Steelers up to challenge

PITTSBURGH--The New England Patriots sailed through the NFL season with a 14-2 record, securing the top seed in the AFC playoffs and it would seem, based on various projections from coast to coast, a direct path to the Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, middle, breaks away from Miami Dolphins cornerback Tony Lippett, right, and outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins, left, during an AFC Wild Card playoff game on Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY Sports.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, middle, breaks away from Miami Dolphins cornerback Tony Lippett, right, and outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins, left, during an AFC Wild Card playoff game on Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY Sports.

PITTSBURGH-The New England Patriots sailed through the NFL season with a 14-2 record, securing the top seed in the AFC playoffs and it would seem, based on various projections from coast to coast, a direct path to the Super Bowl.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, often overlooked because of a midseason four-game losing streak, are doing their best to interject themselves into the Super Bowl conversation.

And the way they're playing-with an offense that has multiple ways to get the ball into the end zone and a defense that is creating turnovers and havoc with relentless pressure-suggests that a New England advance to the Feb. 5 Super Bowl in Houston is far from certain.

The Steelers extending their winning streak to eight Sunday, beating up on the Miami Dolphins 30-12 in an AFC wild-card game to advance to next Sunday's AFC divisional game at Kansas City, a team they beat 43-14 earlier.

While it was only the Steelers' second playoff win since they lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the 2010 Super Bowl, there are many reasons to think this team is equipped to make the franchise's ninth trip to a Super Bowl, even if their playoff path runs through Foxborough, Mass.


First, the explosive offensive trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, plus run-clearing center Maurkice Pouncey, are playing together for the first time in the postseason.

Second, the Steelers are healthier than they've ever been in the playoffs under coach Mike Tomlin. A year ago, Brown and Bell were injured and out for a divisional playoff loss at eventual Super Bowl champion Denver.

Third, the Steelers possess the kind of offensive and defensive balance they last had in the postseason while winning the Super Bowl during the 2008 season.

"It was exciting," Brown said of all the Steelers' key offensive regulars playing together. "You got a glimpse of it today. We're excited to keep it moving and keep it rolling."

As they walked off the field, coach Mike Tomlin grabbed Brown and said, "Business is booming!"

And there's this: The Steelers aren't likely to be intimidated playing the Patriots.

Pittsburgh lost at home to New England 27-16 on Oct. 23, but Roethlisberger was injured and out for that game. Backup Landry Jones played quarterback. And the Steelers are a much better team, obviously, with Roethlisberger running an offense led Sunday by two record-setting players.

Brown became only the fourth NFL receiver to catch two touchdown passes of 50 yards or longer in the postseason, and he did it in the first quarter. And Bell's 167 yards rushing were a team playoff record, breaking Franco Harris' 42-year-old record of 159 yards.


"We had the big three rolling," Tomlin said.

And the defense was Steel Curtain-like, with five sacks, two fumbles forced, an interception and nine quarterback pressures.

"It was difficult most of the day," Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore said.

The Steelers have proved throughout their winning streak that they're capable of making it difficult on most any team they play these days.

"We're excited for next week," Brown said.

The way they're playing, next week might not be the final week of this Steelers season.

"We think we can be better," Roethlisberger said. "(This game) was a little bit of a false positive because we went down and scored the first three series, and we were doing pretty much what we wanted to. ... We had some little things after that.

"I said before, the 'My bads' are usually not good (this time of the season). You usually can't correct the 'My bads.' You can't have them. The second half we had a little too much of that."


But the Steelers were way too much for the Dolphins before that. And there was very little bad during a day that suggests this is a very, very good Steelers team.

Rawls, Seahawks run past Lions

The Seattle Seahawks, grounded by a stagnant running game during most of the regular season, hit the ground running in their playoff opener on Saturday night in Seattle.

Thomas Rawls ran for 161 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown as the Seattle Seahawkscontinued their home playoff success with a 26-6 victory over the Detroit Lions.

"This felt more like old times," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "This felt great."

Seattle advanced to an NFC Divisional Playoff game at Atlanta after winning for the 10th consecutive time at home in the postseason. The Seahawks haven't lost a playoff game at home since 2005.

The winner of Sunday's Green Bay-New York Giants game travels to Dallas to face the top-seeded Cowboys in the other NFC divisional game.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, playing without a knee brace for the first time since Week 3, completed 22 of 30 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns.


Rawls had 107 of his 161 rushing yards before halftime and broke the game open with a 4-yard touchdown run with 8:49 remaining. That score, which was followed by a failed point-after kick, put Seattle up 19-6.

Rawls had 27 carries after an injury-plagued regular season that saw him accumulate just 349 rushing yards.

The Lions failed to get across midfield on their next possession and the Seahawks ate up almost four minutes of clock before Wilson threw his second touchdown pass to put the game away with 3:36 remaining.

"We've got to play better," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "We just didn't play well today."

Detroit receiver Anquan Boldin, who had a frustrating night of dropped passes and had a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, was frustrated with some of the officiating in the game.

"Any time you come into a place like this, you know you have to play more than just the team," Boldin said.

Detroit held Seattle to one touchdown in the first three quarters and pulled within 10-6 on Matt Prater's 53-yard field goal with 4:08 left in the third quarter.

Seattle's Steven Hauschka kicked a 27-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.


