PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 19: Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers special teams including Jason Worilds #97 Ryan Mundy #29 Anthony Madison #37 Stevenson Sylvester #55 and Arnaz Battle #81 make a tackle on Jerricho Cotchery #89 of the New York Jets during the game on December 19 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
I'm a self-described optimist when it comes to Steelers. But, also being a more or less typical Steelers fan I am superstitious, saddled with doubt and a deep sense of foreboding concerning future developments this season. So, like many of you Sunday was not a particularly good day for me, not so much for what it meant, but what I feared that it might mean. By mid Monday I had talked myself down from the ledge (thanks in large measure to us qualifying for the playoffs in spite of the loss), and thought I would offer some encouragement to those of us at BTSC who still need it. After all, it is Christmas. No need to spoil the holiday fretting over shadows and boogie men.
The Steelers have enjoyed a remarkably strong and consistent season. It is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that the season appeared to be set up to be as disruptive as can be imagined. We're projecting to 12-4. Suggesting that we can make that happen by beating the Panthers and the Browns certainly should not be viewed as a reckless assertion on my part (though it is a big thumbing of the nose to several superstitions). And I believe that if on Labor Day weekend we had been offered a 12-4 season many of us would have taken it and fled gleefully into the night certain that we had snookered someone. Hell, many of us were predicting three losses in September alone. So, as the Joker would say, why so serious?
I think I have an answer or two. As fans we are encouraged to be somewhat ahistorical in terms of our understanding of this game, particularly when you compare it to a sport like baseball that is constantly embracing the past to place greater meaning on to current events. The media markets football with an apocalyptic sense of immediacy combined with an obsessive eye to the future. Teams are only as good as their last game, a concept that would seem crazy if applied to baseball or most other team sports. Fewer games with greater individual value explains much of this, but we are also constantly peppered with totally irrelevant and nonsensical issues as; ‘If the season ended today...', ‘What's the best team in the AFC? ...the NFC?' ‘Are you buying or selling (name of team) making the playoffs...'. Now, there might be some value to conversation like this now, but they start talking this way in September! Let's look at a few things minus the fortune telling and the hysteria to see if we can get a more sober perspective on things.
A non-Steelers example to start things off. Remember in September when everyone wrote off the San Francisco 49ers. The only mystery would be when management would come down from the press box, strip Singletary of his whistle and leave him standing on the 50 yard line butt naked. Guess who is still in the playoff hunt in December? How come some of these Notradamus wannabes didn't predict that?
Okay, now let us address what is probably at the heart of our anxieties; the New England Patriots. The Pats have established themselves in the minds of many fans as Pittsburgh Kryptonite. It also doesn't help that most of the football world mistakes these guys with the '67 Packers and their coach with the reincarnation of Paul Brown. And it doesn't help that Steelers fans try to console themselves with that lame cheating line. It sounds like Raiders Nation complaining about the Immaculate Reception in the ‘70s. The current party line is that the Patriots are INVINCIBLE. They are the class of the league and are as hot as (forgive me) molten steel. A little history and a couple of facts:
2004. The Patriots rolled into Pittsburgh in early November riding an unprecedented 20+ game winning streak. They got their butts kicked by this rookie quarterback and then the Steelers were declared the ‘hot' team. They were so hot that going into the final game of the season at Buffalo they took their foot off the gas, resting many of their starters against a team that needed to win to keep their own playoff hopes alive. The Steelers would win that game due largely to the efforts of two unsung reserves (Willie Parker and James Harrison) who played lights out. The Steelers finished the season 15-1, which set some kind of record and kept the world gushing over how ‘hot ‘ they were. That is, until the Patriots came back to town for the AFC Championship, plucked the Steelers like a boiled chicken and left us with the lasting image of Hines Ward crying like Terrell Owens.
2007. The Patriots come into the Super Bowl 18-0 and on the verge of a perfect season. No team has ever been this hot except perhaps the '72 Dolphins who are soiling their Depends underwear in terror. Their opponents are the New York Giants whom they beat handily the last game of the regular season. Of course, they go on to lose the game to the Giants.
