Linebacker LaMarr Woodley predicts the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals will "lay down" for their virtually meaningless games Sunday because they don't want the Super Bowl champion Steelers to make the playoffs.
The Steelers (8-7) would reach the postseason for the fifth time in six seasons if they beat Miami, the Patriots defeat Houston, and the Bengals beat the New York Jets. There are other combinations that would get them in, but all include either a New England or Cincinnati victory.
Pittsburgh's problem: The Patriots (10-5) and Bengals (10-5) have little at stake other than which team will be seeded No. 3 in the AFC. With a wild-card playoff game awaiting both teams next week, New England and Cincinnati are expected to rest some starters to avoid possible injuries.
New England coach Bill Belichick hasn't revealed who will play. Woodley, last week's AFC defensive player of the week and a Pro Bowl alternate, thinks he knows already.
"All of them lay down," Woodley said Wednesday. "No one wants to see Pittsburgh in it. That's just how it is. Everybody knows we're a dangerous team once we get into the playoffs, no matter how we played the whole year. Once we get into the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers is a playoff team."
The Steelers were No. 6-seeded in 2005, only to win three consecutive road playoff games and the Super Bowl. One of those road victories was in Cincinnati; now a Bengals loss to the Jets (8-7) could help keep Pittsburgh out.
"Cincinnati is probably going to go into New York and lay down for the Jets and not play them hard just because they're not going to want to see Pittsburgh in it," Woodley said.
Woodley emphasized the Steelers played their regulars during a season-ending 31-0 win over Cleveland last year, despite having nothing to gain other than staying sharp. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sustained a concussion but, after a bye week, returned for the playoffs.
"We definitely wouldn't lay down because it's a pride thing with us, going out there winning ballgames and shutting teams down," Woodley said.
Woodley was a lone voice among the Steelers' players, none of whom said they agreed with him. Safety Ryan Clark laughed off the notion Cincinnati doesn't want to play Pittsburgh again. The Steelers have lost five of their last seven.
"To say Cincinnati doesn't want to face us, that would kind of be a little dumb, being that they beat us twice this season," Clark said. "So I'm sure they have a lot of confidence if they do have to play us."
The Steelers beat the Ravens twice in 2008, Clark pointed out, then won again a third time in the AFC championship game.
"I think when you say that [teams will lay down], it calls into question the character of the players on their team. And I think all those guys are character football players and competitors," Clark said. "Now if it were last year's [Steelers team], yeah, they probably wouldn't want to play us. But this year's team, I don't think strikes fear in anyone."
Several players said the Steelers need to focus on beating the Dolphins (7-8) rather than worrying what the Patriots and Bengals do.
"They're a team you can't look past at all," right tackle Willie Colon said. "They're going to have pride and they're going to be ready for us to get after them."
"Coaches have to do what's best for their team," said Hampton, who laughed when told of Woodley's remarks. "Being healthy going into the playoffs, I think, is their main focus. If the game doesn't mean anything, why risk getting hurt?"