So what to make of the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers as they prepare for their Week 8 matchup against the one-time rival Oakland Raiders? Following their 0-4 start to the season -- a month that saw the Steelers turn the ball over 11 times while not forcing a single turnover themselves -- fans were understandably frustrated. Many wondered just how bad things would get; few openly expressed confidence that the team could still salvage its season and contend for a playoff spot.
As Lee Corso might say, 'Not so fast, my friends.'
Or as Tunch Ilkin told Behind the Steel Curtain several years ago: "The dynamics of the NFL not only change greatly in between seasons, but the league changes about every four weeks during the season."
Now, following consecutive wins over two AFC teams -- the New York Jets and the rival Baltimore Ravens -- the Steelers are 2-4, and though it's hard to believe, only one game back in the loss column in what is guaranteed to be a crazy, multi-team race for the second of two Wild Card spots in the AFC. Were the Steelers to do the impossible and bounce back from an 0-4 start to qualify for the postseason, they'd join the 1992 San Diego Chargers as the only team since the merger to accomplish the feat.
I am only a casual gambler on NFL football, but having covered the league in some form or fashion for so many years now, I knew there would be tremendous value on taking the Steelers before their Week 7 showdown with the Ravens. But when I went to see just how much value, I was blown away to see they were listed at 100:1. Really? A preseason SB contender only 2 1/2 games back in the loss column through their first four games listed at +10,000? With all that parity and log-jam in the middle of the pack in the AFC and two of Pittsburgh's losses being out-of-conference?
Sure, I most likely never see that Benjamin again, but hey, $10k if they can sneak their way into the tournament and make magic happen, a la 2005 when we needed to win the final four games of the year to punch a playoff ticket as the No. 6 seed. The only team that year that seemed 'scary' was the Peyton Manning led Indianapolis Colts. This year? The Manning-orchestrated Denver Broncos sure look tough to keep pace with, but their air of invincibility has lost some luster the past two weeks. And does anyone in Steeler Nation not feel confident that Pittsburgh would beat Kansas City at least five times out of ten regardless of the setting, time of year, or who is able to suit up and play for the black and gold? Anybody? Didn't think so.
There is still value, actually, in joining my position on the Steelers winning a seventh Lombardi Trophy. As expected though, not as much. The Steelers are now 66:1 underdogs to win it all, the same number as Baltimore, and a rung below teams like the Chargers, Bears and Lions at 50:1. One can expect the Steelers to join that group at 50:1 were they to beat the 2-4 Raiders on the road this coming Sunday. Then it's off to Foxboro for a Week 9 tilt against the flawed New England Patriots, who got punched in the mouth by the same Jets team that the Steelers had no trouble grounding coming out of their BYE week two Sundays ago. Win that one and we're back at .500, conceivably in control of our own destiny heading into second half of the season, and in plenty good shape one way or another heading into the third quarter of the season given that two of our losses were out-of-conference. And it goes without saying that suddenly my 100:1 position looks like a bargain.
Value is one thing though, and frankly, not all that noteworthy considering I do not wager regularly enough to enjoy the windfalls that eventually accompany the unavoidable losses involved in staking out such positions. We'll see.
For now, let's move on to why the Steelers have a realistic chance in the first place. Pretty simple, in my estimation at least: Ben Roethlisberger is playing a brand of football that reflects a very clear understanding that there is very little margin for error, if any at all. Put the team in compromising situations with the Superman stuff, and this team is like any other in the NFL -- extraordinarily beatable. Protect the ball, pick your spots wisely, be willing to tuck it and run for a handful of yards or throw it away and live to see another day -- that formula very quickly transforms the Steelers into a very tough team to beat.
33, 37, 41, 51. Those are Big Ben's passing attempts in Weeks 1-4.
30 and 23 passing attempts the previous two weeks. Figures much better suited for success.
At 31 years of age, Roethlisberger knows football games can only be lost thanks to the contributions of one person. And after being at the forefront of why the Steelers collapsed down the stretch last year, and then again at the outset of the new season, it appears as if he has internalized the very simple fact that sometimes less is more, and that is more important for him not to put his team in jeopardy with silly mistakes than it is for him to always force the issue in search of the big, highlight-reel play.
The Steelers will, of course, need to force more turnovers as the season progresses. Perhaps they will if Dick LeBeau has more opportunities to pick his spots with aggressive play-calling. Injuries are always a concern, but they are for every team in this league, so no need to go there except to say keep your fingers crossed that No. 43 and No. 7 stay healthy. And finally, Shuan Suisham will need to continue to kick as well as he has so far -- he's a perfect 14-of-14 to start the year. But he also might need to see his opportunities decrease as the result of the offense finding pay dirt more frequently.
That's enough for now. Good to write something after such a prolonged absence! And please excuse me and not boo me off stage if the Steelers lay an egg out in Oakland this Sunday, an outcome we've seen unfold in prior seasons marked by disappointing inconsistency. But from where I am sitting, the 'no one believes in us, backs against the wall' mentality carries Mike Tomlin's team to another win and one step closer to contention heading into a high-profile Week 9 test at New England. If so, time will officially be ticking on a gambler's opportunity to take advantage of the value afforded by the reality that public perception doesn't often account for the fact that the NFL changes every four weeks. Here's to hoping the best is yet to come. Regardless of whether I'm 10k richer or $100 poorer, I am excited about this team and the possibility, no matter how small, that they can overcome early-season struggles and fight their way back into the mix heading into the second half of the season. Go Steelers!
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers at Raiders: Everything you need to know
- Jones thinks he's fine, remains patient
- Steelers Film Room: Thomas, Taylor and Troy
- Pryor told Tomlin not to draft him
- Cowher to interview Franco on CBS Pregame Show
- Tomlin sending messages to players through the media
- Everyone hates Ben Roethlisberger