If there's one thing I realize about sports it's this: the anticipation leading up to a big game is almost as fun and exciting as the game itself. It's enjoyable imagining all the various scenarios that may play out on Sunday: Big Ben outdueling Tom Brady; Polamalu knifing down Welker and Stallworth over the middle on critical 3rd downs; Hines Ward smiling in the face of Rodney Harrison. For that reason, I try to provide as much coverage before the games as possible, knowing that there's more to following your favorite NFL team than simply watching the games on Sunday and reacting the following day.
However, I'm having a hard time with this week's game. For one, at this point we know what the Patriots do well, as well as where they can be exploited on defense. And for us? It's obvious we need to protect the QB, not turn it over, tackle well, and get after Brady. I'm nervous about this game though despite knowing what variables are likely to determine the outcome of the game, and it's not because I think the Patriots are other-worldly and untouchable. For as incredible as they have been, we've already seen that's not the case. And it's not because I don't think the Steelers are capable of playing well enough to beat a team like the Patriots. We've already seen that's not the case either, although we wouldn't have minded seeing it with more regularity during the month of November in particular.
I'm nervous that a bad loss here puts Steelers fans back in the same place we were after the Jets game. To me, I've seen enough to know that we do have the tools to make it to Glendale, but I've also seen enough to know that we're going to have to get on a very hot streak offensively come playoff time, and frankly, this Sunday has no bearing on whether or not that will happen. Now, real quick, let me explain something that's obvious: this site is by the fans and for the fans of the Steelers. Nothing we say on here has any impact on the actual football played by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Duh, right? Yeah, obviously, but I think fans sometimes fans assume that players interpret the outcomes of games in the same way we do. Put differently: there's no way that the current Steelers roster will like or dislike their Super Bowl chances any differently after Sunday afternoon's tilt at Foxboro. If we win, Tomlin will have them back to work on Tuesday getting ready for the Jags. If we lose, the guys will go back to work even harder, knowing that they either A) don't want to be embarassed again (if we're blown out) or B) knowing that the outcome might be different if a couple things go differently (if the game is close). As competitors, this group of Steelers is excited for the game because they want to go up against the best. But regardless of what happens, the following week will be the same: back to work getting ready for the next one.
If we win, great, we're one step closer to potentially capturing the #2 seed in the AFC and an extra home game at Heinz field. But then again, if we win, we have no time to celebrate, as a big, strong, physical Jaguars team is coming to town the following Sunday. And if we lose? Well, we lose, and we get back to work against the Jaguars. If we lose, we will not have clincehd the the division, or for that matter, a playoff berth of any kind. So I urge you Steelers Nation: get out your Terrible Towels and twirl them as ferociously as you ever have before, but when the game ends, overcome the temptation to either crown the Steelers champions or write off their chances alltogether.
We try to follow the team analytically though, so there of course are a few red flags that have been raised this season that hopefully will not surface this Sunday. And despite my plea for an even-kieled emotional response after the game, I certainly expect others to be as disappointed and realistic about the rest of our season if the following things are the determining factors in Sunday's outcome:
1) Bellicheck confuses O-Line Coach Zeirlein to no end:
I've argued for weeks that this line had enough ability, and more importantly the lack of injuries and enough games left to straighten things out in time for a playoff run. I of course have acknowledged it's not a fantastic collection of individuals, but I contended that with the right play calling, the re-inserting of Max Starks, and Ben Roethlsiberger's willingness to get rid of it, the line could hold its own at least well enough to not cost us football games singlehandedly. Max Starks has looked solid since replacing the injured Marvel Smith, the play-calling has shifted towards the short passing game due to Holmes' absence and sloppy field conditions, and Ben has been willing to...well, honestly, Ben still holds on to it too long, despite his myriad improvements as an NFL quarterback this year.
Big, big test for Larry Zierlein and his offensive line this week. 3+ sacks and the inability to run the football would disappoint me, even if we kept it close or won. Huge opportunity for Arians and Zierlein to prove they're able to throw the first punch and not get confused by whatever Bellicheck throws at Big Ben.
2)Poor tackling on 3rd Down
Deashea Townsend vs. Wes Welker: The only matchup on the field that truly gives me nightmares. It's not that Wes Welker is the most incredible slot receiver to ever play the game, but we allowed the aging Brandon Stokely to light us up in Denver, and Welker, in my estimation, is faster, has better hands, and more importantly, less afraid of contact over the middle than Stokeley at this point in their respective careers. Through 12 games, our secondary has been outstanding, top to bottom, DeShea included no doubt. I'm still waiting for the inconsistent play we saw the past two years to rear its ugly head. I sure hope it doesn't come this week against Welker or Stallworth over the middle. Getting Brady off the field on 3rd down with sound tackling on the shifty and tough Welker, Benjamin Watson, and the Pats 3rd down backs is priority #1.
3)Field Position and Special Teams:
Results have been better the past several weeks in the special teams department, but it's hard to say with any confidence whether the problem has been fixed, or simply that other variables have minimized the impact of ST play in our games against the Jets, Dolphins, and Bengals. An 80 yard field is not all that much different than a 50 yard field for Tom Brady, but if this game is played in the 30s or 40s, it heavily favors the Patriots. Not saying we can't put up a big number, but we're better off converting on 3rd downs with Heath and Hines, taking the occasional shot down the field to Santonio to keep the D honest, and hopefully mixing in the run at the right times to both keep the chains moving and the clock rolling.
Even though yielding a play or two on special teams to the Pats might not be a deal breaker, it very well may next week against Maurice Jones Drew and the Jags. Or against Darren Sproles and the Chargers if we play them in the playoffs. Or Josh Cribss if the Browns and Steelers make the postseason. This weekend provides another opportunity to find out where we stand in this department, and we're running out of games to evaluate what further changes may or may not need to be made.
If we do those things well, I'll both like our chances, and won't be overly disappointed if we aren't able to pull it out. There's a chance Big Ben comes out overly excited trying to match Tom Brady tit for tat. It'd be a mistake if he did, because no matter how potent the Patriots offense is, our chances are exponentially greater at winning if we allow our defense to make a stop or two rather than Big Ben gift-wrapping points for the Patriots with turnovers. But if he did, that'd be fine, because it's not playoffs time yet. There's more learning for Roeth to do, and I'm certain that this Sunday will be good for this team in the long-run, no matter the outcome.
There's far more to this game to think about and analyze, so I appreciate the thread in the diaries that contains insightful analysis from both Pats and Steelers fans. With all the keen thoughts shared there, I wanted to simply state that A)these kinds of games are what make the NFL so exciting and bearable (there is only one game a week for 17 weeks after all) and B) that no matter how great this matchup may be, the result counts just the same as a home game at Heinz in the mud against a hapless 0-10 Miami Dolphins team. Enjoy the build-up, shake your head at or nod enthusiastically about Anthony Smith's prediction, make game-day plans that are more grandiose than your typical Sunday routine, and cheer on our boys like you've never done before.
But when the game ends, realize that this 2007 Steelers squad will still have a tough road to traverse to wind up where it wants to be come February, regardless of the outcome.