Prater, who booted a 51-yarder just before halftime, became the first kicker in NFL history to make two field goals of at least 50 yards in a playoff game.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 18 of 32 passes for 205 yards for the Lions, who have lost their last nine playoff games-an NFL record-and are 1-11 in postseason play since 1957. Detroit's only playoff win in a span of nearly 60 years came in 1992 over Dallas.

The Lions had only 231 yards of offense. Detroit scored only one second-half touchdown during its season-ending four-game losing streak.

Wilson threw two highlight-worthy touchdown passes to Paul Richardson and Doug Baldwin. Richardson's one-handed catch of a 4-yard touchdown was one of two receptions the wide receiver made with one hand while a defender was called for pass interference.

Wilson finished by throwing a 13-yard touchdown pass to Baldwin, who reached out to take the ball away from intended target Jermaine Kearse with 3:36 remaining.

Baldwin caught 11 passes for 104 yards, and Richardson added three receptions for 48 yards and the touchdown.

Seattle advanced to the divisional round for the fifth year in a row and will play a playoff game in Atlanta for the second time since the 2012 postseason.

"It's awesome," Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril said of the five-year streak of playoff success. "But it doesn't mean anything until you're the last man standing. At the end of the day, we want to win the Super Bowl championship."


Richardson's touchdown catch gave the Seahawks a 7-0 lead midway through the second quarter.

On fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Richardson reached across Detroit safety Tavon Wilson with his left hand while Wilson, who was flagged for pass interference, pinned down Richardson's right arm. The acrobatic catch resulted in a touchdown with 7:07 left in the first half.

The Seahawks added a 43-yard Hauschka field goal with 1:55 left in the half to open a 10-0 lead.

Detroit used a 30-yard pass from Matthew Stafford to Boldin to set up Prater's first field goal with 20 seconds left in the half, pulling the Lions within 10-3.

Detroit receivers dropped four passes in the first half, which played a part in Stafford completing 9 of 17 attempts for 97 yards in the opening 30 minutes.

"That's uncharacteristic of us, and we've got to get better at that," Caldwell said.

The Seahawks were plagued by mistakes for most of the regular season but turned in one of their cleanest games. They hope to perform at a similar level next weekend against an Atlanta team that almost upset Seattle at home during the regular season.

"We're looking forward to the challenge," Sherman said. "We feel like we made some mental errors the last time. We feel like it's going to be a great ballgame."

NOTES: The last time the Seahawks lost a home playoff game was after the 2004 season, when the St. Louis Rams won at the University of Washington. ... Seattle TE Jimmy Graham came out of the game temporarily in the first quarter after taking a big hit from Detroit S Tavon Wilson. Graham had to be helped off the field but was back in action by the middle of the second quarter. ... Veteran KR/PR Devin Hester and LS Tyler Ott made their debuts for the Seahawks after signing earlier in the week. ... The previous Seattle record for rushing yards in a playoff game was 157 by Marshawn Lynch.

Texans turn heat up on Raiders

It didn't require much effort to unearth social media commentary against the gratuitous camera shots of injured Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt cheerleading on the sideline on Saturday in Houston, Texas.

Despite what Houston accomplished defensively this season without him, Watt remains the face of the franchise, even during a game where the Texans proved to be doing just fine without their All-Pro.

What the Texans unleashed on Oakland Raiders rookie quarterback Connor Cook was a torrent from pass rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, and a stifling secondary led by veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph. The Texans' 27-14 AFC wild-card game victory at NRG Stadium offered another example of how the sky didn't fall when Watt was lost to season-ending back surgery after Week 3.

"I was trying to stay in Clowney's ear, because at the end of the day he just changes the game,"Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye said. "We miss J.J., but he's just that good of a presence. He shows you why he's No. 1 overall (in the 2014 draft)."

Clowney finished with just one tackle and did not record a hit on Cook. But his first-quarter interception deep in Raiders' territory was pivotal, and it revealed the full breath of his athleticism with Clowney tipping the ball twice before corralling it and setting up the first Houston touchdown.

Clowney added two pass breakups and was all over the field, rerouting runners on the interior and chasing receivers sideline to sideline. His disruptiveness often times supersedes statistical definition.

"I'm just happy to be out there," said Clowney, who will represent Houston in the Pro Bowl. "I have been through a lot. For me to come out here right now and help my team win is big. I'm happy."

Mercilus, who along with Clowney and linebacker Benardrick McKinney was named second team All-Pro this week, produced tangible statistical results with seven tackles, three TFLs and two sacks.

A first-round pick in 2012, Mercilus emerged last season with a dozen sacks working in tandem with Watt. This season he had a career-high 53 tackles and recovered four fumbles to complement his 7.5 sacks.

Without Watt, Mercilus and Clowney now serve as the Texans' fearsome rush duo. No amount of attention lavished upon Watt can take away from the impact Mercilus and Clowney routinely have.

"We take it to heart," Mercilus said of the general disregard of the Texans defense. "Nobody really gives us a lot of credit or anything to come out here and play the way that we do and continue on this playoff race to get to that Super Bowl."

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin (89) catches a touchdown pass against the Detroit Lions during the second half in the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at CenturyLink Field. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, left, catches a touchdown pass against the Detroit Lions on Saturday night during an NFC Wild Card playoff game at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Troy Wayrynen / USA TODAY Sports.

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