To say the Steelers are limping into their postseason game against the Broncos in Denver this weekend would be an understatement. Rashard Mendenhall's season-ending ACL tear is just the latest of many key injuries the Steelers have had to deal with in recent weeks. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still hobbled by a high ankle sprain, and so is center Maurkice Pouncey. The secondary is so banged up right now, don't be surprised if the newly signed Anthony Madison is out there covering receivers this Sunday. Also, it is still way up in the air as to whether or not safety Ryan Clark will play in Denver because of his health situation. Linebacker Lamarr Woodley may play, but the way his hamstring has reacted in recent weeks, it's hard to say just how dominant of a pass-rusher he can be at this point in the season.
And that's just the injury situation.
The offense has been below the line for weeks now, scoring just 57 points over the last four games of the regular season (27 of those points coming in the Christmas Eve win over the Rams).
As for the defense, well, they did finish the season ranked number 1 in the NFL, and that's certainly nothing to sneeze at, but they were far from opportunistic, finishing with only 15 takeaways the entire season, their lowest for a season since the 1960's.
So, yes, the Steelers are a flawed football team, but you know what? So are a lot of teams in the NFL playoffs.
Take the Steelers opponents this week, the Denver Broncos. Tebowmania might be runnin' wild in Denver, but the Broncos won the AFC West with an 8-8 record, and they backed into the playoffs by losing their last three games. The Broncos controlled their own playoff destiny this past Sunday but lost, 7-3, to a Chiefs team that was starting a quarterback in Kyle Orton that Denver released earlier in the year.
The Patriots, Packers and Saints have the top three passing offenses in the NFL, led by, no doubt, the three most prolific passers in Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, but those top passing teams also have the three worst passing defenses in the league, "led" by the defending champion Green Bay Packers, who are dead-last in that category. At 15-1, the Pack surely is favored to repeat, but if they're going to do so, Aaron Rodgers is going to have to continue to put up epic numbers week after week.
Speaking of passing defense, the NFC, the newly crowned superior conference, doesn't have a playoff team ranked any higher than 16th in passing defense.
The Saints might be playing the best football in the league right now, but because the 49ers edged them out for the number 2 seed in the NFC, New Orleans will have to play on Wild card Weekend, and then have to go on the road to San Fran if they beat the Lions. Sure, a seed isn't necessarily a flaw, but it could be a hindrance. The Saints prolific attack might be unstoppable in the Superdome, but outdoors, in San Francisco, playing in the football fossil that is Candlestick Park? It could be a different story. And if they have to travel to Lambeau Field for the NFC Championship game in a few weeks, who knows how frozen the tundra will be by then.
About those 49ers. It's been quite a remarkable turn-around for the team under first year head coach Jim Harbaugh. San Francisco has made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and as I said earlier, they're the 2nd seed in the NFC. They've gotten the job done with mostly a stout defense and a strong running game. However, led by quarterback Alex Smith, their passing attack is near the bottom in the league, and beings that their passing defense ranks near the middle of the pack, it could make for a very short postseason stay for the '9ers.
At 13-3, the Patriots are the number 1 seed in the AFC, but because of that very poor defense, New England had to overcome huge deficits to win each of their last two games. It's one thing to comeback against the likes of the Dolphins and Bills, it's quite another to do so against a team like the Steelers.
The Houston Texans will be making their first playoff appearance in team history this coming weekend, but they'll so do on a three-game losing streak. The Texans have also been hit with the injury bug, and after injuries to quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart in back-to-back games, they had to use rookie T.J. Yates to finish the season. Now, the veteran Jake Dehlomme is also an option under center. Not much of an option, especially for an injury-plagued team that is entering the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.
The Texans' opponents this Saturday, the Cincinnati Bengals, backed into the postseason despite losing their last game at home to the Baltimore Ravens. I know the Ravens had a lot on the line, but the Bengals were presented with a golden opportunity and couldn't come through. And now they're only in the playoffs because of dumb luck. Cincinnati might be an up-and-coming team, but they're not ready for prime time just yet.
As for those Ravens, they don't have very many flaws. They have a top three defense, naturally, and they're not too shabby on offense, despite Joe Flacco. However, Cris Collinsworth called them the best team in the AFC two weeks ago, and they responded to that high praise by getting totally embarrassed by the Chargers on Sunday Night Football. And that could be their biggest flaw: Coming up short in the big moments. Everytime the Ravens have a chance to really make a statement, or better yet, cement a statement that they made the week before, they go out and fall on their faces. The Ravens blew the doors off the Pittsburgh Steelers in week one, and then lost at Tennessee the following week. They also lost to a pretty pathetic Jaguars team on national television and followed up another epic "Super Bowl" win over their arch rival Steelers by losing in Seattle a week later.
So, you see, a playoff team having flaws is not out of the ordinary. And for all of their warts, the Steelers did finish the year out by winning 10 of their last 12 games and were a botched 92 yard drive away from being the number one seed in the playoffs. And that number one ranking by the defense includes the top passing defense (always good to have in the pass-happy NFL), and despite not being up to their usual standards against the run, the defense still managed to finish eighth in that category. Not bad. And for all of their offensive woes, the team did finish in the top ten in passing, and with just under 119 yards a game, the rushing attack did just enough to keep teams honest. Roethlisberger had over 4000 yards through the air, both Wallace and Brown had over 1000 yards receiving, Heath Miller caught 51 passes, and before his injury, Mendenhall was close to gaining 1000 yards on the ground.
So, like most of the teams in this year's playoff pool, the Steelers do have flaws, but like a lot of teams in this year's playoff pool, the Steelers also have plenty to bring to the dance.