerle, 4-1.

In the ’98 playoffs they swept the 43-39 New Jersey Nets 3-0 in the first round, defeated the 51-31 Charlotte Hornets led by All-Star Game MVP Glen Rice 4-1, before winning an epic seven game series against Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Jalen Rose and the 58-24 Indiana Pacers coached by Larry Bird.

So as you can see, not only did Jordan’s teams beat historically great competition in the Finals, they also beat the other marquee teams in the league at that time.

It’s baffling to me that many are trying to diminish Jordan’s legend in an attempt to bolster James’ legacy. If you haven’t figured it out, I am on the Jordan side of these debates, but I can admit his “Airness'” legacy has grown “Paul Bunyon-like” in the nearly two decades since his last championship with the Bulls. But to say his competitors were far inferior than the ones LBJ faces is absurd. There are more teams in the Association now then when Jordan was in his prime, which means the talent is more spread out across the league. However you try to slice it, MJ played against better comp.