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jr mazza

Mark Marietta/For the Observer-Reporter

Boxed in by Waynesburg defenders Matt Popeck, left, Bryson Wilt (11) and Nijon Kirkman (24), Washington & Jefferson’s J.R. Mazza (24) is blocked in his attempt to extend the Presidents’ second-half lead Wednesday night.

Roethlisberger hoping for Bettis-style send off

PITTSBURGH – There was no speech. No galvanizing moment.

There didn’t really need to be one.

The Pittsburgh Steelers knew the 2005 playoffs would be the last go-round for Jerome Bettis. The star running back didn’t need to point out the Super Bowl that year was in his hometown of Detroit. Or that a ring was the only thing missing on his Hall of Fame resume. Or that the pain from a loss to New England in the AFC championship game a year before provided the main motivation for “The Bus” to return for a 13th and final season.

Ben Roethlisberger was just 23 back then. A second-year quarterback in the nascent stages of a career that will almost certainly end with his bust being placed alongside Bettis’ in Canton, Ohio.

While the exact details of that run that started with a wild card-round win over Cincinnati and ended with Roethlisberger and Bettis embracing on the confetti-strewn Ford Field with the Lombardi Trophy in tow are foggy, the vibe pulsating through the locker room during that magical ride remains fresh.

“I wanted to go win for Jerome, because you know what he meant,” Roethlisberger said.

The better part of two decades later, the 39-year-old Roethlisberger finds himself in the same position – the franchise icon eyeing one last ride.

The symmetry is not lost on him. Like the 2005 Steelers, the 2021 version enters the playoffs as the AFC’s last seed. So the 2021 version also would need to navigate three road games to reach the Super Bowl; that starts Sunday in Kansas City when Pittsburgh (9-7-1) faces the surging AFC West-champion Chiefs (12-5).

Is this group trying to win one for Roethlisberger the same way the 2005 team did for Bettis? Roethlisberger, who has given every indication he will not return in 2022, believes they all want to win. He’s not sure how much his presence plays a part in that motivation.

The first of his two Super Bowl titles was a long time ago, even longer for the vast majority of a roster. Only a handful of players are in their 30s.

“These guys were what, in middle school or elementary school when that was going on?” Roethlisberger said.

And while it would easy for Roethlisberger to lean into nostalgia, he’s well aware the circumstances between 2021 and 2005 only go so far. That group included four future Hall of Famers, an offense ranked in the top half of the league and a defense that finished third.

This group – with its minus-55 point differential, its rookie-laden offense and a defense that has gotten pushed around with alarming ease at times – is not like that one.

“I don’t want to take away from this team, but that was a pretty good football team,” Roethlisberger said. “We had some Hall of Famers on it. Not that we don’t have some really good football players here, but we have a long way to go to compare ourselves to that team in my opinion.”

A string of upsets, starting against the defending AFC champion and heavily favored Chiefs, would go a long way toward closing the gap. Kansas City drilled the Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium last month, and Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin admitted his team got “smashed.”

Three weeks later Pittsburgh heads back as a 13-point underdog after a mixed bag of a regular season in which it rarely looked good, even in victory. Much of the year was a slog. Roethlisberger played behind an inexperienced and at times overwhelmed offensive line. The defense struggled to overcome the loss of nose tackle Tyson Alualu in Week 2, and the absence of defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who didn’t play a down after undergoing knee surgery over the summer.

“We probably are not a very good football team,” Roethlisberger said. “Out of 14 teams that are in, we’re probably at number 14.”

Probably. Yet Sunday night offers a chance, which is more than the 18 teams whose season is over can say.

There’s so much at stake personally for a team with so many unknowns heading into the post-Roethlisberger era. So the idea of winning for the only guy in the locker room who already has two Super Bowl rings is kind of outdated at best, quaint at worst.

But it’s also a sign of respect.

