In a different world, Le'Veon Bell may have been healthy for the NFL playoffs last season.
If the Steelers had not lost to inferior teams during the regular season, Bell and many of his teammates would most likely have sat out Pittsburgh's Week 17 affair against the Bengals with their playoff fate already decided.
Instead, the Steelers dropped two horrendous regular season games to the Buccaneers and Jets, who finished a combined 6-26 in 2014. The bad losses created no margin for error, leaving Bell and the rest of the starters to lay it all on the line during the last game of the season. As we all know by now, Bell suffered an injury in that game and was lost for the following week's playoff game, which ended up being the final game of the season for the rest of Bell's teammates.
While no one could have predicted Bell's injury, the circumstance showed just how important it is to eliminate bad regular season losses to inferior teams. Sure, it's the NFL, and every team has highly athletic professional athletes who can band together and forge an upset. An occasional upset here and there is acceptable, but unfortunately for the Steelers, losses like the ones against Tampa Bay and New York have occurred on multiple occasions over the past several years and have crippled what could have been promising seasons.
The Steelers worthy rival in the 1970's, the Oakland Raiders, are now the standard for futility in the NFL. Despite their lack of success over the last decade, Oakland has become a consistent thorn in Pittsburgh's side, upsetting them in 2006, '09, '12 and in 2013 as the Steelers missed the playoffs by a game in each of those seasons. The Raiders went a combined 14-50 in those three seasons, in case you were wondering. While the loss to Oakland in 2012 was ugly, an uninspired loss to the Browns in Week 12 later that season also didn't help the Steelers playoff cause as Pittsburgh missed the post season that year for the first time since 2009. Speaking of 2009, an ugly loss to Todd Haley's 4-12 Chiefs was the second defeat in a five-game losing streak that made Pittsburgh's three-game winning streak to close out the season a mere footnote for what might have been that season.
The Steelers have the NFL's hardest schedule in 2015, but the team does have several games on the slate that should be very winnable. Pittsburgh will head to St. Louis in Week 3 to face a Rams team that went 6-10 last season while dropping their last three games. A pivotal stretch for Pittsburgh will take place in weeks 8 and 9. After playing four teams that tallied a combined 61 percent winning percentage in 2014, the Steelers will host the Raiders and Browns before heading into their bye week. With a murderer's row of games looming following the bye, that includes five straight contests against teams that made last years playoffs that begins with a trip to Seattle and ends on Sunday Night Football in Baltimore, it's imperative that the Steelers handle their business and defeat the weaker teams on their 2015 schedule.
The 2014 Steelers were a good team, but not a great one. Great teams don't lose games like the decisions Pittsburgh dropped against Tampa Bay and New York. Win those games and the Steelers are 13-3 and, given Bell and the rest of Pittsburgh's key players were healthy for a playoff run, they would have put themselves in position to become something great. The Steelers will again have an opportunity to be a great team in 2015, but they first must take advantage of games like Oakland and Cleveland in order to have a chance to achieve such greatness.