Mystery of Heinz to impact Ravens vs. Steelers; 10 things to watch
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.''
"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.
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.
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.