“Everybody kind of knows what’s going on,” right guard Trai Turner said. “We want to win it for him, for sure. And you want to win for yourself. So that’s just added motivation. You know you’re going out there for a guy who gives his all.”

Even if there’s not much left to give. Roethlisberger came back in 2021 in part because he didn’t want his four-interception performance in a wild-card home loss to Cleveland last January to serve as the final snapshot of his singular career.

It hasn’t been pretty for long stretches. Once the ball kicks off Sunday night, it won’t matter. It’s difficult to imagine the Steelers winning one game, let alone four.

Then again, it was difficult to imagine Pittsburgh even getting into the playoffs after the Chiefs emasculated the Steelers the day after Christmas. Here they are anyway, led by a quarterback whose best days are long gone but who hopes his message about embracing the moment resonates long after he’s gone, whenever that time comes.

“We’re just going to go out and play carefree,” he said, “and whatever happens, happens.”

Chiefs take playoff experience into Sunday night vs Steelers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The last time the Chiefs played the Steelers in the playoffs, Tyreek Hill was a wide-eyed rookie wide receiver, Chris Jones was learning the ropes at defensive tackle and Travis Kelce was only just becoming one of the league’s best tight ends.

Oh, and Patrick Mahomes was still in college.

In retrospect, it wasn’t all that surprising the Chiefs lost on that cold January night in 2017, when Pittsburgh won 18-16 despite never reaching the end zone. Kansas City had won just one playoff game since 1994, and hadn’t won one at home in nearly three decades, while the Steelers rolled into town with a bunch of postseason experience.

Fast forward five years and the Chiefs are the ones with all the experience.

They’ve been to the last two Super Bowls. The last three AFC title games. And that team that couldn’t win a playoff game at home has won five straight, a franchise record it hopes to extend when the Chiefs play Pittsburgh again Sunday night.

“To be able to know the speed of the game and share it with (young players), I think, is important,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid admitted. “You don’t know until you get there, but for whatever reason, each level you go up in the playoffs, the speed of the game picks up. And it’s all single elimination, so the urgency level goes up, too.”

The Chiefs still have six players on their roster that played against the Steelers five years ago, which is quite astonishing in a league where the turnover rate is so high; the Steelers only have three of them, and only two that played.

Kelce had perhaps the most memorable day, catching five passes for 77 yards. Hill had four catches for 27 yards.

On the other side, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 224 yards with an interception. The same Antonio Brown that just caused such a ruckus for Tampa Bay caught six of his passes for 108 yards.

And running back Le’Veon Bell, who two years later was part of the Super Bowl champions in Kansas City, ran roughshod for 170 yards on 30 carries.

The star was Chris Boswell, though. He made each of his six field goal tries for all of the Steelers’ scoring.

Boswell is one of those still on the team in Pittsburgh. So is defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and Big Ben, who will be making his 23rd postseason start, tied with Joe Montana for fourth among quarterbacks in NFL history.

Roethlisberger is familiar with the Chiefs – on Dec. 26, he went 23 for 35 against them in a 36-10 loss at Kansas City.

There’s much more on the line in this matchup.

“I try to tell some of the young guys, every mistake is magnified,” Roethlisberger said of the postseason experience. “Even a third-down drop can be magnified, because the other team you’re playing is a really good football team, too. And so they capitalize on your mistake. I’ve been in a lot of these games where the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win. I just try to tell those guys, listen, go out there and play free and have fun and play football.”

While the Chiefs have had nothing but postseason success lately, that hasn’t been the case in Pittsburgh. What experience the Steelers have had is mostly the losing variety: the divisional round to Jacksonville, the wild-card round to Cleveland.

“I’m not concerned about success. I am concerned about exposure,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “People understand what the environment is like, the intensity of it. How much detail is required to win in situational ball and things of that nature. Experience is good, whether it’s positive or negative – the knowing. I’m less concerned about the lack of success. I am more concerned about those who haven’t experienced it that play a significant role for us.”

