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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Scott Brown
Sunday, Jan. 2, 2011
 

It is hard to overstate the importance of today's game in Cleveland for the Steelers.

Win and they put themselves on a course similar to the one they traveled in 2008 on the way to a sixth Super Bowl title.

Lose and it could be 2007 all over again when the Steelers started 9-3, staggered to the finish line and were ushered out of the playoffs in the wild-card round.

"No option," nose tackle Casey Hampton said, "but to win."

Indeed, beating the Browns (5-10) wouldn't just buy the Steelers an extra week for strong safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith to get healthy.

The No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs would guarantee them at least one game at Heinz Field and would require the Steelers to win only two games to get to the Super Bowl.

A loss in Cleveland would force the Steelers to play the following weekend on the road. And if they win at either Kansas City or Indianapolis, they would likely have to beat the Patriots in New England just to reach the AFC title game.

The Steelers have, of course, pulled off the seemingly impossible before.

In 2005, they became the first No. 6 seed in NFL history to win the Super Bowl. Along the way they knocked off a supposedly invincible team (Indianapolis), one that had flirted with perfection and buried the Steelers during the regular season.

But that team roared into the playoffs, having won four consecutive games to end the regular season.

The Steelers won three games in December, but only one victory — over Baltimore on Dec. 5 — was against a quality opponent.

The Steelers are approaching their final regular-season game with a playoff mentality, and for good reason.

If they can't beat the Browns — and don't get any help from the Bengals — the Steelers aren't Super Bowl contenders any more than they were in 2007.

"This is our playoff game," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "They would love to knock us out of the position we're in now."

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