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Polamalu's effect on Steelers _ and NFL _ evident

When Troy Polamalu was chosen by his teammates as the Steelers' most valuable player, one of their defensive starters spoke out against the selection.

Troy Polamalu wasn't happy with the vote.

Polamalu doesn't believe in such awards, saying they give too much attention to individual players when football is a team sport that requires every component to be functioning well.

"It's just uncomfortable winning anything like this," Polamalu said. "Football is such a perfect team sport, it's hard to make anybody, especially our team and the way we play on defense, a most valuable player. I've never been a fan. If I was ever a coach, I probably wouldn't ever have an award like this."

He also won't endorse Mike Tomlin for the coach of the year award, saying that should go to the Super Bowl-winning coach.

While Polamalu prefers to be just another face in the crowd, that's hardly possible given the season he's having. He is arguably the NFL's most disruptive defensive player, one whose presence forces quarterbacks to deviate from their normal thinking and opposing coaches to alter their game plans.

Oddsmakers even adjust betting lines because of him, something few NFL defensive players force them to do.

Call it the Polamalu effect.

"He makes a pretty big difference when he is in there," former Browns coach Eric Mangini said before Pittsburgh's 41-9 victory on Sunday. "If he is in there, he is hard to deal with in so many different ways, whether it's the running game, blitzing, disguises or the threat he in terms of being able to create turnovers."

While the Steelers (12-4) didn't earn a bye for this weekend's NFL wild-card games entirely because of Polamalu's impact, they can point to a half-dozen plays he made that turned games and altered the AFC North race.

If Polamalu didn't force a fumble while sacking Joe Flacco late in the Steelers' 13-9 win in Baltimore on Dec. 5, giving Pittsburgh the ball near the goal line and leading to Ben Roethlisberger's decisive touchdown pass, the Ravens would have won the division. And the Steelers would be playing this weekend.

The week before, the Steelers dodged a major upset loss in Buffalo after Polamalu made an interception close to the goal line late in regulation. On a day the Steelers' offense didn't get into the end zone, Polamalu's two interceptions led to a 23-7 victory over Cincinnati on Dec. 12.

"There are so many different parts that go into making plays," Polamalu said. "The Buffalo play was actually made by Willie Gay; he broke up the pass. The Baltimore play was a good call; anybody could have made that play. Nobody was trying to block me. The Cincinnati play was made by Bryant McFadden."

Polamalu's interception Sunday on Cleveland's first possession followed a two-week layoff with a right Achilles' injury and led to a long Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace touchdown pass on the next play.

No matter where the Steelers look, Polamalu's fingerprints are all over a season in which they are one victory away from playing in their fifth AFC championship game in 10 seasons.

Las Vegas knows all about the Polamalu effect. When it became known he wouldn't play Dec. 19 against the Jets, the Steelers immediately went from being 6-point favorites to 4-point favorites.

According to Richard Gardner, the sports book manager for Bodog.com, only a few NFL defensive players of recent vintage — including the Jets' Darrelle Revis and the Ravens' Ed Reed — could move a line.

"His presence on the field not only affects the defense, but it seems to also affect how the Steelers offense plays — more poised and confident," Gardner said. "Even though it is rare, a defender can move a line from time to time."

Polamalu often moves an entire defense to play better.

When he missed 11 games last season because of two knee injuries, the Steelers made 12 interceptions. This season, Polamalu has seven of the Steelers' 21 interceptions by himself; the most they've had since 1996. The Steelers are second in turnover differential at plus-17, with 35 takeaways and 18 turnovers. Only the Patriots, at plus-28, are better.

Going into the playoffs, the Steelers also are No. 2 in total defense and No. 1 against the run, allowing 28 yards rushing per game fewer than any other team.

"I don't know if it's been my best year, but it definitely has been the most challenging year given the circumstances that we've had on defense," Polamalu said.

Polamalu was referring to defensive end Aaron Smith's long layoff with a triceps injury, defensive end Brett Keisel's lengthy midseason injury layoff, the furor over the multiple fines assessed linebacker James Harrison for some punishing hits and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension.

Having Polamalu for nearly a full season compensated for some of those setbacks.

"From a defensive standpoint, I think he's the top guy," McFadden said. "Time after time he makes plays, and a lot of people don't realize the plays he's been making for us. And he's not even healthy. He's been battling through some injuries and he's been able to play at a high level still. That speaks a lot of him. He's the MVP of our team and no question he should be MVP of the NFL."