OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- A.J. Green didn't practice Wednesday, and there's a good chance that the Cincinnati Bengals star receiver will be listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens. But, in the mind Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, there's not a question of whether Green will line up against the AFC North leaders.

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"He's playing," Webb said before the reporter could finish his question about Green. "It's a big game. He likes challenges. He's a great receiver. He's going to have to have a broken leg not to come on this field."

The status of Green will have a major impact on whether the Ravens retain first place or the Bengals complete a season sweep. Recent history says so.

No player has more receiving yards against the Ravens in the past five years than Green (465 yards). In the last three meetings, Green has caught 18 passes and averaged 114.3 yards.

Green has been the biggest big-play nuisance for the Ravens. Since the start of the 2013 season, the Ravens have given up nine passes of longer 50 yards and Green has caught three of them -- all of which went for touchdowns.

Each of those touchdowns have meant something:
  • On Nov. 11, 2013, his 51-yard touchdown on a Hail Mary sent the game into overtime.
  • On Dec. 29, 2013, his 53-yard touchdown against safety Matt Elam put the Bengals up 7-6 in the first quarter.
  • On Sept. 7, 2013, his 77-yard touchdown against cornerback Chykie Brown put the Bengals ahead for good in the fourth quarter and came 48 seconds after the Ravens took the lead.

How much of an impact does Green make on the Bengals' offense? In four games with Green, quarterback Andy Dalton has a 100.3 passer rating. In two games without him, Dalton's passer rating is 75.6.

Webb said he would rank Green among the top three wide receivers in the game.

"He can catch no matter where the ball is at," Webb said. "He runs great routes. He understands the game. He's a competitor, [and] that's No. 1."
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier did not practice on Wednesday, a curious development a day after coach Mike Tomlin said the rookie is "extremely close to returning" to action.

Shazier
Shazier practiced on a limited basis all of last week, and the Steelers allowed him to test his right knee Monday night before deactivating the first-round pick for their game against the Houston Texans.

Shazier, who has missed the past four games because of a sprained knee, was held out of the Steelers' first practice of the week along with right tackle Marcus Gilbert (concussion) and nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder).

Safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) were limited participants in practice.

Thomas has missed the past two games, but Tomlin said the second-year man is also close to returning. Taylor took part in some drills for the first time since breaking his forearm in the Steelers' 37-19 win against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 21.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots will be without their best pass-rusher, Chandler Jones, for "about a month," according to the Boston Globe. With that news breaking Tuesday night and the Dallas Cowboys releasing defensive end Michael Sam off their practice squad, some have asked on Twitter if the Patriots and Sam might be a match.

Sam
Sam is the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, and there is widespread interest in his next potential landing spot.

The Patriots lost a pass-rusher, and Sam's greatest football attribute is pass-rushing, so it makes sense that these dots have been connected. The Patriots also have openings on their practice squad.

So how about it?

If the Patriots didn't just trade for Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers and didn't have other end-of-the-line players on the practice squad in Jake Bequette and Darius Fleming, I'd feel stronger about the possibility of Sam landing on New England's practice squad. Even with Jones sidelined, the Patriots have a bit of a logjam at the position when factoring in their active roster (53 players) and practice squad (10 players).

Between rookie Zach Moore (sixth round, Concordia), Bequette and Fleming, those are three younger defensive end/outside linebackers that Sam would essentially duplicate when looking at the 63-player snapshot.

Practice-squad players are critical in that they fill out depth so the team can have a productive practice and top players won't be overworked, and that's why I think it's unlikely that the Patriots would bring Sam aboard instead of filling in other areas where they have more of a depth shortage.

The Film Don't Lie: Steelers

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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A weekly look at what the Pittsburgh Steelers must fix.

Markus Wheaton appears to be in danger of disappearing from the offense and the Steelers need to find a way to restore the second-year wide receiver’s confidence as well as get him more involved in the passing game.

The Indianapolis Colts will try to take Antonio Brown out of the game Sunday at Heinz Field, and they have a legitimate shutdown cornerback in Vontae Davis, whom Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said is playing at a Pro Bowl level.

No team has succeeded in stopping Brown, who leads the NFL with 913 receiving yards, but the Steelers need a complement to emerge opposite the two-time Pro Bowler.

Wheaton looked like he had things figured out after playing only 152 snaps last season as a rookie because of finger injuries and the players ahead of him on the depth chart. But after catching 19 passes for 227 yards in the Steelers’ first four games, Wheaton has regressed.

The 2013 third-round draft pick has caught just five passes for 50 yards in the Steelers’ last three games. Wheaton did not have a catch in the Steelers’ 30-23 win over the Houston Texans on Monday night, and he played only 24 snaps.

