I was listening to sports talk radio a year or two ago, and the topic of discussion at this particular time was NFL parity and the "fine-line" that separates most teams. The host quoted former NFL head coach and studio analysis, Sam Wyche. Wyche once said that, while breaking down film of each team before the start of the season, it was pretty easy to identify the handful of teams who were going to finish 13-3 and the three or four who were going to finish in the 3-13 range. As for the other two dozen or so teams? They were all a few plays, either way, from finishing anywhere from 10-6 to 6-10.
Before the start of the 2012 season, the Steelers were picked to finish anywhere from 7-9 to 12-4, depending on who you wanted to believe--I was buying the 12-4 stock, but then again, I always do.
Heading into Week 12, Pittsburgh is 6-4 and, after the heartbreaking 13-10 loss to the Ravens on Sunday night, is two games back of Baltimore in the AFC North with only six games left in the regular season. The Steelers are on pace to win nine or 10 games and sneak into the playoffs as a wild card team. A "glass half full" person would point to a few plays that could be the difference between the Steelers being 6-4 and 3-7.
Where would Pittsburgh be right now if it wasn't for Ryan Clark's forced fumble of Michael Vick that prevented a possible Eagles' touchdown in what ultimately became a razor-thin 16-14 victory in Week 5? Where would the Steelers be if it wasn't for LaMarr Woodley's timely interception of Andy Dalton at the end of the first half in a game Pittsburgh would go on to win, 24-17, over the Bengals in Week 7? How depressed would we all have been last Monday night if the Steelers were upset by lowly Kansas City on a night when they lost Ben Roethlisberger for an indefinite amount of time? Fortunately, Lawrence Timmons intercepted Matt Cassel on the second play of overtime, and Pittsburgh escaped with a 16-13 victory over the Chiefs.
You might say those plays are what's keeping the Steelers afloat right now. However, of Pittsburgh's four losses, three of them were by a field goal, and the argument could be made that the Steelers could very easily be 8-2 or 9-1 right now and very much in the running for a number one seed and a first round bye. I believe each of those three-point losses came down to a single play that, had Pittsburgh been able to execute, may have led to a victory instead of a defeat.
34-31 loss to the Raiders in Week 3: Extra effort doesn't always pay off
The favored Steelers were in a dog-fight with the Raiders in Oakland's Black Hole. After taking a 31-21 lead late in the third quarter, Carson Palmer led the Raiders on a touchdown drive to pull within three points early in the final period. Pittsburgh's offense was moving the ball all day--Roethlisberger was 36/49 for 384 yards and four touchdown passes--and was doing so again when Antonio Brown, fighting for extra yards after a pass reception, fumbled the football back to Oakland. Palmer would go on to lead two more field goal drives, and the Raiders would walk away with a 34-31 victory.
26-23 loss to the Titans in Week 6: Keenan Lewis impersonates Ike Taylor
After struggling with the mostly hapless Titans on a Thursday night game in Tennessee in Week 6, the Steelers had taken a 23-16 fourth quarter lead, thanks to a Baron Batch touchdown run and a Lawrence Timmons interception that led to a Shaun Suisham field goal. The Titans were looking to tie the score late when journeyman quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hit Keenan Lewis right in the bread-basket with what could have been a game-sealing interception. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Lewis failed to secure the football, and Tennessee went on to tie the game and would go on to win it on a Rob Bironas field goal as time expired.
13-10 loss to the Ravens in Week 11: A fade pass, really?
This one is obviously pretty fresh in everyone's mind. Trailing, 13-7, late in the third quarter Sunday night, the Steelers were knocking on Baltimore's door when, on 3rd and two from inside the five yard line, Byron Leftwich, Pittsburgh's battered and bruised back-up quarterback, threw up a fade pass for Mike Wallace in the right corner of the end zone. Wallace caught the football but couldn't come down with both feet in bounds. Much has been made of Haley's play-call right there, and maybe rightfully so--Jonathan Dwyer was looking very Bus-like in the second half. However, there has also been a lot made of Wallace's failure to get both feet in bounds on the play. Had he been able to do that, the Steelers would have taken a 14-13 lead, and who knows? Instead, they had to settle for a Suisham field goal and never came close to scoring again.
I've gotten into a few "heated" discussions with some folks in recent weeks, and most of them have centered around my criticizing the defense for its inability to make "splash plays" despite it's number one ranking. However, there's a reason for that as well as for pointing out the inability of Haley's offense to make big plays or capitalize on the 249 return yards produced by the special teams in the 24-20 victory over the Giants two weeks ago.
Defensive rankings, rushing yards and time of possession are nice to have, but it's the ability (or inability) of a football team to make a handful of plays that ultimately decides most football games.
Moving forward, let's hope the Steelers are able to walk on the positive side of that "fine-line." How Pittsburgh walks that line could ultimately be the difference between a Super Bowl run and one and done.