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Panther-Steelers pregame stretch...

December 23, 2010 - Ray Eckenrode

At a glance

Broadcasters: Bob Papa, Matt Millen and Joe Theismann.

Annoyance factor: Off the charts … Millen, who is superb in a two-man college booth, somehow becomes a bumbling fool (like his GM career) in the NFL three-man setup. Theismann remains the single most annoying analyst in football with the rare combination of being wrong almost exclusively while trying to talk over the other broadcasters incessantly. Seriously, relive your college days Thursday by drinking every time Theismann interrupts. You won’t remember the second half of the game. Papa is a solid play-by-play guy but carries a fairly typical New York City bias along with that.

Refereee: Bill Leavy

Competence factor: Leavy is considered one of the Top 5 white hats in the league and is now most (in)famous for admitting his crew blew several calls that went against the Seahawks (or for the Steelers) in Super Bowl XL. Of course, if every referee who blew a call against the Steelers since then made a public admission it would be a very long press conference.

Smarts say: The Steelers opened as a massive 14-point favorite and that line has stayed put. The over/under on the game is a paltry 37 so Vegas is trying to get bettors on the Panthers and hoping for a final in the range of 27-10 Steelers. You can see what the Vegas insiders thought about the game when the Las Vegas Hilton’s Supercontest picks are posted here sometime Saturday afternoon:

NFL needs official commitment

In Pittsburgh, Referee Pete Morelli lost his flag Sunday not once, not twice, but three times. In New England, Referee Ed Hochuli called a penalty after he watched a replay on the video board. Week after week, white hats are botching calls and affecting the outcome of NFL games.

So while His Excellency Roger Goodell takes a break from poring over the Brett Favre report (just a few more weeks...), he ought to turn his attention to something critically important to the future of his league: improving the officiating.

And while Goodell and his Laurel and Hardy henchmen Ray Anderson and Merton Hanks were able to quickly decide they needed to change the league's violent hits rules, er, points of emphais, in the middle of a week, they have been unable to come to the one inescapable conclusion about the league's refereeing: the NFL needs full-time officials.

The current officials work as lawyers, teachers and firemen during the week then fly cross country to muck up professional football games on Sundays. That system might have been fine in the early days of the sport, but it’s not cutting it now. The athletes are too big and too fast and the stakes in the games are too large, both figuratively and literally. The majority of white hats in the league are in their 60s. That’s too old. The league needs younger men who are in better physical condition to officiate its games. And those men need to spend more time training and practicing how to do it right.

Sure, it will require a sizeable financial commitment to switch to full-time officials. Surely, the richest professional sports league of all time can afford to make that commitment. Yes, there is a question as to what the officials would do from March through July, but we’re sure the bright minds who brought us Pete Townsend at last year’s Super Bowl can figure it out.

Quick hits:

> A lot of people have played the "you see why Matt Spaeth is a backup" card this week and that's valid, but there's more to it. As the backup tight end, Spaeth is primarily a blocking tight end and he's remade his body over the past few seasons to fit that role. So if you thought a bulkier Spaeth looked like he forgot how to run and really couldn't even lift his arms over his head that wasn't an illusion.

> The AFC playoff picture brightened considerably for a lot of teams on Sunday night when the Green Bay Packers provided a pretty convincing blueprint on how to beat the Patriots in New England. Defensively, Green Bay pressured Tom Brady with four rushers (and several unique A-gap blitzes), which allowed them to match up man-to-man with New England's five receivers, yet still play a cover-two shell behind them. By executing that plan, the Packers held the Pats to 31 points, which is about the best you can hope for with Tom Brady. The only thing the Pack could have done otherwise is not drop the one interception that Brady gift wrapped for them. Offensively, the Packers followed the Cleveland Browns plan: Run right at Vince Wilfork, take some vertical shots and don't turn the ball over.

> As the playoffs near, the rhetoric is starting from the talking heads who are paid to provide some kind of foresight about who will make it to the big game. You’ll hear:

“You can’t win with a bad offensive line.” (The Steelers and Colts have in the past five years.)

“The best quarterback wins.” (Trent Dilfer says “thank you very much.”)

“The best coach remaining provides the biggest advantage.” (Two words for you: Brian Billick.)

The truth is that all of the axioms you hear are partly true, but they can be overridden by a much more powerful axiom: “The team with the fewest turnovers and the most luck usually wins the Super Bowl.”

The pick

Lest ye think the Steelers can’t possibly lose a Thursday night game against a poor opponent, need we remind you of what happened last December in Cleveland on a Thursday night. We’ll also throw this out there: The Steelers current style of play and coaching philosophy pretty much ensures they are not blowing anyone out unless there are a bunch of turnovers involved. And this one: When it’s missing Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu, the Steelers defense does not cause turnovers. That all adds up to the possibility that the Panthers will be in this game well into the second half. That wouldn’t surprise us. That said, we saw enough good things from the Steelers offensive line and young receivers to believe Pittsburgh will be able to win this game in the fourth quarter with a couple scores … Steelers 27, Panthers (+14) 17.

Prediction record

Last week: Steelers (-6) to win, but Jets to cover; INCORRECT, CORRECT

Season straight up: 7-7, .500 (Still leading the NFC West!)

Season vs. spread: 4-10, .286 (Truly, a lost season for us.)

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