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The turning point for 2009

Where did things really go wrong for the Steelers this season? The 1-2 start was disappointing, but the team recovered and went on a 5-game winning streak, including impressive victories over the Chargers, Broncos, and Vikings. The second Bengals loss ended that streak, and with Troy Polamalu injured again, the team was down. But a favorable schedule gave the Steelers a clear path to a wild-card spot and, with a little help, the possibility of still winning the AFC North.

On a chilly day in Kansas City, however, it took only 16 seconds for things to go horribly wrong, as Jamaal Charles returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. Although the Steelers recovered and led 17-7 at the half, Ben Roethlisberger had to keep throwing and, in the third quarter, threw two interceptions that allowed the Chiefs to tie the score. The contest eventually went into overtime, where the Steelers lost not only the game but also Roethlisberger, who got a concussion while running for a first down. Without their starting QB, the Steelers lost to the Ravens the next week. Even after Big Ben returned, the team lost two more games for good measure to fall to 6-7 and out of the playoff picture.

In hindsight, the opening kickoff of the Chiefs game was the turning point of the whole season. If the Steelers can cover that kickoff, they lead 17-0 at the half and win the ball game in regulation. Without overtime, Ben does not get hurt. With a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers easily win in Baltimore (even without Ben, the Steelers tied the Ravens at the end of regulation time). With these two wins in hand, the Steelers finish at least 11-5, win the AFC North, and take the third seed in the playoffs.

Before the Chiefs game, the Steelers had already matched the worst NFL teams of the past decade in giving up three kickoff-return touchdowns in a single season, including one just the week before that contributed to the loss to Cincinnati. Yet Coach Tomlin had made no apparent changes to the kickoff coverage. Only after the Chiefs game did he begin to make personnel changes, bringing in Rocky Boiman and eventually returning Anthony Madison to the team. Perhaps if he had taken action a week sooner, the Steelers would now be planning for a home playoff game against the New York Jets instead of wondering which coaches to fire.

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