NFL regular-season ratings increase 10% over last season

An extra week of games, close finishes and a non-election year helped propel the NFL to its highest regular-season ratings in six years.

The 272 regular-season games averaged 17.1 million viewers across television and digital platforms, that is a 10% increase over 2020 and is the league’s highest average since 2015.

“There’s a strong argument to be made that the National Football League is the single most important entity in popular culture. And the numbers of viewers watching the NFL bears that out,” said Marc Ganis, co-founder of Chicago-based consulting group Sportscorp.

It was expected that the audience would increase after the 2020 season was played in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, with empty stadiums presenting a strange viewing dynamic, and many people’s viewing habits changing. The first half of that season also occurred in the midst of a presidential campaign, when many were watching cable news channels.

“Ratings and viewership from year to year are never a straight line. There’s always some ins and outs,” said Hans Schroeder, NFL executive vice president and chief operating officer, NFL Media. “Certainly 2020 was a unique year in a lot of different ways, but when you think about this season with full stadiums and the game itself, it was an awesome regular season.”

Three of the five television packages experienced double-digit growth. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” and the “Thursday Night Football” package on Fox, NFL Network and Amazon Prime were both up 16% from last season, followed by NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” at 11%.

This was also the first season when the league played 17 regular-season games. Despite the extra games, there were not many blowouts. According to the league, 64% of all games this season were within one score in the fourth quarter.

NFL games ranked in the top 16 and 91 of the top 100 telecasts on television during the season, according to Nielsen. The Dallas Cowboys were involved in five of the 10 most-viewed games, including the Week 12 Thanksgiving Day match with the Las Vegas Raiders, which averaged 40.8 million viewers on CBS. That was the most-watched regular-season game on any network in 31 years and one of only two since 1988 to average at least 40 million.

CBS was up 9% over last season with the 18.09 million average being its highest since 2015. That includes a 21.59 million average during its 10 national game windows.

Fox’s Sunday games increased 2%, averaging 18.57 million, but did have five of the 10 most-watched games. The Week 11 game between the Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs led the way with a 28.7 million average.

The final season of the Fox. NFL Network, Amazon Prime Video “Thursday Night Football” tri-cast averaged 16.4 million. Coincidentally, the biggest game in that package wasn’t on Thursday night but Christmas Day, as the Cleveland Browns-Green Bay Packers contest averaged 28.6 million.

“Sunday Night Football” is on pace to become prime time’s most-watched show for the 11th consecutive season at 19.3 million. Tampa Bay had NBC’s top two games, including Tom Brady’s return to New England during Week 4 (27.2 million).

ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” averaged 14.18 million. It is the network’s best regular-season viewership since 2010 and third best since 2006, when the package moved mainly to cable from ABC. The nine “Monday Night Football with Peyton and Eli” alternate broadcasts averaged 1.6 million, with the highest being 1.96 million for the New York Giants-Kansas City game on Week 8.

The “ManningsCast” will return for Monday’s wild-card game between the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams.

The biggest encouraging factor for all parties is that streaming numbers continue to steadily increase. With Peacock, Paramount+ and ESPN+ expanding offerings, there were 370 billion total minutes streamed during the regular season, an 18% jump from 2020 and the second-highest total on record behind only 2015.

Those numbers will only go up in future years as “Thursday Night Football” heads fulltime to Prime Video next season, as well as exclusive streaming games on ESPN + and Peacock when the new television contract begins in 2023. The league’s “Sunday Ticket” package with DirecTV expires after next season, with many expecting multiple carriers to make a bid.

“Streaming, you can get actual numbers and they are more precise,” Ganis said. “What we have seen with the NFL and streaming is what we saw with the NFL and cable and satellite TV, which is watching the games is appointment television. People will find games on whatever platform they’re on. That makes it enormously valuable to the streamers. Because one of the things streamers need is a reason for people to go to them in the first place.

