As I perused the most recent Super Bowl odds in the final days before the final week of the 2011 NFL season, it struck me that the lack of movement in Pittsburgh's SB odds was a plenty good piece of data to support what I've been thinking is the easiest way to assess the Steelers and their chances. That is: 'The Steelers are too good and too experienced not to win 10-12 games, they're too inconsistent at OL and at times in the secondary to regularly look dominant and not stumble multiple times over the course of the season, but at the end of the day, they're going to be right there come playoff time where all they have to do is play up to their potential for a two or three-week stretch and they're SB bound yet again.'
Their SB odds by the way are 12:1, not much different than they were preseason (13:1), their lowest following losses to Baltimore and Houston early on (~17:1) or at their peak in early November (9:1). Compared to everyone but Green Bay (and to a lesser extent New Orleans and New England), the Steelers lack of volatility in terms of how they're perceived by the booksmakers and betting public is quite remarkable.
Back to my categorization of the team...For me, I basically look at the trajectory of this particular team's season and think who cares what they look like in any given game, or during any given stretch within a game? All 32 NFL teams have flaws due to the way the rules are structured. (I care obviously but only because I love NFL football and the Steelers and writing and talking about them here with you all.) But in terms of panicking when the Steelers look awful? No way. Not this group. We're in the second year of a peak, three-year window where realistically believing that we will have at least one more appearance either this year or next is neither greedy, crazy nor a failure to realize how rare it is, and how much good fortune is often needed, to make it to Super Bowl Sunday, let alone winning it as we disappointedly learned last February.
When you look at the big picture though, it matters not one bit that Pittsburgh got blown out by Baltimore in Week 4, were lucky to not have not gotten waxed by Houston by a much larger margin, found new and amazing ways to not find their groove during the loss to San Francisco, or almost let the lowly Colts beat us. For all the moments where the Steelers did not look championship caliber, there were as many, if not more times when the Steelers looked unstoppable and arguably quite a bit better than the 2005 and 2008 championship teams. For whatever reason though, I'd argue that this year's team has had very few of either. The head-scratching meltdowns have been infrequent and not very alarming, but there's also only been a handful of games -- the Patriots win most notably -- where the Steelers played consistently well against quality competition in all three phases of an entire game.
All that matters though is that they do have that ridiculously high ceiling when they're playing near or at their highest level. That can be said of plenty of teams, but we've seen the Steelers stave off teams that are playing outstanding even on days when they're making mistakes and failing to execute. It's rare that we've seen the Steelers play a clean game and get nabbed by anybody, let alone a team that's making mistakes.
Honestly, thinking this way has made the second half of this season somewhat less intriguing and exciting for me. Don't get me wrong, still been cheering and screaming each and every week. But without knowing the specifics, I've known what the outcome was going to be in November once the Steelers won three in a row over mediocre teams following the Week 4 loss to Houston. That was confirmed with the three-game winning streak coming off the bye week.
Anyway, that's just made me want the playoffs to get here as soon as possible. This is a new feeling for me too. I can't ever remember a time feeling impatient like this. Maybe it's the product of the Steelers making it to three Super Bowls in six years? Not really, actually, I don't think. Doesn't explain anything, and I'm not one who thinks that these glory years will last forever where I can arrogantly just think that it's just a matter of time before I get to see the Steelers playing postseason football once again in pursuit of another Lombardi.
Rather, I think it's just knowing this core group of players so well that I know what to expect over the course of a long season. Steady, steady, steady. With lots of talent and well-coached ability. Throw in young talent in the right places and at the right times, and the Steelers' capacity for greatness is not just on its last leg along with the vetereans leading the way, but is actually being positioned to continue even when it's time to say goodbye to legends like Hampton, Ward, Farrior, Keisel, A. Smith, etc. I love watching this group play any time, regular season or opening series of a preseason game even. But I really want to see if this core group of veterans can get hot at the right time and add to the trophy display. Doing so would put them in a whole new stratosphere in terms of their legacies both inside Steeler Nation and in the minds of other NFL fans across the country and world.
I'll get my wish soon. Just one week to go, what I hope will be an uneventful trip down to Cleveland. Older fans more well versed in the intense nature of the rivalry in yesteryear might be more riled up for Sunday than the rest of us, who I think by and large are just hoping we don't suffer any more injuries in however ugly and boring a win is necessary. But one thing we'll all have in common is a keen, keen interest on what's going on in Cincinnati between the Bengals and Ravens. Once the playoffs start for the Steelers either in a week or in two weeks, we'll all be nervous and wondering if the team had it in them to win and move on.
Thankfully, we'll all get that unique rush of tuning into playoff football to cheer on our team once again, as here the Steelers are, back in the hunt with a legitimate shot at winning it all yet again as we get ready to turn the calendar on another year. Thanks to their fearless quarterback, physical defense, and experience up and down the roster and coaching staff, the Steelers may just make this rather unspectacular season as spectacularly successful as is possible -- on the podium in Indianapolis celebrating a seventh championship.