Rivalries abound for this storied franchise. Historical rivalries such as the Raiders and Cowboys; current rivalries with the other perennial AFC contenders, mainly the Patriots; and finally those most important and oldest foes, the divisional rivals. 2011 was an important year for many of those rivalries.
Pittsburgh opened the season in incredibly disappointing fashion. It was a 35-7 loss to the Ravens, I believe; I do not even want to research that game to verify the score. Willie Colon went down for the season; Aaron Smith was pancaked; Ed Reed picked off Roethlisberger twice; Ray Rice gashed the defense that stoned the run so well the previous year. Not fun to watch. Later the Steelers hosted the Ravens and that game was exciting to say the least. The Steelers played a fantastic second half to finally take the lead in a tight and hard fought game. The game ended with an improbable Flacco-led 92 yard drive. It was the second season in a row that Flacco threw a go-ahead TD to seal a game in Pittsburgh. The Ravens took control of the season and finished with a perfect division record.
The Raiders, though not scheduled to actually play a game against the Steelers in 2011, still sent trouble our way in the form of an absurd number of picks traded to the Bengals for the worthless Carson Palmer. It was a dream scenario for Bengals fans, who at this point are praying for a GM and scouting staff to make sure the boon doesn't go to waste. There is no indication that Mike Brown will do the right thing regarding the GM decision (tough to call it a decision as in all likelihood it's not actually being considered), other than the startling streak of positive moves he has made. Despite that cloud, the future looks very bright for the young and well-built Bengals team. The team should be noted for its deep and relentless defensive line, and featured a promising rookie-led offense that couldn't produce against the Steel Curtain. As such, the the Steelers-Bengals tilts in 2011 were business as usual, but certainly the Bengals have a new look and bevy of picks; therefore they merit more attention than in recent years.
The Browns also have a load of picks going into the 2012 draft, courtesy of the Falcons. The Browns are also the inspiration for this article; despite being a pathetic team last season, they hurt the Steelers badly as both Roethlisberger and Pouncey suffered high ankle sprains in an ugly game. Harrison concussed McCoy, who threw the game away to William Gay several plays later when it seemed the Browns might actually win. Browns fans were forced to cringe as Roethlisberger finished the game with a quintessential gutsy Big-Ben lore performance. Surely though they later found some comfort as the injuries and resulting league suspension of James Harrison doomed the Steelers to a desperate struggle at Candlestick next week. The Steelers would ultimately lose what was their last chance at a bye week. Later, Rashard Mendenhall suffered a dreaded ACL tear in week 17 at Cleveland. The compounding injuries suffered mostly in those two games served the Steelers up cold for the playoffs, going one-and-done while playing at a level nowhere near their midseason peak. Disappointment bookends the 2011 season for the Steelers.
The playoffs didn't end there, as the Ravens were still in it, and furthermore represented a good portion of the reason the Steelers were not. I normally don't pay attention to off-field jabber, but LaMarr Woodley famously dismissed Joe Flacco's chances at winning a Super Bowl. I hated the Ravens more than usual at the close of this season, and am pleased that they lost in a close AFC championship game against the Patriots. As for the Patriots, their rivalry with the Steelers is certainly of a different flavor. I am not especially concerned that the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, since they didn't have to beat the Steelers to get there. Steelers-Patriots games don't carry nearly the importance of the divisional games. Division wins can be the difference between bye weeks and wild card berths, and sometimes the difference between playoffs and early offseasons. However the Pats have been more than just another conference opponent. Brady and Belichick gave the Steelers two AFC championship losses, so as long as they are in New England beating them will be a treat. The Steelers found their first treat since 2004 by defeating the Patriots in a dominant performance that the scoreboard didn't do justice.
Time will tell whether the role reversals in 2011 with fellow AFC contenders New England and Baltimore will redefine those rivalries. The Steelers are changing, in some ways as much as the rebuilding Bengals or Browns; we will see how well the team can survive the gradual retirement of a great defensive line, backed by another aging great in James Farrior. Regardless of what the future holds, 2011 was an interesting season in the history of Steeler rivalries that may someday be recognized as a turning point.