“The NFL is built-in appointment television. It already is where people want to go. And so I would expect the streaming numbers will continue to grow by very large percentages each year.”

editor's pick
W&J falls into speed trap but gets key win

WAYNESBURG – Basketball fans who like scoring would have wanted to shield their eyes.

Those who like a crisp, clean game would have cringed at times.

But for those who enjoy defense, fouls, missed foul shots and, well, ugliness at times, this was their game.

No, it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. But Washington & Jefferson men’s basketball coach Ethan Stewart-Smith didn’t mind.

His team got the win, and a big one at that on the road at rival Waynesburg to take over sole possession for first place in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference, 61-52, Wednesday night.

A stereotypical “first-to-50” style game isn’t a favorite of W&J, who came into the night leading the PAC in scoring offense.

Against the team ranked second nationally in opponent field-goal percentage, the Presidents (11-3, 6-1) shot 17-for-62 overall and 6-for-29 from three-point range, which is what Waynesburg (7-4, 3-1) wanted.

The tempo suited the Yellow Jackets. The result suited the visitors.

“They did a great job dictating the terms of the game with the tempo,” Stewart-Smith said. “I’m just proud of our effort in the second half. Guys came out and competed.”

It was Greene County vs. Washington County. The Pack Line defense vs. the press, and No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the PAC. The Jackets lived up to their defensive reputation in the first half, holding the Presidents to 6-for-33 from the field and 1-for-14 from three-point land.

Waynesburg never trailed at any point in the first half, jumping out to an 18-6 lead and leading 28-20 at the break. Nijon Kirkman led the Jackets with 12 points and seven rebounds. Kirkman ended the game with a game-high 14 rebounds, but he only had two points in the second half.

In the second half, Waynesburg led 30-21 and then went almost 12 minutes without a field goal.

W&J stayed in it and took its first lead of the night on a J.R. Mazza three-pointer with 9:37 left.

The Presidents never gave up that lead.

The game was to Waynesburg’s style, and W&J missed 12 of 33 foul shots. But it mattered not.

Waynesburg led for 28 minutes and eight seconds of the 40 minutes game but couldn’t finish the job.

Washington High School graduate Matt Popeck had 14 points for Waynesburg but shot just 5-17 from the field and 0-8 from three.

Popeck averages 21.8 points per game, so holding him to 14 is something the opposition will always take.

“He’s a special player. He’s finally back to 100 percent (after knee surgery),” Stewart-Smith said. “I think he’s back to (being) the player that people remember at Wash High now. I’m happy that he’s back to himself, but I’m glad that we excuted our coverages and made it tough on him tonight.”

“They did a good job on him,” Waynesburg coach Tim Fusina said.

“They switched on him. They were denying him outside the arc a little bit. I thought they did a nice job on him, being physical with it... Across the board, we didn’t take good shots.”

For W&J, Kyron Mitchell had 17 points and 12 rebounds to lead the way. Michael Bigley and J.R. Mazza each had 16 points.

Waynesburg’s road back to the top of the PAC begins Saturday, Jan. 15 at Geneva. Tipoff is at 7:30.

W&J will look to keep it going this Saturday afternoon against Grove City. Tipoff is also at 3:30

“I love our team,” Stewart-Smith said. “I love our versatility, and I think that we can win any game, any style, any time.”

W&J, 75-64

In the women’s game, Washington & Jefferson fought off a pesky Waynesburg team, 75-64.

Waynesburg’s Kacey Kastroll led all scorers with 21 points, and Marley Wolf (13) and Brooke Fuller (13) added double figures for the Jackets.

For W&J (5-0, 8-3), which remained atop the PAC standings, Kamryn Lach led the way with 18 points, Aleena McDaniel added 15 and Maddi Gutierrez another 12. The Presidents won the game with long-range shooting, making 11 of 26 three-pointers, including four by Lach.

W&J’s next game is scheduled for Saturday at Grove City.