Tomlin is eschewing labels or roles for his wide receivers aside from Brown, who is a clear No. 1. The eighth-year coach said he will play his wide receivers based on situations, which may not bode well for Wheaton becoming a prominent part of the offense.

That is not to say Tomlin is unhappy with Wheaton, who has been targeted 13 times in the past two games and caught only four passes for 33 yards.

“He’s working extremely hard,” Tomlin said. “I like his effort on a day-to-day basis.”

That proclamation is what makes Wheaton such an enigma. The 5-foot-11, 182-pounder has good speed, is a polished route runner and is as conscientious as anyone in the Steelers’ locker room.

Wheaton made a point to watch film of the Steelers’ 31-10 loss at Cleveland on Oct. 12 with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The two went over every throw Roethlisberger made to the former Oregon State star in that game.

It didn’t translate into the two connecting against the Texans, and it is worth wondering whether Roethlisberger is losing faith in the player whose locker is next to his.

Big Ben will surely say otherwise during his weekly media scrum. But Wheaton needs to start making the most of what may be limited opportunities until he starts making more plays.
The Baltimore Ravens (5-2) still have nine games left to play, but it's never too early to gauge their postseason odds.

Since the 12-team playoff format began in 1990, teams with two losses after Week 7 have a 67 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Ravens have began 5-2 three times previously under coach John Harbaugh, and each time (2010, 2011 and 2012) they've qualified for the postseason.

And 6 percent of those two-loss teams went on to win the Super Bowl, a number that includes the 2012 Ravens.

There has been increased confidence in the Ravens, based on Super Bowl odds. The Ravens' odds have gone from 66-to-1 after a season-opening loss to Cincinnati to 18-to-1 heading into Week 8, according to the online sportsbook Bovada.LV.

In terms of the AFC North, the Ravens have a 35 percent chance to take the division, according to ESPN Insider Mike Sando. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals have been given a 25 chance, and the Cleveland Browns are at 15 percent.

"It's tough to find a glaring weakness on the Ravens," Sando wrote. "They have the best record in the division and the easiest schedule."
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers reached into their bag of trick to score the touchdown that put them ahead for good in a 30-23 win over the Houston Texans.

But coach Mike Tomlin was in no mood to talk about wide receiver Antonio Brown’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore the day after it happened -- or at least discuss how the play came about with the Steelers trailing the Texans late in the first half.

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Brown
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh on Tuesday morning that Tomlin called the play in which Brown took a pitch in the backfield, pivoted back to his left and hit Moore in the end zone.

Tomlin refused to confirm that he had indeed made that play call, though he did not deny it either.

“I take responsibility for all calls,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “I’m not going to get into the intimate details about how we administer our business on the sidelines during the course of football games. I don’t think that’s prudent. I don’t think that helps us.”

When asked what the Steelers were thinking as a team when they opted for Brown to throw a pass near the goal-line, Tomlin said, “The idea is to score and Antonio has proven to be a guy who is capable delivering plays for us, whether it’s running the ball or throwing the ball. You just want to put the ball in playmakers’ hands, and he is that.”

Brown caught nine passes for 90 yards in addition to his scoring toss, and the two-time Pro Bowler probably should have finished with over 100 receiving yards and a touchdown.

Brown made a spectacular 16-yard catch in the corner of the end zone in the fourth quarter and appeared to get both feet in bounds, if only by an inch, for a touchdown that would have likely put the Texans away.

But the ruling of a touchdown on the field was reversed after a video review and the Steelers had to settle for a Shaun Suisham field goal that gave them a 27-16 lead. Brown took to social media after the game to voice his displeasure with having a touchdown taken away from the Steelers.

The fifth-year veteran posted a picture on his Twitter account that showed both of his feet in bounds and wrote “[bleeping] refs.”

Tomlin said he did not know anything about what Brown wrote on his Twitter account.

“I don’t get into the social media stuff,” Tomlin said. “I thought it was an extremely close play and usually when plays are that close they stay with the ball on the field. I was of the impression that it was going to remain [a touchdown].”

When asked if he has a problem with Brown protesting the call the way he did, Tomlin said, “We’re professionals. I expect them to behave that way both on and off the grass.”
The Cleveland Browns have passed on nine easy points in the last two road games trying to continue drives on fourth-and-short. Three times, they failed to convert.

This shows coach Mike Pettine’s aggressiveness, which players can appreciate, but the calls can haunt a coach when they don’t work.

