This game is a huge turning point in the season. Take a look at the schedule:
|Tennessee||Sun 09/08||L 9 - 16|
|@ Cincinnati||Mon 09/16||L 10 - 20|
|Chicago||Sun 09/22||L 23 - 40|
|@ Minnesota||Sun 09/29||1:00 PM EDT|
|@ New York Jets||Sun 10/13||1:00 PM EDT|
|Baltimore||Sun 10/20||4:25 PM EDT|
|@ Oakland||Sun 10/27||4:05 PM EDT|
|@ New England||Sun 11/03||4:25 PM EST|
|Buffalo||Sun 11/10||1:00 PM EST|
|Detroit||Sun 11/17||1:00 PM EST|
|@ Cleveland||Sun 11/24||1:00 PM EST|
|@ Baltimore||Thu 11/28||8:30 PM EST|
|Miami||Sun 12/08||1:00 PM EST|
|Cincinnati||Sun 12/15||8:30 PM EST|
|@ Green Bay||Sun 12/22||4:25 PM EST|
|Cleveland||Sun 12/29||1:00 PM EST|
There two ways Sunday's game can go (well three, but let's ignore the tie since it shouldn't exist anyway). Win or lose -- it'll have a huge impact on the season -- as a pivot point or the beginnings of an all out tailspin. Obviously, no team on the schedule should be considered an easy win, especially this year. But in the past Pittsburgh has played down to it's competition, so the games against teams like Cleveland, Oakland, and the Jets should be viewed as a familiar challenge -- only this year the Steelers can't really call it a "trap game" since no one is trying to catch them.
After the Vikings game, Pittsburgh will enter a stretch that includes 5 seemingly beatable teams in their next 7 -- starting with New York after a rejuvenative bye week and ending on the road against the Browns. While it's one of football's biggest cliches, the records really do seem to go out the window in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. So there's a decent chance they at least split the series. A win in London would be a huge boost heading into that relatively welcoming sequence, but a loss may be enough to sink this team. They won't say they're packing it in for the season, but all it takes is a few guys mentally checking out for the bottom to fall out.
With that in mind, here are two very hypothetical scenarios that could play out after Sunday's game:
L - MINNESOTA 17, PITTSBURGH 13 -- Even if it's a close game, a loss is a loss. Actually, that'd be 4 of them. If the Steelers' offense continues to give away possessions -- by turnover or just plain incompetence -- this game could end up looking something like Opening Weekend against Tennessee -- with the Vikings employing a slow burn on the clock and keeping the ball out of Cassell's hands.
BYE WEEK -- This would be the perfect opportunity for the team to fire Todd Haley. Get someone in there with at least a little time to prepare for the Jets -- and more importantly, 2014. If the team drops to 0-4, there's no reason to keep Haley until the end of the year. It'll be a losing campaign for the Steelers and Mr. Haley won't be back.
L - NEW YORK 20, PITTSBURGH 14 -- The Steelers drop to 0-5, because at this point, why not? Interim Offensive Coordinator Randy Fitchner tries to steer his new unit back to the Arians-style attack, but the Jets still have a tough enough defense to win (270 yards/game is good enough for 3rd in the NFL). Miscommunication and a few more injuries to the offensive line bring a very dark and unfamiliar cloud over Pittsburgh.
+ Kelvin Beachum placed on Injured Reserve (broken left forearm), Mike Adams placed on IR (hairline fracture to corpus callosum), Isaac Redman placed on IR (Plantar Draculitis)
W - PITTSBURGH 21, BALTIMORE 20 -- The Steelers win out of pure spite, but lose Big Ben for undisclosed reasons -- leaving the 24/7 vulture-pundits to pontificate "Is Ben In Trouble Again?" Turns out he's not. He just has a highly complicated injury. The defense looks resurgent and Fitchner's offense gets them just enough in a barbarous Pitt-Baltimore classic.
+ Ben Roethlisberger placed on IR (dislocated soul)
W - PITTSBURGH 13, OAKLAND 9 -- It's an ugly one, but Pittsburgh manages to eke out another win behind the vanilla game management of Bruce Gradkowski. The Raiders pull Terrelle Pryor from the game after the first hit he takes at the "request" of the Commissioner's Office. Matt Flynn gives the Steelers their first turnover of the season when Brett Keisel simply takes the ball away from him with a calm defiance and angrily walks 42 yards into the endzone uncontested.
