First off, a word of congratulations to Mike Tomlin and the 2007 AFC North Division Champion Pittsburgh Steelers! It's not easy to win a division with a first year head coach and a 25 year old quarterback. It's even harder when you're implementing a new offense behind a suspect offensive line. The Steelers did just that, and for their perserverance and accomplishments, I commend them.
Here's a few things I'm thinking about as we head to the playoffs.
1) Bring on all takers
I'm ecstatic that we clinched the division and secured a home game in Round 1. A very nice reward for a team that has stayed together and kept battling through an inconsistent year. However, I personally don't care whether we are in New England or Indianapolis' half of the draw. All roads most likely go through both teams. No sense trying to duck one or the other at first. As for a preference between Jacksonville, TN, or CLE? Not really, because if the team's not playing well enough to beat Jacksonville, TN or CLE at home, we're not playing well enough to even deserve an opportunity to knock off one of the two true titans of the AFC. There's no easy outs in the AFC. Our only chance is getting hot at the right time (starting this past Thursday?) and maintaining it for the next month.
2) All eyes on you Dookie
I'm happy Najeh Davenport is getting this opportunity. He's certainly deserved it. It's absolutely devastating that Willie Parker went down, and quite frankly, our team is probably going to suffer from it. Even if the running game is infused with new energy, it will still be a shame Parker didn't have a chance to close out the rushing title, and more importantly, to make a run at a Super Bowl with his teammates.
Davenport's made the absolute most of his 95 carries this year though, good for a 5 ypc average. Unless we draw Cleveland, it's tough sledding from here on out. No more St. Louis's on the slate. All eyes will be on Davenport this next couple of weeks. The remaining phase of his career could be significantly altered by his performance.
As for the team collectively? I don't think we have to be able to run the ball to make a run, but it sure wouldn't hurt to be able to close out games if we were so fortunate to get a lead through the air. This is probably Storyline #1 of this year's Steelers playoff berth.
3) Don't forget about me
That's what Ben can say to the world if he were able to win a first round game at Heinz, then lead the Steelers over either New England or Indy on the road the following week in Round 2. Big Ben's about to put the finishing touches on a remarkable season. 32 TDs, a rating of over 104, and a completion % well over 60. His development since last year is both the reason why we're so much improved from 2006 and why re-upping him for at least the next 7 years is Priorty #1 this offseason. Roethlisberger has already made a big splash in this league when he was the youngest QB to win a SB. Now he has the chance to prove he's no one-hit wonder and that there need be room at or near the top of the current QB Pantheon for his name alongside Brady and Manning.
4) Act like you've been there before Mike (even if you haven't)
Tomlin has lived and learned throughout this first season as a head coach on any level. He's made some mistakes, no doubt, but he, like the team, has remained calm and steadfast in the core belief that the team was going about things in the right way. The verdict won't come out on his approach to coaching for another couple of years, but here's what the early proof suggests: we have a coach who's fantastic at relating to his players and keeping them unified and together during the tumultous ups and downs of an NFL season. He also wins football games. 10 of them in fact, through 15 contests.
Despite the impressive initial entries to his resume, here's his real chance to shine. We're no favorites in this Tournament. We'll have to take people by surprise, much like we did in 2005. That probably means we'll need to be even more agressive on offense, do out best to limit the special teams of opposing teams, and mix up our defense if we were to get another shot at NE. I'm curious to see how he handles the moment.
I'll be writing about each of these inidividual topics I'd imagine over the course of the next two weeks. If you are one who would prefer us not to play Jacksonville at Heinz in the Wild Card Round (and who could blame you after what we saw two weeks ago), then tune in on Christmas Eve and cheer for the Denver Broncos to beat the San Diego Chargers. As it stands, the Chargers would secure the #3 seed with two wins to close, as their AFC record would give them the tiebreaker over the Steelers. But a loss either tomorrow night or next week, coupled with a Steelers win at Baltimore would put us in the 3-slot with a game against either Cleveland or Tennessee in the first round, followed by a potential rematch against Indy from the Divisional Round of the 2005 playoffs.
It's almost that time my friends. Get pumped. The Playoffs are coming, and we've earned our way to the party!