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Pettine
Did Pettine second-guess the decision to go for fourth-and-1 in field goal range while up 6-0 at Jacksonville this past Sunday, especially after the Jaguars converted a touchdown off Cleveland's failed attempt?

“When it doesn’t work out, absolutely,” Pettine said.

Pettine is not afraid to take his chances. The Browns are 2-of-7 (28.6 percent) on fourth downs this season, good for 28th in the league.

Two conversion tries came while down double digits against the Titans, so the need for six points instead of field goals was understandable. The Jacksonville call was tough to digest for two reasons. One, the Browns gave up all momentum entering the half because of the gamble. And two, they didn’t use their strength, the running game, to try to get one yard. Instead, they ran a route for Jordan Cameron that looked doomed from the start.

Pettine said he gauges situational football with fourth-down calls but also goes by “feel.” In the case of the Jacksonville play, Pettine felt his defense was playing well enough to stop the Jaguars in case the Browns didn’t convert, plus he didn’t want to settle for field goals all game. Turns out the Jags marched 76 yards downfield in 57 seconds to make it 7-6, the worst possible outcome.

“I get the analytics behind it, but to me, all the circumstances are different,” Pettine said of going for fourth downs. “I know you can just look at paper and say, ‘Hey, they’re converted at this rate,’ but to me, you have to factor in the circumstances of the game. That’s what I do, but I think in general, I’ll tend to be a little more on the aggressive side. It’s somewhere in between.”

Once the Browns convert a crucial fourth down on the road, Pettine can be justified in his confidence in his offense. That doesn’t make the Jacksonville call any less painful.

Pettine has conviction regardless. He knew he was going for the fourth down two plays before.

“When it was second-and-1 we made a decision, ‘Hey, we’re in four-down mode,’” Pettine said. “That’s ... you live with it.”
PITTSBURGH -- Linebacker Ryan Shazier is likely to return Sunday for the Pittsburgh Steelers after missing the last four games because of a sprained knee.

Shazier ran on the Heinz Field turf Monday night prior to the Steelers’ 30-23 win over the Houston Texans. The Steelers also took a look at safety Shamarko Thomas, who has been out with a hamstring injury, prior to the game before deactivating both players.

“At the 11th hour we decided to use some other people,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “We expect both guys to be extremely close (to returning).”

Tomlin seemed less sure about starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert.

The fourth-year veteran left the win over the Texans in the second quarter with a concussion, and he has a short week to pass the battery of tests that will be required for Gilbert to play Sunday against the visiting Indianapolis Colts.

Mike Adams will start at right tackle if Gilbert is not cleared to play against the Colts, who will bring a five-game winning streak to Heinz Field and are tied for third in the NFL with 21 sacks.

Adams played extensively Monday night for the first time this season, and Tomlin was pleased with how the 2012 second-round draft pick held up against the Texans’ front seven and All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt in particular.

“I thought he did an admirable job. Obviously, it’s not easy going in in the manner in which he did, some of the things we had to do from a game plan standpoint, the movement of J.J. Watt and how they employ their defense,” Tomlin said. “But aside from the technical things and the assignment things, I just thought he played with great energy and finished. He had a good look in his eye. Great night for him and we needed him to step up.”
BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns might be without defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin for some time.

Coach Mike Pettine said Rubin went for a second opinion on an injured ankle. He has missed the last two games.

Pettine was asked if surgery could be a possibility.

Rubin
“I would think all options are on the table at this point,” he said. “I haven’t heard that brought up yet, but I’m assuming that could be the case.”

The Browns will have an update on Rubin’s status Wednesday.

Rubin’s injury highlights one of the more disappointing position groups on the team. The defensive line was supposed to be a team strength. But the defense ranks last in the league in run defense, giving 155.5 yards per game. Not all of that falls on the line, but it is the first ‘line’ of defense.

In a separate personnel move, the team waived fullback Ray Agnew and promoted Kiero Small from the practice squad.

“He’s been doing an outstanding job for us on the scout teams,” Pettine said. “We just felt it was time to promote him and see what he can do.”

There was also word that Seattle was about to sign Small to the Seahawks' active roster, which teams can do with practice squad players.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh talked about how his team's "eyes are on the horizon" just minutes after slamming the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

What lies ahead are the two most important games on the Ravens' schedule. Playing on the road at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh represents a prime opportunity to send a message to the AFC North.

