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False Dawn: A New Dynamic Emerges

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Things looked a lot different across the NFL landscape in the early stages of October. The Lions, Bills and 49ers appeared to have swept right past Respectable and set up residence in Dominant. The Redskins and Titans seemed prepared to take the top tier of their respective divisions. The Chiefs and the Eagles appeared to be as dead as the Rams, Dolphins and Vikings. The Giants, Bengals and Bears didn't seem to be too far behind. Packers and Patriots were considered invincible. And up to this past Monday night there was discussion of the Ravens being the class of the AFC. The Steelers? "Old, slow and done"; their defense at least, and perhaps the entire outfit.

Today? The Lions and Bills have come down to Earth a bit. The Titans and Redskins were a mirage. The Chiefs, Eagles, Giants, Bengals and Bears have roused themselves and look to be competitive moving forward. The Packers and Patriots are still dominant for the moment, but not quite invincible. The Rams, Dolphins, Vikings and Colts are still dead; and beginning to really smell bad as well. The Ravens? Hoo boy. Didn't you wish that you could have rounded up the Steelers and flown them down to Jacksonville to confront Baltimore then and there? And Pittsburgh. Old, maybe. Slow, possibly, but hard to make the case while we have Wallace and Brown on the roster. Done? Not yet to be sure.

To repeat a time worn, but still relevant cliché; it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. That fact has been brought into more dramatic relief this season with the labor negotiations and lockout that created a greatly distorted early season dynamic with the loss of OTAs, reduced training camp time and restriction on physical contact. None of this deterred pundits and many fans from jumping to rash, unjustified conclusions based upon little in the way of reliable or conclusive evidence. The behavior is understandable given the fact that both groups sometimes tend to be like great cornerbacks; they have short memories. In the case of the fans it's what have you done for me lately. Besides some good natured ribbing, Warren Sapp has suffered no ill effects from his, now, discredited assessment of the Steeler defense. Bold trumps accurate in sports media; leaving one to hope in some future fantasy world that some of these on air experts would be fired for being wrong. (If it's a matter of not knowing what you're talking about you might as well pay me).

The temptation is to assume that because now we have more information than in the opening weeks that we continue to make the mistake of placing too much weight on the value of individual games as a predictor of the ultimate fate of teams. A marathon is not won in either the 1st or the 12th mile.

To be sure the next two games are important, but aren't they all. I have read some fans saying that these games are ‘super bowls', and for much of the fan base (but not the team) that is correct. The psyche of Steeler Nation is particularly brittle when it comes to the Patriots. Given the history both victories and defeats take on an outsized quality. It is a virtual guarantee that too many people will read more into the outcome of this game than the situation deserves. History lesson of the day: in 2004 we played the Patriots at Heinz Field on the exact same weekend (if memory serves) that we are playing them now and defeated them solidly. We met them again at home for the AFCCG and they tore us a new one. A win would involve the Steelers taking nice advantage of an opportunity to position themselves for both playoff qualification and favorable seeding. It would do wonders in quieting fan anxiety about the future possibilities for this team. And it would put a bit of additional pressure on the Ravens in advance of the showdown next week. But it falls far short of being crucial.

By far the more important contest is next week's against the Ravens. The Ravens committed a major mistake for a team with championship aspirations; they lost a game that they should have won. This was a characteristic of the great Noll teams of the 70s. In terms of the ‘big' games, they won some, they lost some. But they always won the games they were supposed to win. Consequently, instead of having the opportunity in the best case of leading Pittsburgh by three games in the loss column with a win (a tie for the division lead being the worst case), the possibility now exists that they could leave Heinz Field a game (or more, in the unlikely case that they lost at home to Arizona, but losing to the Jags was at least as unlikely) down.

But even if the Steelers win both games they are not out of the woods. That supposedly cupcake schedule going forward has become potentially much more menacing with the 49ers and the Bengals in particular being more challenging outs than anticipated at the beginning of the year, as well as the Chiefs seeming to recover from their early season funk.

Coach Tomlin continues to be the best barometer concerning the importance and challenges involved with the team on a week to week basis. It sounds like coach speak, but what you get is a pretty accurate assessment of what's going on when you listen to or check the transcripts of his press conferences. Expect the media to give the Steelers a lot of strokes and to exaggerate the importance of these upcoming games. There is a ratings bonanza at stake.

What's the reality? So far, so good.