During the next two weeks, the Pittsburgh Steelers will discover whether they're still the home team that lost to the Buccaneers and Saints, or the one that blasted the Colts and Ravens. In the wake of two consecutive road wins, it's tempting to believe that the Black-and-Gold has finally parted ways with its underachieving alter-ego. We might even write off the home loss to New Orleans as one which the Steelers perhaps approached too casually, realizing that it wasn't exactly a must-win game. But now we've reached that stage of the 2014 regular season when you can toss all of those previous excuses right out the window.
While the Steelers would clinch a playoff spot by defeating the Chiefs, losing the game (and the divisional title) against the Bengals the following week is hardly the circumstance under which Mike Tomlin's team wants to punch its ticket. If this team is to have any realistic hope of advancing in January football, it's important for them to keep their winning streak and momentum going as they head into the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals are two reasonably good NFL teams, each one currently boasting a winning record. But does anyone seriously believe that either team will be adding an AFC championship trophy to their collection this season?
In the past, we might have said that the Steelers "should beat" Kansas City or Cincinnati at home. But viewing the list of mediocre teams which have defeated the Steelers so far this season at home and on the road, it's difficult to claim that this team "should beat" any NFL team, however flawed they might be. We mustn't forget that this is an entirely different Steelers team than the ones that brought back a pair of Super Bowl trophies during the past decade. As the current up-and-down season has shown, Steelers Nation needs to become far better acquainted with this group before we start making any performance-based predictions.
Based simply on the assumption that you must be able to handle teams like the Chiefs and Bengals before you can hope to compete with the Pats or Broncos, Sunday's game at Heinz Field presents another opportunity for the Steelers to demonstrate they belong in the playoffs for more than purely mathematical reasons. Thus, all of the players' remarks during the season about sticking together and achieving their goals might ring a bit hollow if they can't produce in these final two games of the regular season. That's particularly true considering that the games will be played in front of friendly crowds in a stadium located only a stone's throw from the Rooney homestead on Pittsburgh's North Side.
But no matter the outcome this season for the Steelers, 2014 should be considered as a year of very positive growth for the team. While it's no secret that the Black-and-Gold remains a few bricks shy in some key areas, the final two games of the regular season will speak, not so much to the level of talent in Pittsburgh, but to the team's ability to rise to the occasion when facing a series of crucial, do-or-die matchups. This ability to respond when the chips are down is the principal trait which historically has defined the Steelers' Super Bowl championship teams. Indeed, it's the very essence that binds this community together and makes Steelers Nation arguably the most impressive and far-reaching fan base of any in the world of pro football.
In this vein, the Steelers might see a cautionary tale in the brief and unsuccessful playoff appearance of the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates. Before a packed house of rabid Pirates fans at PNC Park, the Buccos were totally stifled by the soon-to-be world champion San Francisco Giants. Not only did the Pirates lose, but they scarcely competed in the game. Thus, in place of what might have been renewed hope, Pittsburgh sports fans were left with the bitter taste of doubt.
Since Pittsburgh is, first and foremost, a football town, this is precisely the kind of uninspired performance that the Steelers cannot afford on Sunday against Kansas City. If the Steelers aim to prove they're back in the running for the big prize, whether in this season or next, their play during the coming two weekends must bear out that claim. A team which mainly has been inconsistent this year must demonstrate that it finally has achieved a measure of consistency. Even strictly from a psychological standpoint, wrapping up their season with a string of victories would speak of a Steelers team clearly on the upswing and one which opponents will need to account for moving forward.
At various times this season, we've gotten the unsettling feeling that the Steelers might have forgotten what defines them among NFL franchises. Perhaps we've even questioned whether that intangible quality has been lost entirely. But Sunday's matchup against the Chiefs and the following week's rematch against Cincinnati present a pair of golden opportunities to show that Steelers football is alive and well. These are opportunities which, at this stage, the Steelers no longer can afford to miss.