But, speaking honestly now, does anyone have any earthly idea what's going to happen in Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday? Great? Terrible? More likely great for awhile and terrible for awhile.
I'll just keep recycling that line until it no longer seems relevant. The Steelers followed a down week with an up one. Losing to a bottom-feeder and then beating a division leader like they stole something. But, in keeping with their flair for the dramatic, waiting until the fourth quarter to turn it on. With that in mind, I have found myself wishing Pittsburgh had a less challenging game this weekend. Seattle, maybe New England. The Falcons? Who knows?
Once again the question is whether this team, at the very least, can replicate its mini-run from the second quarter of the season when they rolled the Texans, Colts and Ravens. Even better yet, could this be the moment when they finally turn the corner? It has to happen eventually. This may be a deeply flawed team, but not IMHO a bad team. However...
A divided fan base
Inconsistency doesn't stop with the team. There seems to be a deep and significant rift between those who like the direction this team is taking in spite of the frustrations involved with transition and the integration of the new, and those who hate it and simply will not be happy until someone's head(s), anyone's head, rolls. Dejan Kovacevic captures this phenomenon best in suggesting that some fans might believe it's simply "uncool" to like the Steelers. Of course this is blasphemy to some. But, referring back to a 2002 piece by Bill Simmons on behavior protocols for the true fan, technically it's not out of line to root against your own team if you're of the opinion that something such as a coaching change is in order.
The Negs are in eclipse at the moment, either forced mute or at least to talk in whispers in the wake of an impressive victory in Cincinnati. And they're running out of time. The team is currently playoff-eligible. One more win gives them a winning season. Though the result of this game will likely solve nothing, perception is critical. There's hope that this team has shown a genius for snatching either defeat out of the jaws of victory or vice versa. A pratfall in Atlanta would certainly help but, frankly, if the half-empty glass is your position, then the news is getting grim.
At eight wins, Mike Tomlin is in fairly elite company in terms of year-to-year success. Kudos to those who have managed over the last couple of years to sell the idea, in complete contradiction to the truth of mathematics, that 8-8 constitutes a losing record. So much for American education. Nine or more wins will be a much harder sell, since even ignorance has its limits.
As Bob Smizik points out in his spirited defense of the offensive coordinator, it's hard to translate a 6.2 yards-per-play average into incompetence. There's this disturbing trend to use terms such as 'best ever' and other superlatives to describe this offense. They're going against the 32nd-ranked defense in the NFL this weekend. It could get ugly.
Colbert and the Steelers' brain trust
The quarterback is in the conversation for MVP. The starting running back (a second-round draft pick) is being compared to Walter Payton and in the conversation for MVP. The No. 1 wide receiver (a sixth-round draft pick) is leading in Pro Bowl voting and league statistics and he's in the conversation for MVP. And these are just the headliners.
Le'Veon Bell hit a trifecta this week as he was named the offensive player of the week for the AFC, FedEx ground player of the week (Ben was named the air player) and Steelers Digest player of the week. His third consecutive week of gaining over 200 yards from scrimmage places him in the rarified environs of being compared with the late, great Walter Payton. Nobody believes he has peaked or even plateaued yet as a performer. His family members are lifelong Steelers fans. Rebecca Rollett can run a Character (Ac)counts piece less than a week after he went to court on drug and DUI charges without so much as a 'Hey, wait a minute'. Barring serious injury, you might project that he may be one of those players that transcends the game, teams and stakes. You tune in just to see them perform. Is it possible that Steelers football could become even more popular?
Beachum, Brown and size discrimination
Speaking of lower-round draft picks going way past expectations. Offensive left tackle Kelvin Beachum is currently ranked in the upper echelon of tackles league-wide and he received, along with linebacker Lawrence Timmons, top PFF scores this week. I simply won't accept anyone who claims to have known this all along. Many fans were absolutely furious when Beachum made the 53-man roster coming out of his rookie training camp. And, admit it, the only reason that some thought he was starting this season was because Mike Adams was supposedly that bad. Why are we so surprised, besides the fact that he was a lower-round pick? Or more to the point, why was he a low-round draft pick? His size. He couldn't possibly be effective, he's too small - or so the story goes.