L - NEW ENGLAND 31, PITTSBURGH 13 -- Rob Gronkowski scores 3 touchdowns in the first half, because Willie Gay is covering him again for no explicable reason. Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady audibles into a QB sneak for a meaningless TD with 1 second left and emphatically spikes the ball as the whitest dude in America. The front page of Grantland the following morning reads: "Brady is Way Better than Jordan Ever Was" by Bill Simmons.
See, things got pretty ugly there. And I was probably being too generous in a few places. It could be even worse than that. At 2-6, the second half of the season doesn't really matter. Not many teams are able to tear off an eight game win streak, and even fewer are capable of it after starting this poorly. The only bright side to this scenario is the high draft pick. And I, for one, would much rather see the team put up a fight this year and maintain their dignity than watch them fall to pieces all season for the benefit of a few days in April. So now that that awful scenario is out of the way, here's what the rest of the first half may look like if the Steelers beat the Vikings:
W - PITTSBURGH 2, MINNESOTA 0 -- The score of a game never really matters that much, but that sentiment couldn't be more true than it is for this game. Even if they get a win by being given an overtime holding call in the endzone, or some freak "interception" like the Seahawks were gifted against Packers last year. It won't matter. All that matters is that they don't go to 0-4. So since the score doesn't matter, we'll just say the Steelers win this one on, I don't know, a freaky overtime holding call in the endzone.
BYE WEEK -- After hitting it hard all week, the Steelers take this weekend to recalibrate their offense and fine tune their evolving defensive approach. The O-line begins to vaguely understand the Zone Blocking System and Coach Haley is prescribed 10 mg of lorazepam a day. TMZ begins emphatically reporting that he and Ben have been seen in the same room, at the same time.
W - PITTSBURGH 24, NEW YORK 10 -- The offensive line starts to gel and Felix Jones rushes for a whopping 71 yards! Roethlisberger throws 2 TDs & no picks while Dick Lebeau sicks his sharpening defense on rookie QB Geno Smith. Mark Sanchez takes the field in relief and everyone in America is given a day off work to celebrate the subsequent firing of Rex Ryan.
W - PITTSBURGH 23, BALTIMORE 21 -- The defense feeds off of an alarmingly rabid crowd to pound Joe Flacco into the ground 5 times. John Harbaugh is penalized for trying to use his challenge flag as an impromptu timeout and his team is forced to punt late in the fourth quarter rather than having a chance to run out the clock at midfield. Ben runs a resplendent two-minute drive to knock off the favored Ravens and Pittsburgh relaxes just a little as he proves there's a little magic left in old No. 7.
W - PITTSBURGH 21, OAKLAND 9 -- If the Terrelle Pryor Experiment isn't already over by this point, it probably will be when Week 8 comes to a close. In this bogus universe, the Steelers limit him to 122 yards passing and just 17 on the ground. Pitt's offense struggles but is aided by good field position. Jarvis Jones gets 3 sacks and earns the nickname "Gnarlyhorse" in reference to the muscle bruises he often leaves behind, his athleticism, and his passion for board-based watersports.
L - NEW ENGLAND 29, PITTSBURGH 24 -- Let's not get too crazy. Four in a row might already be kind of a stretch, and the Steelers still have to find a guy who can cover Gronk. You never know, but this year's team doesn't look like a great one to match up with the Pats. Brady and his offense look absolutely mechanical in this one, but it ends up a closely contested battle. Finally ending the charade, Bill Belichick goes ahead and wears a full regalia Darth Vader costume on the sideline.
Okay, so neither of these scenarios have any chance in hell of happening, but the point is: this weekend's game is still really important despite the 0-3 start. If anything good is going to come from the 2013 season, it needs to start right now. 4-4 wouldn't be a terrible place to start the second half, and Pittsburgh has a few favorable match ups in November and December. By no means are they easy games, but at least they wouldn't be going into them with nothing to gain. Being mediocre is still much better than being a laughing stock. The Steelers don't play for "next year."
Listen to The Standard is The Standard pregame show:
The Stanard is The Standard - Episode 4
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers vs. Vikings in London: Everything you need to know
- Weekend Checkdown
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- Vince Williams earning veterans' respect
- Past favors Pittsburgh in Cassel vs. Steelers
- Steelers Injury Report is roughly blank
- Ike Taylor struggling with accents
- Steelers Film Room: David DeCastro
- 5 Questions with Daily Norseman