I tried to down play the importance of the Steelers/Ravens matchup last week. Not "the end of the world", were the words I used. I believed it then, and now, that the Steelers could survive a loss in Baltimore and still both reach and successfully navigate the playoffs. What was left unsaid was that a loss would have squandered all the advantages that had been built up over the first three quarters of the season. The remainder of December would be reduced to a somewhat unpleasant struggle of jockeying for playoff position and scoreboard watching, topped off, if we were lucky, with an uphill struggle through the playoffs.
I mention this because I was pleasantly surprised and heartened by what I have experienced the past few days in my little corner of the diaspora. Most of the Steelers fans I have encountered were pumped, showing the flag (wearing Steelers apparel) and wanting to talk about the game and what comes next. Conversely, Ravens fans have been despondent, angry and disheartened.
Two stories make the case. An acquaintance attended the game at Ravens Stadium with a group of other Steelers fans. She reported a scene that was hostile and spilled into ugly; fans wearing ‘Rapistberger’ jerseys, chants throughout the game of "Just say no.", beer and other liquid being thrown on Steelers fans. It was so bad that she vowed that she would not attend another game at that stadium. She also reported that after the Steelers came back to win the game that any sense of combativeness was leached from the crowd; no vows of revenge later in the season, nothing. They just quietly went home. The second story the unraveling of Ravens fans, players and management that would seem at first glance to be out of balance with the importance of the event. Ray Lewis leaves after the game without talking to reporters. John Harbaugh reduced to telling angry fans to ‘find another team’ in response to a hailstorm of criticism in the game’s aftermath.
The point I am trying to make is that for reasons that I don’t completely understand, this game was the defining moment of the 2010 season for the teams and supporters involved. Games of equal or greater importance must be coming as the season continues to progress. But I believe what was answered on Sunday night was who is top dog in the AFC North, not just for this season, but generally. If you remember, the storyline this year is that Pittsburgh would be eclipsed by either Cincinnati or Baltimore or both (just as the Jets were going to displace New England). It was a belief that was not questioned in Ohio and Maryland. It raised significant doubts in Steelers Nation as well, making Maryrose’s number one question this week particularly pertinent.
You could be a crazy, nit picking fool and find fault with where we stand, but it would be difficult for a rational human being to not be pleased with where we find ourselves positioned at this particular milestone. What we have to do now is finish, not a small thing, but it is something that is in our control. If we take care of our business we will have a division crown, at least one home playoff game and a bye, the latter being the most important. The biggest concern? That consciously or unconsciously the team will ease off the pedal just a little bit. Hopefully, this is where all that championship experience on the roster and throughout the organization will kick in and generate the focus necessary to keep things under control.
Panthers and Tigers and Elfs (or whatever the hell the Browns are)
Key to great teams is not that they never lose, but that they win all the games that they are supposed to. This was true of the Steelers of the ‘70s. The Raiders, Rams or Dolphins might have kicked them around a bit during the regular season, but they never stumbled over the chumps. The Ohio teams, in particular could salvage a great deal, beginning with their jobs, if they could ruin or at least trip up the Steelers (or Ravens) playoff run.
This week’s game could be a particularly vulnerable moment; not in the sense of it being a ‘trap’ game, but in the sense that the impact of a hard fought game can carry over for more than a week. Older Steelers fans ought to be able to relate. The Steelers’ reputation was that they might lose to a team, but that team would probably lose their next game because of the effects of the beating that they received. Win these three games and whatever happens with the Jets will be completely irrelevant to everyone except maybe Santonio Holmes. But if they do beat the Jets they might consider taking a dive against the Browns to preserve bodies going into January football.
Besides complacency, the only other factor that can derail this team at this point is injury. The offensive line has perform magnificently given the injuries that it has been force to address and overcome. But there is only so much that any team can take in this regard. On the flip side, the defense is quietly getting healthier. Keisel is back. And if we can get Aaron Smith on the field by January. Sweet.
Coach of the Year
Like Chuck Noll he doesn’t provide enough exposure to allow for any serious consideration of such things. But consider this: Guiding his team successfully through the minefields that were the Ben suspension and all the current drama surrounding Harrison should have earned him considerable attention. The fact that they occurred in the same season while the team is in the midst of a successful playoff run should mean something, if there were any justice.
Michael Wilbon of Espn reiterated this in a chat he was conducting Tuesday. If he had to choose one quarterback to win one game where his life was on the line, that qb would be Ben; not Brady, not Peyton. I couldn’t agree more.
As Michael Bean and others have pointed out during the course of the week, much of the credit for this past week’s victory came, not from the grizzled veterans, but by guys named Sanders, Brown, Johnson, Redman and Pouncey. I was particularly impressed with Johnson channeling his inner John Mackey and making some important catches. This bodes well for the playoffs.
Not only is he not over the hill, he’s playing Pro Bowl caliber ball right now, as is just about the entire linebacking corps. Troy is once again Troy, Ike is playing at a very high level and Ziggy is getting better and better. Don’t believe the talk about the defense. They could very well carry us to a championship.