Steelers the Latest Lost Cause

For those who thought they saw it all in last weekend's 39-38 San Francisco victory over the New York Giants, here it was all over again: chaos in the final seconds, premature celebration, a controversial referee's decision that helped determine the outcome.

There were, however, a couple of key differences between that one and Tennessee's 34-31 overtime victory over Pittsburgh on Saturday.

The game was played in Nashville.

The team that believes it was jobbed is from Pittsburgh.

The city and media of New York did not appear to be involved in any way, and the NFL does not headquarter itself in Nashville or Pittsburgh. So while Steeler Coach Bill Cowher might gnash his teeth from here to next training camp, do not expect the NFL to pick up his cause or overshadow the week ahead by issuing press releases denouncing the officials who worked the Titan-Steeler AFC divisional playoff game.

The epitaph to the Steelers' 2002 season figures to be succinct.

Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck, out in the second round.

Cowher said it was "ludicrous" to decide an AFC semifinal on a running-into-the-kicker penalty, in overtime, with the flag falling long after the kick was shanked, with Tennessee kicker Joe Nedney milking the "foul" by flopping like a fish on a boat deck -- or a Spanish soccer player in the penalty area.

Cowher could have a point.

In a bizarre three-to-make-one sequence for Nedney, the Titan kicker:

* Converted a 31-yard attempt after the Steelers had signaled to call timeout, negating the game-winning kick but not the celebratory fireworks that kept popping and exploding overhead while the two teams milled around on the field and prepared for a second take.

* Badly hooked his next attempt from 31 yards, apparently giving the Steelers a second chance of their own. But then Pittsburgh's Dewayne Washington clipped Nedney's leg and Nedney spun as if he'd been hit by a Mack truck, convincing referee Ron Blum the contact was worth a five-yard penalty and another try at the game-winner.

* Split the uprights from 26 yards while Cowher and several Steelers screamed that they had signaled for another timeout just before the ball was snapped.

Blum said no, the Steelers were done and the Titans will play either Oakland or the New York Jets in the AFC championship game.

Today's Raider-Jet game has New York's undivided attention -- and, hence, the league's. And while part of Pennsylvania was appeased with Donovan McNabb's winning return to the lineup in Philadelphia's 20-6 triumph over Atlanta, it's worth noting what happened to the Steelers before their angry cries are yawned away as yesterday's news.

Pittsburgh and Tennessee played only 2 minutes 15 seconds of overtime, but crammed those brief moments full of potential goats.

There was Washington, who first set up the winning field goal with a blown tackle on Titan wide receiver Justin McCareins, turning what should have been an insignificant gain into a 32-yard pass play.

There was Coliseum pyrotechnics guy, who brought on the victory celebration before the victory had actually been clinched.

There was Nedney, whose blown 31-yarder could have consigned him to Al Del Greco ignominy before Washington burst through the right side of the line for his own brush with infamy.

There was Blum, who dropped the flag on Washington and, with it, the curtain on Pittsburgh's season.

And there was Cowher, who wanted to ice Nedney by calling another timeout just before the snap but waited a second too long to give the sideline signal.

And the biggest goat is?

History is tapping Washington on the shoulder. Washington messed up once in overtime, got a rare second chance and messed up even worse, right in front of Blum.

Washington would get no third chance, because of the third chance he gave Nedney.

A penalty flag also helped swing Saturday's NFC semifinal. After a first half devoted mainly to the Falcons trying to warm their hands and the Eagles trying to get re-acclimated to McNabb, Atlanta's Michael Vick broke loose into the open field in the third quarter, scoring what appeared to be the game's first offensive touchdown.

Vick's scramble appeared to have tied the score at 13-13 ... except Atlanta's Travis Claridge had been cited for holding, nullifying the touchdown.

The Falcons defended well enough to win a very tough game on the road. For more than three quarters, the only points the Eagles had were the result of one interception return by Bobby Taylor and two field goals by David Akers.

But the Falcons were flagged nine times for 95 yards, and it's hard enough trying to stay with McNabb without that kind of backpedaling. That bought McNabb, who hadn't played in two months, enough time and space for Eagle Coach Andy Reid to gamble on fourth and one in the fourth quarter. McNabb took advantage, hitting James Thrash for a 35-yard touchdown that clinched Philadelphia's second consecutive appearance in the NFC championship game.

Last season, that meant a trip to St. Louis, where the Eagles played gamely but couldn't keep pace with the Rams' full-field array of attacking options. Next Sunday will be much different -- one last home game at the Vet against either the offensively challenged Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the San Francisco 49ers.

By all accounts, including the NFL's, the 49ers are living on borrowed time. They play today in the NFC semifinals because, according to the party line, New York's Giants were robbed -- and because these are the NFL playoffs, not the Winter Olympics.

Here, when there's a controversial result, they don't award both teams victories. Although from the sound of last week's media frenzy, which was very reminiscent of Salt Lake City in pitch and volume, it did make you briefly pause and wonder.

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