The AFC North
I'm sure there were those who were watching to see when the bubble would burst with this division. Rarely has there been a more successfully competitive group top to bottom, best exemplified at the end that three teams, the maximum amount possible, made it into the playoffs. This could be viewed as even more impressive given that Cleveland, the odd group out, more or less imploded on their own and could have easily been top dog in the NFC South in spite of it all. If you're looking for additional reasons to be happy in this new year of 2015, it wouldn't be just that the Steelers became division champions when many believed that making the playoffs at all was too tall an order, but they prevailed in what is, without a doubt, the toughest, most competitive division in the NFL. This is one of the key reasons why I contend that, regardless of what happens in the playoffs this year, 2014 has to go down as an unqualified success for Pittsburgh.
The skunk at the picnic of feel-good holiday news and certainly the top story of the week is the injury status of Bell, who mere hours after being elected team-MVP by his peers, went down with a hyper-extension of the knee that looked much worse at the time it occurred and leeched much of the joy out of Steelers Nation's celebration of the division championship. Since then, and after it was definitively determined that the injury wasn't catastrophic, the focus has been the moment-to-moment status of Bell and debate over whether he should be allowed to go, even if he's able, against the one team that you can be pretty certain would take him out if they could. The final verdict being that he will sit.
Bell going down was concerning, but not so much that it completely dampened the holiday spirits amplified by Pittsburgh's 11th hour removal of the Bengals from the top of the AFC North. A lot of us saw this possible scenario playing out when the schedule was released, but were shaken with the unpredictable pattern the team followed in the early weeks of the season. Cleveland may lack the organizational competence, but it's Cincinnati that's at the bottom of the division, as far as the crucial element of heart is measured. For those who were around at the time, the Bengals may be somewhat reminiscent of the Dallas Cowboys of the late 1960s, a talented team that, in the end, found a way to lose. Or putting it in less-charitable terms, a bunch of choking dogs. They did not disappoint. Bill Steinbach has consistently contended that, as long as Andy Dalton is the quarterback, the Bengals are doomed. While not disputing his basic reasoning (how can I?), that's just the tip of the iceberg.
But it would be unfair to give all the credit to Cincinnati. The finale showed so many things that will keep Steelers Nation warm over the long off-season, whenever that may begin.
You know what is really amazing? That Le'Veon Bell can be legitimately declared the team MVP in a landslide while AB is having this kind of a season. His punt return and touchdown receptions were, at once, astonishing and (for Steelers fans) just another day at the office. In a joint article we wrote during training camp, Rebecca Rollett and I noted that it appeared Ben and Antonio could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. When you make an assertion like that in the back of your mind you wonder whether you're just being caught up in a little preseason hyperbole. After all, its just camp and going against a number of people who will be out of football when the shooting starts. But, no. It turns out the observation was dead on. AB is proving to be lethal and absolutely unstoppable at times. One meaning of Bell going down for as long as that lasts is that it'll just mean more for Antonio.
Not to take anything away from Brown's partner in crime so to speak. In camp, Ben appeared lean and fit in a way that was different from previous years. Now as we head into the playoffs, Ben is upright and healthy. He's quietly being viewed as the best quarterback currently practicing in the conference (Better that Brady and Manning? Blasphemy!). If he's having a good day, a big if at times, then the opposition has no chance. The Ravens, of all people, understand this. This is why PaVaSteeler suggested, and I concur, that a key piece of the Baltimore game plan may be to break Ben in two any way that can be accomplished. They've already tried to do so twice this year. The first attempt would have to be considered a success. I don't like to side with the conspiracy theorists, but I'm with them on this one. Courtney Upshaw, Suggs and company better not try to do that with Tom Brady. But Ben? So if you're looking for a key to the upcoming game it will be Munchak's offensive line and the tight ends against Baltimore's front-seven.
Another player we're not surprised about based on performance at camp. It would have been hard to make the case based on bottom-line results early in the season, but the depth of talent the Steelers had at so many positions was really impressive. A fact that has been validated by, among other things, our inability to retain practice squad players. Other teams don't have that problem. Josh Harris was a good back, just not good enough to have a chance at unseating either Bell or LeGarrette Blount. And he lacked the versatility to challenge Will Johnson or Dri Archer, each of whom were working with two position groups. He was caught in the rear of a traffic jam. Now he may be potentially a very good long-term solution as a complementary back, with a style conducive to this offense and not needing a large number of reps to be happy (because he's not getting any while #26 is healthy). In the spirit of full disclosure, Rebecca has a soft spot for Pittsburgh athletes with the first name of 'Josh'. Whether that affected her assessment is unknown.
If nothing else, have you seen a more efficient performer? It seems that he gets targeted one time, scores a touchdown, takes a bow, and yields the stage to the less fortunate. Wait until he figures out what he's doing.
