Friday January 14th, 2011

Now this is going to be fun.

Five of the last seven Pittsburgh-Baltimore games have been decided by a field goal. Heinz Field, site of Saturday's AFC semifinal game between the Steelers and Ravens, has been a Bermuda Triangle for kickers.

In the 10-year history of Heinz Field, the longest field goal has been 52 yards, and kickers have made only three of 16 (19 percent) from 50 yards and longer in Heinz history. They've hit on 60 percent of their tries from 40 to 49 yards since Heinz Field opened in 2001.

A couple of issues Saturday could make kicking interesting. The field has new sod in the wake of the New Year's Day hockey game. In bad, wintry weather, the sod has had 12 days to mesh with the field. And kicking into the south end of the stadium, which is always problematic because of swirling winds, could be more troubling with winds from the southwest forecast at about 10-20 mph, and a 70 percent chance of snow. So it could come down Baltimore's Billy Cundiff or Pittsburgh's Shaun Suisham Saturday evening in Pittsburgh. Their record at Heinz:

Cundiff said whenever the wind comes from south or southwest, that adds to the unpredictability.

When the Ravens played at Pittsburgh Oct. 3, with light winds from the north, Cundiff had a 46-yarder from the left hash that he aimed straight toward the middle of the uprights. At the last second, the kick veered hard right.

"I have no idea why,'' Cundiff said from Maryland on Wednesday. "That's why this is the great mystery of Heinz Field. Whoever says it doesn't play with your head going into a game is lying.''

There's one other factor of significance with Cundiff, who normally would be a big factor in a field-position kind of game like this one promises to be. He tied the NFL record with 40 touchbacks this year, but don't look for him to boom the ball out of the end zone, or six yards deep, on Saturday.

"The resodding,'' he said, "probably means we'll struggle with footing. At Heinz, when you kick off, you really don't get all of the ball, because you're concerned about the footing. Normally, when I kick off, I'm 10 yards from the ball. But here, I'll start nine yards away and take shorter steps so I can be sure of my footing. Then I'll lean over the ball. You lose distance because you're focused on making sure you keep your balance.''

But ...

"You just have to suck it up and deal with it. We're kickers. Nobody wants to hear our excuses.''

Suisham prefers to ignore the Heinz Factor. "I see where you're going with this,'' he told me, "but I guess with me maybe ignorance is bliss. I just kick. I don't concern myself with that very much. It's often not easy, or ideal conditions for a kicker. But I grew up in Canada. I kicked at Bowling Green [in northwest Ohio]. I'm OK with whatever the weather is, whatever the conditions are.''

I asked both kickers about this being such a close series, with so many games decided by three points; how would they feel about the game coming down to their right foot, in the final seconds?

I found the answers telling. See what you think.

Suisham: [Pause] "I enjoy extra points. I hope we're scoring touchdowns. Coming in every game, they can all come down to that one kick. It's part of the job. You can't find that anywhere else.''

Cundiff: "I would absolutely love it. When I was out of football, what I missed about the game most was the opportunity to have the game riding on my right leg. When I was out of football, I went and got my MBA at Arizona State, then went and got a paid internship with a venture capital firm as an analyst. I enjoyed it. And what that did was make it easier to live with the pressure of being a kicker, because now I'm not scared about the what-ifs. Now I know I'll be able to survive no matter what happens to me in this job. I think that helps me do my best. It takes away a lot of the pressure.''

Advantage, Cundiff -- I think ... unless he's kicking into the south end of the stadium, and the wind kicks up. Then? Flip a coin.

There's no player under more pressure than Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, of course, this weekend. But that's too easy.

Curtis Lofton, MLB, Atlanta.

Now that the Packers seem to have some sort of NFL-caliber running game (James Starks vs. Philadelphia last week: 23 carries, 123 yards), it's going to be up to the middle of the Falcons' defense -- tackles Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry -- to plug the gaps up front, and then up to Lofton to make sure Starks never gets past the front seven. Lofton, now a three-down player for defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder, is the Falcons' defensive quarterback, and he'll have the influence of a quarterback in this game, because Starks is coming.

