Back before the start of the 2011 season, I never could have envisioned the Pittsburgh Steelers being 10.5 point favorites in their week three prime time match up in Indianapolis against the Colts, but with Kerry Collins coming out of retirement to replace an injured Peyton Manning at quarterback, that is the case for this coming Sunday night's contest.
Very few players in recent history have meant more to their team than Peyton Manning has meant to the Colts in his career. And now with him out of the lineup, the once perennial Super Bowl contenders have looked downright awful in their first two games--losing 34-7 to the Houston Texans in week one and going down at home to the Cleveland Browns, of all teams, in week two.
What once was a contest that might have caused thousands of Steelers fans to reach for the antacids--what with their team's recent history against "elite" quarterbacks--now looks like a game Pittsburgh should control rather-easily. I know I'm fairly-confident about the team's prospects this coming Sunday night.
However, I can't help but think back to many years ago when the Steelers faced a somewhat similar situation in their final game of the 1990 season.
The Steelers were in first place but needed to go to Houston and defeat their division foes, the Houston Oilers, on Sunday Night Football in the regular season finale in-order to claim their first AFC Central title in six seasons. This was seen as a pretty tall-task as the Astrodome was always a difficult place to play for the Steelers. But Pittsburgh had upset the Oilers in a Wildcard thriller in Houston a year earlier and had defeated Houston at home in week two.
Almost immediately after the Cleveland game, word surfaced that Houston's all-world quarterback, Warren Moon, would miss the game against Pittsburgh with an injury.
Back up Cody Carlson would take Moon's place, and I remember people reacting as if this would guarantee victory for the Steelers. I know I felt that way the entire week leading-up to the game. The Steelers defense ranked first in the NFL in yardage allowed in 1990 and had given Moon's Run and Shoot offense fits in recent meetings. Imagine how much they'd confuse and frustrate Cody Carlson.
I had visions of Pittsburgh destroying Houston and then playing its first home playoff game in eight seasons the following week at Three Rivers.
Unfortunately, with Captain Cody at the helm, the Run and Shoot never looked better. The Oilers jumped-out to a 24-0 halftime lead and cruised to a 34-14 victory.
Carlson went 22-29 for 247 and three touchdowns. The Oilers also racked-up nearly 200 yards on the ground.
The Steelers went from being in-control of their own-destiny to being out of the playoffs altogether.
The popular opinion after the game was that the Steelers relaxed when they found out Moon was injured and weren't as focused or prepared to face the back-up.
The reason I make this comparison is because, unlike Cody Carlson, Kerry Collins has had a surprisingly decent career, passing for nearly 41,000 yards. He's also been a bit of a thorn in the side of the Steelers' defense in recent years. Collins is pretty good at getting rid of the ball quickly, and the two times the Steelers faced him as a starter for the Titans, they failed to generate a solid pass-rush and only sacked him twice. And in a week two match up against Pittsburgh last year, Collins relieved a struggling Vince Young and threw for 149 yards in barely over a quarter, coming within a whisker of bringing the Titans back from a 16-point deficit in the final moments.
Just like that game in 1990 against Carlson, the last thing the Steelers need right now is to march into Indianapolis over-confident and relaxed knowing they will be facing Collins instead of Manning. Hopefully, week one in Baltimore taught Pittsburgh a little lesson about being too confident.
I fully-expect the Steelers to go to Lucas Oil Stadium and take care of business Sunday night, but don't put those antacids away just yet. Kerry Collins might make us reach for them a time or two before things are said and done.