PLAYOFF SBI: (Steelers Best Interest)

PLAYOFF SBI (Steelers Best Interest)

The 2011 season of Roger Goodell’s kindler, gentler NFL, a year punctuated by a plethora of penalties for hitting too hard, a suspension for a football play between the whistles, and the general discouragement of anything approaching solid pass defense, is in the books. And the close of the post-lockout campaign ended with a pair of teams facing win/you’re in situations, losing, and still finding themselves in the tournament.

The Pittsburgh Steelers face the post-season attempting to be the first team in NFL history to twice win the Super Bowl from the Wild Card position. The Playoffs pose one overwhelmingly key question for the denizens of Steeler Nation:

*What’s SBI next Saturday?: What defines Steelers Best Interest in the leadoff game of next weekend’s quadruple-header. Should the Steelers make it out of Denver alive (see Joey Porter, “They SHOT me in Denver”), would the Black & Gold be best off traveling to Foxboro to square off with the Patriots, or heading off to Baltimore to face the Ravens? Do we want the track meet or the bloodbath? Do the Steelers challenge the team whom they’ve beaten this season but who has had the clear upper hand in playoff meetings, or are they better off going up against the team that’s beaten them twice this year, but never come playoff time?

Should the Bengals, they who failed us in Paul Brown Stadium but nevertheless secured a playoff spot, beat the Texans in Houston, then the Steelers will face the Ravens and still maintain some chance of hosting an AFC Championship Game should the Bengals then upset the Patriots. Should the Texans win, then the Steelers take on the Patriots in the Razor.

Personally, I’m leaning toward a Steelers-Ravens matchup for several reasons, one of which is relevant only to me, and perhaps a few others of our readership:

-In this quarterback-driven league, I still have a hard time knowingly electing to face Tom Brady instead of Joe Flacco. Yes, I know that there’s much more to a team than its quarterback, and the Ravens bring the defense. However, in addition to Brady being both imminently better than Flacco, and a proven clutch performer, fact is, I’m not sold on the Ravens defense. Don’t get me wrong, they’re nowhere near as soft as the Patriots, but it was just a few short weeks ago, that Philip Rivers sliced and diced this bunch every time he had the ball. Combine this the Brady/Flacco equation, and I’m leaning toward favoring a matchup with the Ravens.

Next, is the schedule. Perhaps I’m making too much of this, but I’m not liking the prospect of the Steelers playing in Denver next Sunday, then having a short week prior to a Saturday night matchup in Foxboro versus a team coming off of a bye. Seeking some history on the difficulty of this task, I searched for a record of a team winning the Sunday Wild Card game on the road, then repeating that trick the following Saturday. Oh….I didn’t have to look too hard. Packers did it last year, same time slots, first beating the Eagles at Lincoln Financial, then fairly well obliterating the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. Still….I don’t like it.

Lastly, and this is where it gets personal. I live in New England. I’ve sat through the longest day of my life as a sports fan in the Fog Bowl at Foxboro Stadium in ’96, having nothing to cheer about while Patriots idgits laughed in my face all day enroute to their first home playoff win ever, a 28-3 victory over the Steelers. I’ve twice been forced to fly back home from Pittsburgh with a planeful of celebratory, but decidedly knuckle-headed Patriots fans following Championship wins over the Steelers in Heinz Field. Simply put, I don’t know if I can take it again. I might go for that early retirement, put up the For Sale signs, pull up stakes should the Steelers fall again to the Patriots in the playoffs. Yes, a playoff win over the Patriots would be nirvana. I come down on the risk-averse side though, in the risk/reward rubric. I’ll acknowledge that there’s a ton of Steeler fans living in Ravens country who are feeling the opposite. However, you’ve had the joy of laughing at your acquaintances and neighbors in purple come playoff time. I’ve not done that in fourteen years, and have had heartbreak in between.

In closing, just a few words about the Steelers readiness for the playoffs:

*Be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the Steelers offensive production. Since Thanksgiving, Steelers have managed 13, 3 & 13 points on the road. Keep in mind, Denver can’t win a game where its opponent scores some points. Let’s not let the Tebows hang around next weekend.

*The Mendenhall injury is significant, but it’s manageable. Face it, the Steelers running game is second fiddle to the passing offense, and I’m thinking it will be in good hands with Isaac Redman. Hopefully, Mewelde Moore returns as well, and John Clay maybe offers a few good carries.

*Steelers won’t miss Cortez Allen if he can’t go next weekend, but should they travel to Foxboro on January 14th, I sure hope that #28 is at the ready. We’ll need him, but I still wouldn’t be surprised to see the Steelers change things up a bit and have Ike cover Gronkowski rather than Welker.

*I’m still worried about our kicker. Sure hope this isn’t an off-season of teeth-gnashing over the Steelers failure to make a change in this department.

Best time of the year. The interference of the holidays are now behind us. May we have a long and productive Steeler January!!

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