In the NFL size matters. At least it does in terms of how talent is evaluated. This isn't to say that size doesn't have its advantages or a relative lack of challenges. But sometimes it feels like someone who might say that only women with blonde hair are attractive. That's dismissing a lot of quality talent. It's size that lends an air of disbelief to the fact of Antonio Brown being considered the top receiver in the league. That accolade should be going to the Calvin Johnsons, right? It was the knock on James Harrison. It was why Russell Wilson went much later in the draft than Andrew Luck or RGIII. The one commonality of the three Steelers players mentioned is their work ethics. It doesn't mean that size doesn't matter, but maybe it doesn't matter so much.
Beachum was far from the only good news associated with the offensive line. Besides the 200-plus yards associated with Bell, Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked once by the Bengals' defense. Haley singled out David DeCastro as the key ingredient to the blocking for Pittsburgh's now devastating ground attack. For those made nervous by the presence of Adams, you should be heartened to know that Marcus Gilbert is returning this week. Nor is the full impact felt only on the field. After Tomlin, as has become tradition around the league at this time of the year, gave the team Monday off, Maurkice Pouncey was one of the team leaders who insisted that they could not afford an off day. Over fifty players showed up for work on Monday.
Nor was it just about the offensive line. Check Paper Champions' film room piece that highlights the contributions of each. Sunday may go down as the coming-out party for defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who was more or less forced into service due to the loss of Brett Keisel. It was an auspicious outing, with the key moment being a hit on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton that knocked him temporarily out of the game. Steve McLendon also returned and performed in such a manner that the prospects of a lineup of Tuitt, McLendon and Cam Heyward is looking very attractive going forward.
Also coming out of the shadows into the light of day are the three tight ends. Spaeth in particular is beginning to really show his value as a blocker and provide some bonuses as a receiver as well. Though he had receptions for a touchdown and a two-point conversion, Heath Miller got as much credit for his blocking tandem with DeCastro on the Steelers' counter runs. Will Johnson played well and has also been noticed.
But for all the well deserved credit given to Bell and his escorts, the play that fans may remember throughout the winter and beyond is the 94-yard bomb from Ben to rookie wideout Martavis Bryant. This play, more than any other, will likely be considered the one that broke the backs and the spirit of the Bengals and their fans. If the Steelers eventually go on to win the AFC North, they may point to this as the play that made the difference. The re-emergence of Bryant after a micro-slump will account for terrifying defensive coordinators around the league now and in the future, already pushed beyond the limit trying to provide remedies for Ben, Brown and Bell. Now they have to stop this guy too? Not to mention Heath, Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore, etc.
Jones and Moats
The light isn't so blinding on the defensive side of the ball, but there's good news. After an absence of two and a half months, Jarvis Jones returned to the lineup, and in better news, apparently suffered no ill-effects after his first action in that time. The clean bill of health that he and McLendon received after the game gives hope that the constant injuries which have plagued the defense have abated, at least a little, for now. Jones' return was necessary due to a knee injury to James Harrison that kept him out of the game. But the most impressive work by an outside linebacker was by Arthur Moats, who among other accomplishments, had a key turnover. Sunday will be a home game for Jones in Atlanta where friends and family will be in attendance. The hope here is that an outstanding performance may be in the offing.
is a bit of a mess. The effects of injury and the struggle to mesh has create some havoc and is now clearly the team's Achilles Heel. The best hope for Atlanta, besides forcing turnovers, will be to exploit this unit with their potent offense, though at the moment it's not clear whether Julio Jones will be available on Sunday. To his credit, Mike Mitchell stepped up and took blame for the big plays by AJ Green. Brice McCain and Antwon Blake will have to step up in the likely absence of Ike Taylor, whose injuries so undermined his play that he took himself out of the Bengals game. The hope is that William Gay has one of his better efforts and this group keeps the situation manageable.
He's the new kid on the block with this group.
They may figure prominently in this game. Besides the Falcons' passing attack, the most likely cause of concern after that would be kick-returner Devin Hester. How he's handled may be critical.
Reviews and previews
A week ago, the feeling that it was over for the veteran defensive end seemed like a slam-dunk. It's a possibility, though very small, that there may still be one more act. In the meantime, Keisel is handing off some of his charitable responsibilities.
Polamalu has been nominated for a sportsmanship award.
At this time of the year, the question arises concerning the value of momentum and its role in playoff success. The thinking on this has been largely anecdotal. Here's an attempt to apply some analytics to the issue.
Drying up the pipeline
And finally, a Frontline report on who's opting out of high school football.