Now consider the following:
Which team is most like the Chuck Noll's Steelers of the ‘70s, the '10 Steelers or the '10 Patriots? Answer: The Steelers hands down. If you were too young to remember the ‘70s team, you can be forgiven if you mistakenly thought that they did not lose any games. During their run, certain teams like the Raiders, Dolphins, Oilers and Rams would give them fits during the regular season. What they didn't do is that they never lost to an inferior team, ever. The Patriots lost to an inferior team (the Browns) and lost to them badly. (the Saints, Ravens and Jets also lost to inferior teams). By contrast, the Steelers have lost to four teams with a combined record of 42-14. The answering argument is that we should all be disturbed that we were unable beat these great teams. But let's look a little closer at these games. We lost the first game to the Baltimore Ravens in the last thirty seconds behind the leadership of the vastly overrated Charlie Batch. The other three games were all similar in that we were playing a team coming off a unexpected and humiliating loss to an inferior opponent. (Cleveland, Cleveland and Miami) The loss also placed this team in desperate straits as to either their position in the divisional race or the playoffs. Each of these teams clearly had a greater incentive to win the game. A loss would place them in deep do-do. A loss by Pittsburgh meant that they wouldn't be challenging the Dolphins undefeated season or something equally abstract. The Steelers also rebounded solidly against their next opponent, bad news for the Panthers.
It's great to be a hot team, but timing is important. Tennessee and Tampa Bay were hot in September. The Patriots have been hot in November/December, so have the Chargers for the past several years. As important as being hot in December is, championships go to the teams that are hot in January. Any final confrontation between Pittsburgh and New England is likely to occur nearly six weeks from now. Who will be hot then?
How about a reality check? For all the hype the '10 Patriots are not the '67 Panthers, the '85 Bears, Hell, they're not even the '04 Patriots. That was the last championship team coming out of New England. In the intervening six years the Steelers have added their fifth and sixth Lombardi's, about two thirds of this year's team are veterans from one of both of those squads, you think that WE should be scared of THEM?
A couple of more things to consider:
Dick LeBeau used his Hall Of Fame speech to talk up his defense. He did this in front of an audience that included the greatest living figures associated with the game of professional football, not to mention a national television audience and the entire Pittsburgh Steelers organization. Coincidentally (?) we are witnessing one of the better defensive runs you could ever hope for. Of course, being the spoiled brats we are we fret because they gave up 13 points against an elite (double digit wins) NFL team on Sunday. Three players (Troy, Deebo and Timmons) are legitimate contenders for defensive player of the year. Ike is looking to have a career year. Oh yeah, the Pats "exposed" our defense, providing the whole world with the blueprint for bringing down Blitzburgh. Well, maybe. But as someone who has done some coaching and played a little chess in my day, if I had an antidote for the New England offense, I wouldn't show it to the world in November, particularly if a loss in November doesn't significantly harm my chances of making the playoffs in January. I may be overestimating the Pittsburgh staff, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know to keep a card or two up your sleeve. But if you have ego issues, or are inexperienced or a poor planner than this kind of thinking and preparation might be beyond you. Remember that Tomlin wowed the Rooneys because in his interviews he had planned out the entire year in advance. Now I could be wrong and those guys could just be out of ideas. But I know where I'm putting my money. And Aaron Smith will be back for the playoffs.
The offensive line is the only place of legitimate concern moving forward, and it's not that much inferior to the '08 crew. Mendenhall and Redman are solid performers that are being underutilized. The receiving corps is beyond solid. (anybody think that Holmes outplayed Wallace?). Ben is getting better. Arians is calling pretty solid games though he is still capable of bonehead decisions such as that draw from the end zone. STs have become a bit shaky and need to be shored up a bit. But anyone concerned about the offense should find some solace in Sunday's performance.
So don't be surprised if the Black and Gold make it to Dallas. And I'm rooting for a Pennsylvania Super Bowl. Why? Because the league has decided that they are not going to coddle either Ben or Michael Vick. That levels the playing field and at the end of the day will loosen the shackles from our defense.
So I say, Go Steelers! And Merry Christmas! What a great season.