The Pittsburgh Steelers have started out 6-2 in all five seasons under Head Coach Mike Tomlin, but in each of the past four years, the team has opened up the second half of the season with a pretty tough loss at Heinz Field.
There was that game against Indianapolis back in '08, where Dominic Rhodes beat Troy Polamalu (of all people) on a late touchdown pass out of the backfield in a 24-20 loss to Peyton Manning and the Colts.
There was that game against Cincinnati in 2009, where an early kickoff return for a touchdown by the Bengals was ultimately the difference in an ugly 18-12 loss for the Steelers.
Then, of course, there was the infamous passing seminar that Tom Brady and the Patriots offense put on last season, where the Steelers defenders seemed to be mere spectators in a 39-26 loss to New England on Sunday Night Football.
As tough as those last three week nine losses were, none of them may even approach the heartbreaking last-second defeat at the hands of Joe Flacco and the arch-rival Baltimore Ravens this past Sunday evening at Heinz Field.
With the win, the Ravens swept the season series over Pittsburgh and captured the most important division tiebreaker.
The question, now, of course, is how do the Steelers respond?
Well, it may be pretty encouraging to know that in two of past three seasons, the Steelers responded by winning six of their last seven games to finish with a 12-4 record and went on to appear in the Super Bowl.
The lone exception, obviously, was the miserable second-half that the Steelers experienced in 2009 following the loss to Cincinnati. And just like with Baltimore's win this past Sunday, the Bengals swept the season series over Pittsburgh with that 18-12 win.
But I'm not too worried about the Steelers falling into a similar funk this season. I believe the team is still on the right track.
As bitter as that loss was to the Ravens on Sunday, it was one hell of a game between two of the best teams in football, and had one or two plays gone the other way, the Steelers probably would have won.
In '09, despite their 6-2 start, something seemed to be a little off with the Super Bowl Champion Steelers. Everytime they had a team on the ropes, they seemed to let them back in the game with a costly turnover, a penalty at an inopportune moment, or a special teams mistake. Pittsburgh sports personality Stan Savran even cautioned his listeners about the team's apparent lack of focus during the first half of the year, and he proved to be a prophet, as the mistakes continued in the second half of the year and became too numerous to overcome. The Steelers lost five-straight games down-the-stretch and missed the playoffs.
Even though the Steelers started the 2011 season with a very shaky 2-2 record, they began to hit their stride in week five against Tennessee and, with the exception of the second-half against Jacksonville, have been playing at a very high-level over the last five games.
The Steelers may be sort of on the outside looking in as it pertains to the AFC North, but at 6-3, they have the second-best record in the AFC and still have a very clear shot at the postseason.
Of course, that could all change if the Steelers don't go into Cincinnati and take care of business this Sunday. Yes, I know, the Bengals are a surprising 6-2, but the Steelers are certainly the more talented and battle-tested football team, and very good teams go on the road and win games like the one coming up against the Bengals.
If the Steelers win, at 7-3, they would not only have the inside track on at least a wildcard berth, but we could all still hold-out hope for a division title. If they lose, well, not only would Pittsburgh's chances at the AFC North be all but up in smoke--no way would a 3-3 record be good enough to win the AFC North this year, and that would be the best Pittsburgh could hope for if they start out 0-3 in the division--but at 6-4, the Steelers would find themselves in an absolute dog-fight with at least a handful of other teams for the last two playoff spots in the AFC.
No, the Steelers need to win this Sunday. It might be a little too early to call it a must-win, but it's certainly their most pivotal regular season match-up since the game in Baltimore last December.
I have faith that the Steelers will win in Cincy and set themselves up for a great finish.
Will the Steelers win the division and get that coveted first round bye in the playoffs? Who knows? Of course, that would all be nice, but as much as I make fun of the Ravens for always screwing up in the regular season and having to enter the playoffs as a wildcard--and let's face it, a division title for the Baltimore Ravens would be the exception and not the rule--a wildcard playoff berth is better than no playoffs at all. The Steelers failed to make the playoffs in each of their last two seasons following a Super Bowl appearance, and I certainly don't want to see that happen again.
Besides, if recent history is any indication, how a team is playing down the stretch may be more important for their Super Bowl aspirations than their seeding at the start of the postseason.
Four of the past six Super Bowl winners had to start the playoffs in the wildcard round. And five of the last six Super Bowls had participants that needed to win three playoff games just to get there.
Steelers fans should know this better than anyone. Pittsburgh advanced to and won Super Bowl XL despite making the playoffs as the 6th seed in the AFC in 2005. And just last season, the Steelers lost Super Bowl XLV to a Green Bay Packers team that made the playoffs as the 6th seed in the NFC.
As a fan, my first wish is for my favorite team to at least make the playoffs, and even though Pittsburgh's AFC North prospects are a bit precarious at this point, their playoff goals are still very much in-sight.
And making it to the playoffs could mean another shot at the Baltimore Ravens.
Watching the Ravens celebrate their victory Sunday night on Pittsburgh's turf reminded me so much of when the Cincinnati Bengals came into Heinz Field in December of '05 and walked away with a strangle-hold on the AFC North. And you talk about precarious? Forget the division title, the Steelers chances at even getting a wildcard berth were slim and none, and none was in the Bengals' locker room joining in on the "Who Dey!" celebration.
That night, as I watched Carson Palmer celebrate like the elite quarterback that he thought he was, as I witnessed TJ Houshmandzadeh shine his shoes with the Terrible Towel, and as I pondered the long-shot that was the Steelers' playoff chances, I knew at that moment that I wanted one more crack at the Cincinnati Bengals. In-fact, I remember saying to someone that if the Steelers could play the Bengals in the playoffs and defeat them in-front of their fans, anything they achieved after that would be gravy. The Steelers did get another crack at the Bengals, and they showed them who the true kings of the AFC North really were. Oh, and that gravy was pretty tasty, too.
I pretty much feel the same way right now about the Baltimore Ravens. I want them one more time. And if Pittsburgh has to go the wildcard route to get them, it'll be fine with me.
There would be nothing that would please me more than to see the Steelers go to Baltimore and beat the Ravens in the playoffs. It could be the Wild Card round, Divisional playoffs, or AFC Championship game; it doesn't matter.
Seeing Ray Lewis and company walk off the field in disbelief after the Steelers, once again, win the only game that really matters would be almost as sweet as seeing Pittsburgh make it to another Super Bowl.....almost.
Anyway, I believe it all starts this Sunday in Cincinnati.