The Pittsburgh Steelers may have helped seal Eric Mangini's fate when they absolutely annihilated the Cleveland Browns, 41-9, on their own turf this past Sunday. Browns president Mike Holmgren fired Mangini on Monday - a move that was hardly unexpected, but one that didn't seem entirely imminent at the midway point of the season when the Browns were 3-5 and playing demonstrably better football.
Forget about the Browns though. Sunday's win was a huge one for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Obviously the win was important because it clinched the AFC North and the No. 2 overall seed in the AFC. With Baltimore winning against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers had to win in order to ensure a first-round bye and at least one home game at Heinz Field. I think most of us would have 'taken' an ugly, tightly-contested win, but the Steelers played like a team on a mission in all three phases of the game. Here's a sampling of Pittsburgh's statistical dominance over Cleveland:
* Total Yards: Pittsburgh 418, Cleveland 225
* Yards Per Play: Pittsburgh 6.7, Cleveland 3.5
* Time of Possession: Pittsburgh 33:14, Cleveland 26:46
* Turnovers: Pittsburgh 0, Cleveland 3
* Cleveland Avg. Kickoff Return: 9.1 yards (awesome!)
* Sacks: Pittsburgh 4, Cleveland 2
I could go on, but the point really is that Mike Tomlin, the rest of the Steelers coaching staff, and every last player (practice squad included) deserves a huge Steeler Nation salute for their complete body of work during the 2010 offseason, training camp, preseason, and regular season. After losing a tough one to the New York Jets, the Steelers could have gone in one of two directions - they could have taken care of business against two inferior opponents and secured their third AFC North title in four years, or they could have turned in an untimely poor performance against either the Panther and Browns. If they had done the latter, loyal but skeptical fans would have lamented that this year's team was much like the smoke-and-mirror teams of '07 and '09 - capable groups that were maddeningly inconsistent.
However, the Steelers have looked incredibly stout this past two weeks. To me, the two wins are an indication that this year's team is a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and more importantly, deserving of our extreme and devoted passion as Steelers fans. They haven't been perfect, but they sure have kicked a lot of ass and taken a lot of names this past 17 weeks considering all the adverse circumstances they've faced (suspensions, shoddy officiating, injuries). I'm really proud of them for the 12-4 season they've turned in, and for the overall product the Steelers organization and staff has put out on the field. It ain't easy being 12-4 in today's NFL, and it's even rare to be able to say that you had a legit shot at winning three of the four games you lost, all of which by the way came against playoff teams.
Skim through this past season in your mind real quick. Outside of the Patriots game, can you think of any single game where the Steelers played poorly? Sure, they were sloppy at times, both in victory and in defeat, but there really weren't any prolonged stretches of mediocrity for this year's Steelers team. And after that disheartening defeat to the Patriots, the Steelers have won six of seven, and have improved in all three phases of the game. Ben Roethlisberger is playing exceptionally efficient, intelligent and confident football; the offensive line has looked better since finally settling into a set lineup; Rashard Mendenhall continues to plug away and make plays despite not having consistent holes to run through; the defense has tightened the screws again and is more or less healthy heading into the postseason; and the special teams has looked better the past two weeks, most notably against Joshua Cribss this past weekend.
I'm in Mt. Shasta, California for the evening, but will be back home tomorrow evening. It was a less than memorable birthday driving 650 miles or so, but it was a great two weeks away from the regular grind of this past summer and fall. I'm feeling refreshed, ready for 2011, and as excited as can be about the upcoming two weeks of football (at least, hopefully more!). I appreciate y'all keeping the conversation going during the Holidays, and I'm stoked about having two weeks to jump back into it with you guys (Malor and fans of other teams included) over the course of the next two weeks, unequivocally the most exciting fortnight of the NFL calendar year.