Well, it's certainly that time of year again. The NFL playoffs are about to begin!
The Steelers are off next week, and in my opinion, there isn't a more enjoyable scenario for me than when Pittsburgh earns a bye in the playoffs and I can just sit back and enjoy the heck out of the Wildcard weekend. Four games, no strings attached.
It goes without saying that I'll have some rooting interests. There are teams I'd like to see the Steelers avoid in that divisional round: The Ravens and Colts in that order, but make no mistake, I can't wait to watch some exciting playoff football this coming weekend.
Speaking of the Steelers. I made a comment in a recent post that the Steelers were a class above the Cleveland Browns and with everything they had on the line going into their regular season finale in Cleveland (division title, 2nd seed and first round bye) the Steelers should go into Cleveland and defeat the Brownies by three scores. At least one person told me I was dreaming.
Well, yesterday's 41-9 thrashing of the Browns sure felt like a dream. It's been literally years since they've looked that good. You might have to go back four for five seasons to find a more dominant performance.
The one thing that stood out to me was how well the offensive line protected Roethlisberger. He wasn't sacked the whole day and I don't even remember him getting knocked down or even hurried.
And call me crazy, but were the Steelers using a lot of quick-passes out in the flat to the tight ends and the running backs? It felt like I was watching the New England Patriots on offense. Anyway, if that's a new wrinkle Arians has employed for the playoffs, I'm impressed and excited about the possibilities. I've been saying all year that the best way to protect an average offensive line and to negate a pass rush is to get the ball out quickly.
Don't get me wrong, I actually think the offensive line has played tremendously starting with the Jets game. But they looked their best yesterday and that's encouraging.
Mendenhall didn't have a great day running the ball, but he did score two short-yardage touchdowns. That was great to see because I don't think it's important for the Steelers to rush for 230 yards a game like a lot of Steeler fans do, but I do think it's important for them to run the ball effectively at key times. You have to be able to punch it in inside the five yard line. That doesn't mean you have to run it every time in that situation, but when you do, you should be successful more times than not.
As far as the playoffs, I was thinking about who I'd like to see the Steelers face in the divisional round, and the obvious choice is Kansas City. Naturally, they'd be the ideal first opponent because of their lack of experience. I'd least like to see the Ravens come to town, not because I don't think the Steelers can beat them, but because whenever these two teams come together, it's such a close, hard-fought battle, and it always comes down to the last few minutes. It's anyone's game, and that's kind of scary.
My ideal scenario for the playoffs would be for the Jets to defeat the Colts in the first round and the Chiefs to knock off the Ravens. Then the Chiefs would come to Heinz Field and Pittsburgh would have their way with them and the Jets would go up to Foxboro and defeat their division rivals.
If you give me the Jets at Heinz Field for the AFC title game right now, I'd sign on the dotted line.
But realistically, I think the Colts will be coming here in two weeks. Of course, I'd be nervous about that. Peyton Manning is a legend, but this Indianapolis team is a far cry from recent Colts' editions and I think the Steelers could handle them.
And I think it's a safe bet they'll have to go to New England for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
Right now, New England looks unstoppable and that go tme to thinking about how much this Steelers season feels like a hybrid of the 2005 and 2008 Super Bowl seasons. It feels like 2008 because, at 12-4, they were pretty consistent the entire year and never really had a rough patch. But it also feels a lot like the 2005 season because of the adversity they faced before the 2010 season even started with the Roethlisberger 4-game suspension. People were picking them third in the division and most had them finishing at 8-8 or 9-7. And of course, they had to overcome a lot of key injuries this year losing Willie Colon and Max Starks from the offensive line, Aaron Smith from the defensive line, and Troy Polamalu for a few games towards the end of the season. And then there was the controversy over the "illegal" hits and the fines that went along with them. James Harrison threatened to retire. It could have gotten really ugly, yet, they were able to keep their heads and not only win the division, but earn a bye and set themselves up for a legitimate Super Bowl run. I know we have high-expectations around here, but I think the Steelers should be applauded for accomplishing as much as they have so far this year.
And as I said, the Patriots are pretty dominant right now, just like the Colts were in '05. Everyone is fearful of the Steelers having to go to New England in the playoffs, especially with how easily they defeated Pittsburgh on Sunday Night football back in November. But if you use 2005 as a judge, then the Steelers could certainly turn the tables.
It will be interesting to see how this weekend's games shake out and who the team will face in the divisional round.
No matter who they have to face, it's not going to be easy. Will I be nervous? Will you be nervous? Yes on both counts, but that's what makes it so awesome!
As far as the NFC goes, if the Steelers do make it to Dallas, I have some ideal matchups. The first that comes to mind would be the Packers.
Can you imagine Pittsburgh playing Green Bay for the Super Bowl in Dallas? That scenario would be so awesome, I think I would ask it to marry me.
A second dream match-up would be the Saints. I think it would be a tremendous story.
But if history is any indication, if the Steelers are fortunate enough to make it to the Super Bowl, their opponent will be a rare bird.
It wouldn't be the Eagles because they're not a rare bird, they're one of the marquee teams in the league so you can forget about them.
And it sure wouldn't be the Seahawks. If a 7-9 team makes it out of the NFC this year, they should implode the conference and start over.
That leaves the Falcons. Atlanta is the number 1 seed in the NFC and it would obviously be no surprise if they made it.
That would be an epic matchup because I think both teams are evenly matched and it would be a great game, but it wouldn't necessarily be a "sexy" matchup and most of the focus would be on the Steelers. Just like with their last two Super Bowl trips.
So that's my prediction. The Steelers will face off against the Falcons in the Super Bowl on February 6th.