Sure, the Ravens became the unofficial champion of the NFC South by routing Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta over the past four weeks. Winning by an average margin of 27 points against the worst division in the NFL has allowed the Ravens to forge an identity of a dangerous offense and a stifling defense. Joe Flacco is throwing touchdowns at a career record pace, and the Ravens' pass rush is striking fear into quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
AP Photo/Steve NesiusJoe Flacco and the Ravens have road games at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the next two weeks.
Now, it's time for the Ravens to take business in their own dysfunctional division. The Ravens (5-2) won't clinch anything if they win at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, something they haven't done in the same season since 2011. But the Ravens can grab the AFC North by its throat if they can avenge a season-opening loss to the Bengals and complete a season sweep of the Steelers.

Based on the last few weeks, this division is theirs for the taking. The reeling Bengals (3-2-1) haven't won since Sept. 21 after starting 3-0. The third-place Steelers (4-3) have lost to two last-place teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns. And the Browns (3-3) fell to the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars by 18 points only a week after hammering the Steelers.

The Ravens have proven to be the AFC North's most complete team in winning five of their past six games. Flacco is the NFL's eighth-highest rated passer (97.2), and Justin Forsett is the league's No. 5 rusher (71.9 yards per game). Their defense has allowed the fewest points in the NFL because of an oppressive pass rush and a physical run stoppers.

Harbaugh made it clear Monday that he doesn't want to hear any compliments. Whenever a reporter asked about a positive aspect of the team, Harbaugh responded with a one-sentence answer. The message is the Ravens aren't thinking of what they did the past few weeks. Like he said after Sunday's game, their eyes are squarely on the future.

"We have a lot of football to play, and we’re not a good enough football team right now to accomplish the things that we plan on accomplishing," Harbaugh said. "The ball is in our court. We need to go get that done.”

Of course, the Ravens' fortunes can easily go the opposite direction by losing the next two weeks. They will hand first place back over to the Bengals if they lose Sunday, and they only hold a one-game lead over the Steelers. On the other hand, the Ravens can essentially gain a two-game cushion over the Bengals and Steelers with two wins as well as improve to 4-1 within the division.

Once the Ravens get past these two division road games, the second half of the season sets up quite favorably. The combined record of the last seven opponents is 19-27 (.413), and there is currently only one team with a winning record in that stretch (the San Diego Chargers at 5-2).

That's why their games at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are far from must-wins. But winning sends a statement that the AFC North is theirs.

Asked what he hopes to learn about his team over the next two games, Harbaugh said, "I’m looking forward to finding out. It’s a big deal.”

The Film Don't Lie: Bengals

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
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A weekly look at what the Bengals must fix:

Oh, how the Cincinnati Bengals long for the days earlier this season when their week-to-week fixes were considerably minor. That's not the case after Sunday's disaster at Indianapolis. Following their 27-0 loss to the Colts, there are a host of issues they have to work through going into this Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Baltimore Ravens.

With help from offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, here is a list of items the offense has to tweak and change and adjust within the next five days. For the purposes of this post, we aren't going to focus on any of those. One other simple, seemingly easy fix the Bengals can make this week is to be better offensively on first down. By getting off to a good start at the beginning of drives, a team can set itself up for a more favorable outcome by the end of it.

Third downs were the bane of the Bengals' existence Sunday, as they converted just one of their 13 tries. The main reason they had such difficulty with those conversions was because 10 of the 13 third downs came on third-and-7 or longer scenarios. When a team has that far to go to get a first down, it typically doesn't bode well for their chances of converting. How were the Bengals consistently getting stuck in that position? Because on six of the 14 drives they had in the game, they either didn't gain a yard or went backward on first down. Such poor starts to drives hurt them when it was time to convert on third down.

Here's another reason the Bengals need shorter third downs. This season, they have converted 62 percent of their third downs with 4 or fewer yards to go, and haven't allowed a sack or turnover in those scenarios. They have converted just 30 percent of their third downs with 5 or more yards to go, allowing three sacks and throwing two interceptions.

There are fixes the Bengals need to make on defense, too, but they could help their defense by keeping it off the field. They can do that by having bigger gains on first down, making it easier to convert shorter third downs.

The Film Don't Lie: Ravens

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
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A weekly look at what the Baltimore Ravens must fix:

Joe Flacco's blind side will be an area of major concern Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals if offensive tackle Eugene Monroe doesn't return for the Ravens.

James Hurst, who has filled in for the injured Monroe, has looked like an undrafted rookie in his four starts. Over the past three weeks, Hurst has given up three sacks, two quarterback hits and five hurries. He's also been flagged for four penalties, including three for holding on Sunday.

The Ravens went with Hurst because he's a hard worker and is intelligent. He's not a liability in terms of missing an assignment. His shortcoming is athleticism, which isn't surprising for a tackle who wasn't drafted. Hurst struggles with speed rushers off the edge because of his footwork. When there is a mismatch like this, Hurst either gets beat or is forced to hold.

