The 2023 NFL season will be upon us before we know it. But as we dredge through the first half of summer with no team activities, fans are left with merely looking towards what could be for the upcoming year.
When it comes to the outlook for the Steelers this season, there are several different ways to look at things. While some choose to look at the Steelers and their statistics from the 2022 season as a whole and think they could make some minor improvements but still not be a contender, others look at the second half of last season and see a team that won seven of their final nine games. The way one chooses to look at the data from 2022 goes a long way in shaping their hope for 2023.
For those who think the Steelers didn’t have that much to build on from last season, their typical arguing point is the quality of opponents the Steelers faced down the stretch. The fact that the Steelers won the games was insignificant because some deemed them to be playing inferior teams.
But isn’t this the NFL? Aren’t all the players at the top of their profession simply by making it? Are there truly teams that are that poor that is expected for other teams to win the game without a doubt?
For those who believe the disparity in the NFL is quite large and teams must beat quality opponents in order for their wins to actually mean something, I’m going to give another example of why looking at the opponents shouldn’t minimize the teams results. I know this might ruffle some feathers, but it simply is how the numbers play out. So if you think the quality of opponents is a large factor in determining the accomplishments of a team, then the following conclusion could also be drawn…
The 1976 Steelers defense wasn’t all that great because they didn’t play anybody.
For those of you that may need a brief refresher or simply are unaware because it is before your time, the Pittsburgh Steelers 1976 defense is considered one of the best in both franchise and NFL history. When looking at teams that did not win a Super Bowl, they are the prime example of greatness. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the Steelers playing the AFC Championship Game without Franco Harris or Rocky Bleier, many believe the Steelers would have won their third-straight Super Bowl.
The accomplishment of the Steelers 1976 defense is that, after starting 1–4, they won their final nine games of the season. The reason the defense is thought of so much over this nine-game win streak was because they surrendered a total of 28 points and had five shut outs.
As much as the 1976 Steelers defense is talked about, what often isn’t discussed is the quality of opponents they faced over this nine-game stretch. The Steelers only played one team that finished the season with a winning record and that was both victories over the Cincinnati Bengals who finished the season 10–4. The next best record of teams the Steelers defeated were the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins who both finished 6–8. The Steelers had three victories over teams who finished 5–9 with two being against the Houston Oilers and one against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Steelers also defeated the 3–11 New York Giants and 0–14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But when the Steelers faced teams early in the season, three of which made the postseason, they managed a split with the 9–5 Cleveland Browns and lost to the Oakland Raiders (13–1), Minnesota Vikings (11–2–1), and England Patriots (11–3). Not only that, the Steelers were favorites to win all of their first five games, including being more than a two-touchdown favorite over the Patriots.
To put the Steelers opponents in perspective from the last nine games of 1976, they finished with an overall win loss record of 50–76 which equates to a 39.68% winning percentage. Comparing that to the final nine opponents in 2022, their combined record was 70–81–1 which was a 46.05% winning percentage. If not being concerned about the records of the teams that defeated the Steelers, the combined record of the teams of the Steelers final seven victories of the season was 58–70–1 which was a 40.68% winning percentage, exactly 1% higher than the 1976 opponents.
So does the record of the opponents of the 1976 Steelers bring into question their greatness? It shouldn’t. The Steelers went nine games where they only surrendered one total touchdown. It didn’t matter that the opponents had bad records, or the fact that the Steelers were favored in eight of the nine games and six of the games they were favored by double digits. They still had to take care of business on the field.
In looking at the 2022 season and the final nine games for the Steelers, the fact that they were victorious should not be diminished. The Steelers were only favored in three of those nine games and were never favored by even as much as a field goal.
The fact the 2022 Steelers were able to win seven of their final nine games should be looked at as a strong finish and not be diminished because of who they were scheduled to face. The 1976 Steelers had dominant defensive performances against NFL teams regardless of what their final record ended up for the season. All teams can do is play the teams they are scheduled to face each week regardless of how well that team is playing.