Brice 'Deion' McCain, Antwon Blake, Will Allen and the Pittsburgh defense
Tell me you saw that coming in August. Two interceptions by McCain, on AJ Green no less? Willie Gay being described as a Pro Bowl snub with a straight face. Will Allen channeling Troy. The play of the game by Blake. The Steelers defense played an old familiar role and did it well, saving this team's bacon despite screw-ups by the offense and special teams. They are getting healthier and better by the week. That guy LeBeau may not be as much of an old fool as he appears.
Ike and Troy
I would recommend Wexall's piece on Taylor as required reading. Few of us could ever be Steelers because we lack the physical gifts for the job. But, sadly, a lot of us also couldn't be Steelers because we lack the character. I've been pretty miffed at the stampede of fans and others who can't wait to be the first to shove Ike and Troy Polamalu out the door. Football death comes to everyone who plays the game, and usually at a shockingly young age. The grace that these two players have shown as they come to the end is something we can all learn from. On the other hand, the fact that many are singing the praises of players like McCain, Blake and Allen who they were hating on mere weeks ago, while screaming from the rooftops that Ike and Troy not be activated is beyond tacky and classless in my opinion. What do you think? That a coaching staff that saw potentialities in the current starters that most of us couldn't imagine don't see the limitations of Ike and Troy and would scuttle the team's playoff chances out of sentimentality? Maybe. But how about giving them the benefit of the doubt, display a little grace and not be so eager to dance on their graves while they're still living. I think they've earned that.
A third Steelers/Ravens game is always a nice bonus for fans of pro football everywhere. Bill Barnwell's wildcard preview is here. As they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery and the Ravens have tried their best to pattern themselves after Pittsburgh's template of success, the only team wise enough to do so. It has paid dividends in the form of two Lombardis and the same persistent ability to remain relevant year in and year out in the midst of teams with flashier resumes but less staying power. They obviously are lagging in some team culture and character areas. Modell and his successor are not the Rooneys. But on the field it's the closest we get to football as it has historically been meant to be played. It's a testament to how well this Steelers team has developed that they're still favored to win this game even though Bell isn't able to compete. But the reality is that this truly is one of those records-go-out-the-window-when-these-two-teams-play scenarios.
Yes, this is a big AFC North matchup, but that's being deceptive. There is the AFC North, and then there is Ravens/Steelers, which is in a different category altogether. Mechem's hate guides are over-the-top exercises except for when it comes to the Ravens, at which point it's just about right. The influence of hate cannot be minimized. A nice boy scout-ish guy like Kelvin Beachum throws the 'H' word around like he's sharing a pack of skittles. You can believe that the area hospitals are all on alert. We have to worry about Suggs and company wanting to splatter Ben and generally bring the offense back to earth through the liberal application of over-the-top violence. Among other things, the Ravens have to worry about the thuggery of Commonwealth Cousins Shaun Suisham and Brad Wing. (And I wouldn't trust that Matthews woman. She's probably hiding something under her coat). But honestly, you just don't tune in to this one for the football. If ever there will be a revival of that classic officiating call "giving them the business" it'll be in this game.
But here's the thing: you would just absolutely hate to lose to these guys. On the other hand, being the team that applies the dagger to them never gets old.
Where do you want to play?
I think it was Billy52 who pointed out the advantages of Pittsburgh being a place where, because of the team culture, the coach and other factors, players may choose it as a preferred destination. Here are some places players don't want to go. One of these locations may be a surprise.
Getting paid for the playoffs
Back before the salary structure improved, an incentive for making the playoffs was the substantial financial windfall for most players. That's less the case now but I think you'll find the amounts and criteria for playoff pay interesting.
Steelers 2015 schedule
Dates and times won't be available for some time, but if you want to start planning ahead, we now know who the Steelers will be playing next season. The Seahawks in Seattle and Arians' return to Pittsburgh would be two of the highlights.
A BTSC outing
Thanks to Skyfire for his take of the gathering of BTSCers on Sunday night. Thanks both to those who showed, some from considerable distance (acrollett) and to those who wanted to come, couldn't make it but checked in anyway. We'll be doing it again, either later in month if we survive the first round of the playoffs or certainly next year. I would also suggest that if you can get together to others from this community where you live that it would be worth the effort. Gathering in cyberspace is great, but doing it in person is so much better.
Confessions of a Tomlin skeptic
Depending upon your point of view, PaVaSteeler either escaped from or went over to the dark side. The process of his conversion was so interesting that it made the front page of Yahoo.
Confessions of a BTSC skeptic
Disgruntled community member Anthony Defeo has been bitching about something or another. Neal published him. I don't know why.