On the afternoon of National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, a fierce, offensive firestorm rained down on the Cincinnati Bengals and their fans during the fourth quarter, puncturing their sense of superiority in the AFC North Division and leaving the Queen City shell-shocked. As the Steelers' charter flight receded into the fading light of a southwestern Ohio evening on its short hop over to Pittsburgh, strident cries for the heads of Marvin Lewis, various Bengal players, assistant coaches and anyone else loosely connected with the team rang out through the chilly air of the Rhineland.
But Steelers Nation needs only to recall last weekend, when a similarly foul mood permeated southwestern Pennsylvania, in the wake of the New Orleans Saints' surprisingly easy victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field. Yes, that's the same Saints team that was trounced 41-10 for their fourth consecutive home loss by the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
In reading through various post-game threads at Cincy Jungle, the level of rage vented in the wake of Pittsburgh's latest plunder of the home team was running virtually off of the scale. As we watched the horde of loyal and long-suffering Bengals fans stream toward the exits during a substantial portion of the game's final quarter, their house had largely been abandoned to a boisterous legion of itinerant Steelers fans waving their Terrible Towels and reveling in the conquest like a band of invading Huns. During this brief reign of bravado, all suddenly was right again in the world of Steelers Nation, while the worst nightmares of Cincinnati sports fans had come to pass.
The unpredictable and explosive force that is the Steelers' offense, largely dormant since its last eruptions versus the Colts, Texans and Ravens, once again had been unleashed. Scoring 25 points in the fourth quarter and 32 points in the second half, the Steelers cruised to victory, doubling the Bengals' output on the scoreboard en route to a 42-21 triumph. During that span, the Steelers' dominance and the Bengals' collapse were so complete that a sense of blessed relief infused both sidelines as the Steelers mercifully ran out the final minutes on the game clock.
Those trying to detect any clear patterns or trends in the weekly performances of the Black-and-Gold have been continually frustrated during this season of transition. For this reason, and based on the experience of 13 regular-season games, it remains quite impossible to forecast the immediate road ahead for Mike Tomlin's team. Even in the process of earning a remarkable and crucial victory, we saw ample indications of a Steelers team possessed of significant and serious weaknesses. But for at least one more glorious week, we can entertain realistic visions of a strong finish to the season and a playoff berth. Combined with these renewed hopes, of course, will be the inevitable fears of reverting to the form that has enabled teams like the Saints, Bucs and Jets to leave the field in triumph over Pittsburgh.
But regardless of where the Steelers wind up in 2014, this impressive win affirms a positive, new reality for the faithful of Steelers Nation. Regardless of its flaws, this current Steelers team clearly is a group on the rise. This statement can be made because, for the first time this season, the Steelers proved they could step up big in a must-win game played against an arch-rival in a hostile environment. The likelihood that Pittsburgh will improve on its 8-8 records during the past two seasons, which recently had been an uncertain proposition, is now more compelling than ever before. Furthermore, the ongoing maturation of the Steelers' stable of young players, including most notably the remarkable Le'Veon Bell, indicates that the Black-and-Gold has begun to successfully bridge the gap between the championship teams of former years and those anticipated in the future.
Issues related to finding the players to fill some key roster spots, of course, will continue, just as the Steelers' progress likely will remain uneven for some time. But the huge win in Cincinnati stands as strong evidence that this team has turned an important corner in its quest toward the ultimate goal. Unlike the past off-season, when many were predicting continued mediocrity for the Black-and-Gold, Steeler fans now can look forward to marked improvement in 2015 and beyond, regardless of how far fortune carries this team during the current season.
Of at least equal importance, we've seen a clear demonstration of the ability of the Steelers' coaching staff to lead this hybrid group of young and old players to, in all probability, a winning season despite myriad obstacles. This alone will be a strong indication that the often shrill criticism directed toward Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Dick LeBeau this season has largely been unwarranted. The only way a coaching staff pulls off a project like the one currently in progress during a turbulent NFL season is by holding fast to rock-solid principles and implementing them doggedly through thick and thin. Indeed, if the vaunted Steelers' standard means anything, that's essentially it in a nutshell.
There no longer should be any doubt that Mike Tomlin and his key assistant coaches, who themselves possess considerable head-coaching experience, know their business quite well. Given adequate talent on the field and reasonable luck on the injury front, they've already proven that they can compete effectively in today's NFL. The vagabond notion that somehow the league has moved beyond the adaptive capabilities of men like LeBeau or Haley has been exposed as empty rhetoric. While it might still be true that the Steelers remain a few bricks shy of teams such as New England or Green Bay, the gap appears to be ever-narrowing. As they bask in their victory while preparing to face the Atlanta Falcons this weekend, today's bumper-sticker message proudly proclaims "the Steelers are back."