There is a chance that the Ravens could get back Monroe, who had surgery on his knee on Sept. 24. Monroe practiced once last week and was listed as doubtful for this past Sunday's game.

The Ravens will need Monroe when they play at Cincinnati, where first place in the AFC North is on the line. Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry, who will line up against the Ravens' left tackle, had 1.5 sacks in the season opener in Baltimore and is tied for the NFL lead with 19 quarterback hurries this season.

The Film Don't Lie: Browns

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
11:00
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A weekly look at what the Cleveland Browns must fix:

Luckily for the Browns, this week’s opponent, the Oakland Raiders, allow 145.3 rushing yards per game, which is 29th in the league. Cleveland is determined to run the ball. But if the Raiders can somehow keep the Browns in third-and-long situations at least half the time, they can thwart the Browns’ play-action and tee off on the depleted right side of the offensive line.

The Browns finished 4-of-17 on third down in this past Sunday's 24-6 loss to Jacksonville. They converted less than 25 percent of those attempts because of where they started; they faced 10 plays of third-and-7 or longer. Jacksonville held the Browns to 2.3 yards per carry, which made third down easy to manage for the Jaguars. The loss of center Alex Mack forced Paul McQuistan to start at right guard, where he struggled mightily. Sunday should be a chance for Raiders tackle Justin Ellis to apply pressure on Brian Hoyer up the middle.

The Browns’ offense is largely about rhythm -- getting a few quick first downs with the run to set up a big passing play -- but defenses will have eight players in the box unless the Browns can stretch the field with receivers early and often. Jacksonville did, and Oakland will try.
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers made a statement Monday night, pulling their season from the brink shortly after boos had rained down on them in their own stadium.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward made an even bigger statement after the Steelers overcame an early 13-0 deficit and held off the Houston Texans 30-23 at Heinz Field.

Heyward, talking about the play of fellow defensive end Brett Keisel, said, "He turned back time. He was the best [No.] 99 out there."

Such a statement would seem ridiculous on the surface.

Keisel, who turned 36 last month, did not even re-sign with the Steelers until late August because of lukewarm interest from the organization. The other No. 99 in the nationally televised game was Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

Watt is only the best defensive player on the planet and owns a list of NFL accomplishments that is longer than Keisel's beard.

Watt, as the Steelers could attest after improving to 4-3, can be contained only to a certain degree. The Steelers largely did a good job against the 6-foot-5, 289-pounder, and he still finished with three tackles, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Brett Keisel
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesBrett Keisel's interception led to the third Steelers touchdown during the final two minutes of the first half.
His stat line easily trumped the one turned in by Keisel.

His impact on the game, however, did not.

Keisel's fingerprints were all over one of the more bizarre stretches in the history of Heinz Field, one in which the Steelers needed just five plays and less than two minutes of possession to put together three touchdown drives.

That sequence changed everything -- maybe even the Steelers' season.

It seemed so out of place coming from a team that managed just two offensive touchdowns over its previous two games, against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, that you half expected to see cows flying over Heinz Field at halftime.

Less improbable, though maybe only slightly so given how much the NFL is a young man's game, was Keisel making more of an impact on Monday night than Watt.

Keisel hurried Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick into a third-down incompletion that forced a punt with the Steelers trailing 13-3 and just less than two minutes left in the second quarter. Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

After a takeaway by the Steelers defense led to another quick touchdown, Keisel turned in one of the plays of the game. With just more than a minute left in the first half, Keisel redirected a Fitzpatrick pass when the Texans weren't content to run out the clock and go into the locker room trailing by four points. After Fitzpatrick's pass clanked off the face mask of linebacker Lawrence Timmons, it landed in one of Keisel's ample mitts.

He started rumbling toward the end zone and made it to the 8-yard line. Two plays later, Roethlisberger found Le'Veon Bell for a 2-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds to spare in the second quarter.

The Texans never recovered from that barrage of points.

After the Steelers survived a late rally and an onside kick attempt that almost went in the Texans' favor, Keisel was asked if the three-minute stretch at the end of the first half, which started with a field goal at the 3:08 mark and resulted in 24 unanswered points, saved the season. "I don’t know," he said, "It's still early [in the season] -- well, about halfway."

It is late enough for Keisel to know the Steelers have to start stringing together victories.

That is why he didn't plan on allowing himself or his teammates much time to celebrate a win the Steelers had to have on Monday night.

"We can't just win and lose one, win and lose one," Keisel said. "We've got to be able to have the same urgency after a win as we have after a loss."

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