It has been a long held belief by the Steelers and its world-wide fan base that every year other teams circled the date on their calendar on which they are scheduled to play a regular season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Perennial playoff teams like the New England Patriots or the Green Bay Packers circled the date knowing that either in the playoffs or the Super Bowl they have a likelihood of facing the Steelers, so they viewed a regular season game as a tune-up for that eventuality. Champion caliber teams like the Baltimore Ravens used to be circled the date knowing they have to go through Pittsburgh to reach the playoffs.
Up and coming teams, either new to being post-season contenders, or those trying to become such, circled the date knowing they will be facing a true test of where they are at in their development; a litmus test if you will. Last year it was the Houston Texans whose victory over the Steelers early in the season provided a validation to themselves and their fans for their years of sticking to head coach Gary Kubiak's plan, even with season after season of high hopes dashed, promises and success yet again undelivered. Play well against the Steelers and you begin to get a sense of whether you've arrived, or what still remains to be done to get there.
Perennial losers, the cellar dwellers, like the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions circled the date too. Their fans circled it in anticipation of the chance to see what a true winning organization looks like. The teams' coaches circled the date and prepared their players for the game by holding the Steelers up as a shining example of what they're trying to achieve. Many a coaching staff has passed through the doors of the perennial losers' locker room bringing with them their snake oil schemes, philosophies and coaching styles; but they all hold up the Steelers as a real life example of what could be achieved if only the players buy into whatever it is they are selling.
The perennial losers in the Steelers division, the Browns and until recently the Cincinnati Bengals, both circled the two games they each play the Steelers. For them, beating (and possibly sweeping) the Steelers is their playoffs, their Super Bowls. Even the Ravens treat regular season wins against the Steelers as something more than just a win; for them its personal, given the numerous times the Steelers have denied them the glory, accolades and respect they so desperately covet.
So believe me when I tell you that I shuddered last night as a very disturbing realization passed through my mind. It was as if you suddenly admitted to yourself your spouse was cheating on you, or that your child had actually committed the crime for which he/she was accused.
This season, the Steelers and Steeler Nation have taken to circling dates on the calendar. We no longer believe ourselves to be the standard against which all other teams are measured; instead, we are seeking validation of the 2012 Steelers by their performance against other teams.
Think about it. Aside from the normal anticipation of the season opener, there were doubts in our collective minds over the Steelers' ability to return to Denver and win. While there was anticipation of our defense testing the arm and resolve of Denver Broncos quarter back Peyton Manning given his recovery from numerous neck surgeries, there was also trepidation based on last year's playoff game fiasco.
After that loss, and the loss to the Oakland Raiders in Week 3, the game against the 3-1 Philadelphia Eagles was circled as a game that would "test" the Steelers; the Eagles were believed at that point to be a talented and dangerous team. Could our offensive line hold up against their "Wide 9" pass rush? Could the Steelers defense contain the multi-talented Eagles quarter back Michael Vick or RB LeSean McCoy?
The Steelers re-inflated their self-confidence after the victory over the Eagles, only to have the Tennessee Titans burst that balloon, leaving the Steelers with a 2-3 record and facing division rival Cincinnati Bengals; could the Steelers stop the dynamic duo of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton?
With the victory over the Bengals, and how it was achieved, confidence levels rose again. The Washington Redskins were the next opponent on the schedule. The Steelers and Steeler Nation looked forward to the Redskins game only for the chance to see rookie quarterback RGIII. As one knowledgeable person told me, "...it's a chance to see someone great, in their rookie season...".
The Redskins game had to be played, but it was the following game on the Steelers schedule that everyone had circled; a game against the reigning Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants. This game was going to be the true litmus test of the 2012 Steelers. And there it is...read it again..."a true litmus test of the Steelers".
The Steelers defeated the Giants, and the Steelers, I and all of Steeler Nation felt validated; the team was on a roll; that victory was the third in a row for the Steelers, making their record 5-3. It was against an opponent who had just won it all the year before, an opponent who themselves were 6-2 at that point. We had proven ourselves against the best of the NFL.
Lost in the euphoria of that victory was the fact that after eight games, three of them were "circled" games (Broncos, Eagles, Giants). The Steelers and Steeler Nation has lost its center, and with it its confidence and its humility.
Even before Ben Roethlisberger was injured in the subsequent Kansas City game and lost for the next three, the Steelers were measuring themselves against other teams seeking validation of their abilities, but they overlooked the very teams that a victory against would have given them validation as a true winning caliber team.
The 2012 Steelers team appears to be way past the line, far into the realm of arrogance. Apparently disdaining opponents such as the Raiders, Titans, Browns and Chargers, the Steelers lost to them. Apparently disdaining teams like the Chiefs, the Steelers barely defeated them.
The Steelers now finds themselves tied for the last AFC wild card playoff berth with the Bengals, a team that historically measures itself against the Steelers. And the Steelers find themselves only a game ahead of the New York Jets, a team that is wildly inconsistent and has been embroiled in locker room dissention all season.
The arrogance that has replaced what used to be pride will tell you the 2005 Steelers entered the playoffs via the sixth and final wild card seed, and look what happened; they won their fifth Lombardi trophy. But those 2005 Steelers did so by winning their last four games convincingly, after having lost two out the previous three to future playoff opponents, not teams that had circled the Steelers game on their own schedules. The 2005 Steelers' final four-game winning streak was also the second such streak in that season. This year, the Steelers have one four game winning streak, and didn't reach .500 until the seventh week in the season; in 2005 they were 4-2 at the same point in the season.
A team that plays as well against lesser opponents as it does against contenders, can take such performance as a sign that it has found the correct balance of pride and humility; it takes no one team for granted, and needs no validation of its actions.
But when a team repeatedly finds itself losing to lesser opponents, and has to find validation of itself on a weekly basis in the victories it does manage to earn, then that team no longer believes in itself, and its loss of pride signifies the impending fall from the standard it has set for itself.