I was pretty jacked up for the Monday Night Football game, when my daughter, Maryrose, thought I was crazy. "Dad, Baltimore has one loss. Jacksonville has one win. Baltimore killed us and we beat Jacksonville. Why would you even watch this game?"
Maryrose, please sit and allow me to give you a lesson on the psyche of the NFL. First, these teams are much closer than records indicate. How else can recent cellar-dwellers like Miami, San Francisco and Detroit go from the bottom of the barrel to playoff teams and, in Miami’s case, go back down again. This isn’t college, where Ohio State will beat Indiana 40 straight years by 40 points because of an inherent talent pool advantage. These guys are all professional with level salary caps. In addition to the level playing field, you need to understand the psychology of human beings.
Remember when Pittsburgh went into Baltimore in the opener and got smoked? The Ravens played like there was no tomorrow. It was bigger than the Super Bowl. It was Pittsburgh. It was Armageddon. Baltimore unleashed eight months of pent-up frustration. The Ravens were tired of being the red-headed step-child, and played like it. The Steelers could not match their intensity on that day in their house, despite the rivalry.
The game is played by human beings, not robots. By the way, what did the Armegeddon Boys do the next week? They got manhandled by a Tennessee team that Pittsburgh later crushed. Life in the NFL. The Ravens would have lost to Bethune-Cookman that next week. They spent too much emotionally against Pittsburgh, albeit a wise expenditure.
Remember the Colts game? Here was a wounded animal that lost one of the greatest leaders in NFL history. They knew they were toast as far as a long NFL season was concerned. They knew it was going to be a long season without Peyton. They had nothing to play for, except one big night. The Colts hosted a Sunday Night prime time game in front of America and they made sure, all else be failed, they were going to play their Super Bowl that night. Did you notice Freeney and Mathis and the others? They played like it was their last football game. They had their home fans in their antiseptic facility and they were feeling hell or high water. Steeler Nation sometimes gets frustrated at narrow escapes against inferior opponents. I was thrilled to death to leave that fishbowl with a win. Do you think Freeney played with the same energy against New Orleans, losing 62-7? Yes, they are professional, but they are also human, and this factor comes into play more than some may think.
Then came Houston, on the road again for the third time in four games. Peyton Manning came into play again, if you connect the psychology dots. The Texans have been knocking at playoffs’ door for several years, and with some great talent that we all know about. This is supposed to be their year. Have you heard Kubiak might be on the hot seat if they don’t qualify this year? When Manning went down, it was to Houston like the melting of the Wicked Witch of the West. Go back and read the Houston papers during game week. All they talked about was how Pittsburgh, AFC Champions, was their big test. If they can beat Pittsburgh they can beat anyone. Some in Houston called it the biggest game in Texans’ history. Seriously (the Texans have never made the playoffs, so why not?). Pittsburgh played in three opponents’’ Super Bowls in four weeks.
Next road game? How about an Arizona team with an entire coaching staff and two outside linebackers who know the difference between Iron City and Yeungling. Similar to Baltimore, the Cardinals were chomping at the bit to revenge the last time the two teams met. Guys like Larry Fitzgerald, with Pittsburgh roots, were talking about the pain of the 2008 Super Bowl. Go back and watch that game again and just key on Fitz. Watch him maul Alfonso Smith with jubilation after Smith scored his touchdown, like it was, here we go again, Armageddon. Watch him put his hands on his head in anguish after a five-yard penalty. Fitzgerald, the entire coaching staff, Haggins and Porter wanted to see victory more than Columbus wanted to see land.
This is what the Steelers have been dealing with this year. All four of their road games have been Super Bowls for the other teams. Fortunately, the Steelers came out on top twice, albeit against inferior talent with poor records, but I think Steeler Nation needs to understand how hard that can be. Playing with a giant bull’s-eye on your back is treacherous. Yes, you can say teams like New England and Green Bay are also targets, and they are to some extent. But not nearly as emotional as Pittsburgh, except maybe Buffalo with New England, and look what happened there? Pittsburgh is America’s team.
Did you see the fans in the stands again in Arizona? It is wonderful and proudful to see all those Terrible Towels, but it also comes with a price. Do you not think that this charges up the opponents in their own house? Remember the Tennessee game in 08? The Steelers not only bring out the best in everyone, they bring out all the emotional baggage as well. So here we are last night, Baltimore in Jacksonville. Welcome to our world Baltimore. You wanna be the Steelers? OK, feel what it’s like to be the Steelers. Play a team that is in trouble, a wounded animal, in their crib on national television prime time. The Ravens are thinking about a 17, 18, maybe 19-game schedule. The Jaguars were playing in the Super Bowl.
I told Rose that the Ravens may well escape last light, like we did in Indy and Phoenix, but then again, maybe not. The psychology of the NFL is fascinating. Steeler Nation wants to win every game 35-3, but it doesn’t work that way. "That’s interesting dad, but I still think you’re a little nuts. I’m going to bed. Tell me who won in the morning."