Combined defensive stat line of unknown New England front-seven pieces Kyle Love, Eric Moore, Landon Cohen and Myron Pryor against the Jets:

For all the hype of the Patriots being the best team in football, they have an awful lot of players no one's ever heard of.

Wayne Hunter, RT, New York Jets (number 78).

Rex Ryan said Hunter, the journeyman replacing starting right tackle Damian Woody -- placed on injured-reserve this week -- wouldn't be a weak spot in the Jets' offensive front, and you can be sure offensive line coach Bill Callahan will have Hunter coached up well for the varied looks New England's front seven will throw at him. It'll be interesting to see if the guard playing next to him, the underrated Brandon Moore, will be affected by the back spasms that caused him to miss practice Wednesday.

1. Joe Flacco trying to match Big Ben. Last week in Kansas City, the Ravens quarterback had his first big playoff game, in Kansas City. He'll need another for the Ravens to beat Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. Ben has a six-game winning streak in this series, and hasn't lost to Baltimore since 2006.

2. Todd Heap. The last time the Ravens met Pittsburgh, Heap went out early due to a strained hammy, and the Steelers took advantage of poor blocking from the Baltimore rookie tight ends. Last week, Heap had 10 catches and great impact for the Ravens against Kansas City, and there's no question the Ravens' chances rest heavily on his veteran shoulders.

3. Matt Ryan trying to be perfect ... again. Last time the Falcons played Green Bay, Ryan took a lot of the short stuff while under attack by the Packer pressure. It worked: he completed 24 of 28 throws and the Falcons won by a field goal. Look for Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers to dial up the pressure Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.

4. The phenom from Niagara Falls. Meet James Starks, America. When's the last time a player you never heard of had the kind of 123-yard rushing game that Starks, the rookie sixth-rounder from western New York, had in Philadelphia? Great stat you'll hear from Ron Jaworski on the NFL Matchup show Saturday morning: Starks gained 61 yards last weekend in eight rushes when the Packers played that weird, inverted wishbone formation, with two big blockers stationed in front of Starks and in the guard-tackle hole just behind the line. Smart move by Mike McCarthy. It'll be interesting to see how the Falcons defend that.

5. How Tom Brady targets Antonio Cromartie. The Jets corner slurred the Patriots quarterback to Gary Myers of the New York Daily News on Tuesday. If you don't know what he said, google it and find out; it's too bush-league for me to repeat here. Brady will act like it doesn't bother him, but tune in Sunday at 4:30 Eastern, and you'll see otherwise. Brady's going to try to get his revenge on the field.

6. Cromartie on the big stage. You asked for it, Antonio. You got it. Loved what Reggie Jackson told Mike Greenberg on his ESPN radio show. Reggie Jax told Greenie he didn't understand lightweights talking and acting like heavyweights. This is Cromartie's time to be on an isolated camera for 60 minutes. The eye in the sky won't lie, and with the relatively untouchable Darrelle Revis on the other side, there's no doubt Brady will go after Cromartie and Jets nickels heavily.

7. Sanchez in the cold. Mark Sanchez was horrible (zero touchdowns, three picks, 27.8 rating) in his last game in Foxboro, on a frigid December night in Foxboro. This is going to be a frigid evening in Foxboro (27 degrees), and Sanchez is coming off a wild-high first half in Indy when it was 72 degrees and windless for four quarters. He'll need a lot of help from the Jet running game for New York to win.

8. Aaron Smith. The stud Pittsburgh 3-4 defensive end, out since midseason with a torn triceps muscle, is likely to have a chance to come back if the Steelers make the Super Bowl, but not before. Ziggy Hood alert, folks.

9. Third down in Chicago. In the Seahawks' 23-20 win at Chicago in October, Jay Cutler was sacked six times and the Bears were 0-for-12 on third down. Chicago offensive line coach Mike Tice was so repelled by what he saw when he looked at the tape that he didn't even show the worst of it to his players this week. Hey, we all know -- as does Tice and Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz -- that Chicago will have to win this postseason despite their offensive line, and it starts with quick throws from Cutler.

10. Where Dave Wannstedt lands. For a guy who left the NFL without much head-coaching cred, he's getting a lot of attention in Buffalo, Cleveland and San Diego from old friends in the big league.

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