It's only Wednesday, but are you as excited as I am for the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 13 showdown with their hated divisional rival, the Baltimore Ravens? It's obvious why we'd be excited, but I'll spell out a few reasons why I'm counting down the hours until Sunday night's kickoff in Baltimore.
* The Stakes: Let's get the obvious out of the way. Both teams are 8-3, both are 2-1 in AFC North games, and both sport 6-2 AFC records. If Baltimore wins, they're in the driver's seat two games clear of Pittsburgh by virtue of winning both head-to-head matchups. If the Steelers win, Pittsburgh has the inside track towards at least the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Too many games to look too far ahead, but suffice it to say, the stakes are high with both teams at 8-3 and only five games remaining in the 2010 regular season.
* It's Baltimore: Of all 31 other teams in the NFL, Baltimore is at the very top of my 'Must Beat List'. Don't confuse that with my 'Teams I Hate List'. Indianpolis, Denver, Jacksonville, New England all rank high on that list. Baltimore doesn't really. I don't want them ever beating the Steelers, but if Baltimore is playing Peyton Manning and the Colts with a trip to the AFC Championship Game at stake, I'm rooting like hell for the Ravens. But two times a year (at least), I'm more emotionally invested in wanting to see the Steelers win than I am at any other point in the regular season. They Ravens hate the Steelers, and the Steelers hate the Ravens. It's always a blood bath, and both teams always bring their best, especially the past two years.
* Are We Very Good or Are We Great?: First of all, let me just say that I have personally seen enough from the Steelers to believe that they can win it all and bring home Lombardi No. 7. Let me explain: the Steelers have three key ingredients for a potential postseason run, even if they're playing on the road and widely considered underdogs:
A quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger that can deliver in the clutch, no matter the circumstances. We've seen it time and time again. Roethlisberger has several flawed tendencies that keep him from being consistently great on a weekly basis, but he really is a once-in-a-generation quarterback in terms of being able to make remarkable plays under pressure - the types of plays that you can't teach; the types of plays that teams with undeniable shortcomings need against quality competition come January.
A defense that doesn't give an inch in the running game. It's not enough just to be good stopping the run - we learned that lesson again a few weeks ago when Tom Brady came to town. But in January, when the weather is even colder, it's even more of an advantage to make teams one dimensional. Sure, Brady may still be able to carve up the Steelers', but you better believe that QBs like Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez will have a hard time doing much against the Steelers without the benefit of much of a running game.
- Veteran big-play guys like Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, to name but a few. The Patriots for example, are undeniably impressive this yaer. But they're young, and most of the guys on their roster were not in the NFL (and in some instances even college) when the Patriots last won a Super Bowl. The Steelers' roster meanwhile is chalk full of guys with one ring, and a fair number with two.
With that out of the way, let me be abundantly clear that I have abundant concerns about the state of the Steelers heading into the final five games of the season: The injuries to an offensive line that already had question marks surrounding it at the outset of the season, an offense that too frequently shoots itself in the foot with untimely penalties and sacks, a tendency to bog down in the red zone, and a pass defense that's susceptible against the top tier quarterbacks. All contribute to making me weary about the Steelers' chances to beat Baltimore on the road most pressingly, then looking forward, to hold on for a playoff berth or do much once there. But like I said, if they can get there, anything can happen.
Despite the team's 'shortcomings' - I use that term in quotations because all teams have flaws, even the league's best each year - I think the Rooneys, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers coaching staff have done a great job building this team to win now while also keeping the cupboard full with young talent for the future. Injuries are a reality in this league, and the Steelers still need to fill a few holes on the 53-man roster moving forward as certain guys get even older. But for the most part, the Steelers have done a tip-top job doing the impossible - playing to win now while not totally mortgaging or neglecting the future. Believe me, if this year's team doesn't suffer all the injuries it has, they win 14 or 15 games and thoroughly dominate many weeks. In 2011, they may just catch a few breaks injury wise. And if they do, they'll be even more potent, as lots and lots of young guys have gained valuable experience this season. It may seem like we're 'far away' from being dominant this year or next, but really, we're not. We're damn close, and there's no reason to think that things will get any worse than they are at this point. And our version of 'bad' is 8-3 and in the hunt for a divisional crown and first round bye.
That last paragraph can be validated this coming Sunday night by a strong showing against the Ravens - a tough road win against our most hated, heated rival. Once more, a loss doesn't drain me of all hope for something special in the final weeks and December. But a win might make me reconsider just how much of a long-shot a seventh Lombardi Trophy might be this year.