Things are pretty glum for the Steelers these days.
The fact that I’m using a word like “glum” to describe the Steelers as we pass the halfway point of November is something I couldn’t have possibly imagined about five weeks ago, when Pittsburgh dispatched the Jets at Heinz Field to improve to a robust 4-1.
But glum things are, and they will probably continue to be, even if the predictable happens this Sunday, and the Steelers walk out of Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium with a rather convincing victory over an 0-10 Browns team.
That’s understandable. After all, would the Crimson Tide faithful feel enthusiastic following a 72-0 thrashing of Florida A&M, especially if it simply brought them one game closer to bowl eligibility at 5-5?
That’s very doubtful, but they say each difficult journey starts with the first step, and if you don’t take it, you’ll never get to where you need to go.
I realize this isn’t Thursday, so it’s probably out-of-touch to bring up something that happened 21 years ago, but I remember how I felt in 1995, after the Steelers, who entered the day with a 3-4 record, easily dispatched the expansion Jaguars 24-7 at old Three Rivers Stadium.
I felt sort of unimpressed, like big deal, right? The Steelers entered the ‘95 campaign as heavy favorites to reach the Super Bowl, after coming oh so close the previous year, and I was supposed to feel good about a 17-point victory over an expansion club?
But the following week came an exciting overtime victory over the Bears at Solider Field, and before long, it was off to the races.
Before you knew it, Pittsburgh was 11-4 and laughing it up on the sidelines of Lambeau Field, after Yancey Thigpen dropped what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds of a meaningless game against the Packers in the final week of the regular season (the Steelers had the second seed wrapped up by that point).
In-case you don’t remember ‘95, it began in turmoil, as the first seven games included a road loss to the Jaguars and two blow-out defeats at home—Myron Cope, the late, great Steelers radio and talk show personality, even said that it was rare for Super Bowl teams to suffer one, let alone two blow-out losses during the regular season—and ended in magical fashion, as Pittsburgh gathered itself down the stretch to go on an eight-game winning-streak, win the old AFC Central, march through the playoffs and reach Super Bowl XXX.
Obviously, what happened 21 years ago has little bearing on 2016 and the Steelers problems that include injuries and questions about Mike Tomlin’s competence as head coach. But I’ve been watching sports my entire life, and while the game of football has evolved over the years, it’s still played by human beings. When it comes to those humans, I’ve seen it all before, and I’ll see it all again.
In other words, I can envision a scenario in-which the Steelers win this Sunday, journey to Indianapolis to take on the Colts on Thanksgiving night and walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a victory and a half-game lead in the AFC North.
I say that because the Ravens, the team that currently holds a full one-game lead over Pittsburgh, has to travel to Dallas this Sunday to take on the Cowboys. Obviously, I can see both teams going to bed Sunday night with 5-5 records, so a victory over the Colts in Week 12 would put the pressure back on Baltimore.
After Indianapolis, the Steelers have a very winnable game against the Giants at Heinz Field 10 days later.
So, 7-5 after 12 games may not seem like a sure thing, but it’s very plausible.
What, you say? How can Pittsburgh beat the Browns this Sunday, let alone Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton, along with Eli Manning and Odell Beckham? It’s simple: either the Steelers are a Super Bowl team, or they’re not. If they are a Super Bowl contender, that will manifest itself over the next few weeks. If they’re not, people will continue to call for Tomlin’s head, and Steelers fans will start paying for their Christmas presents by selling their tickets to fellow black and gold faithful or, worse yet, opposing faithful (did you hear all those Cowboys fans at Heinz Field last Sunday)?
I can’t envision the latter taking place, especially when Pittsburgh could conceivably be favored to win in all seven of its remaining games down-the-stretch.
A number one seed is certainly off the table for the Steelers right now. As for a bye? You can probably couch that, too. However, the AFC North is still very much within the Steelers grasp, as is a belief in themselves that could be formed and nurtured by a long winning-streak.
The former can be achieved by the latter, and if both become a reality, Heinz Field will be noisy for at least one postseason game in January, and those sounds you hear won’t be coming from fans of the opponents.
To summarize: this Sunday’s game against the Browns may not seem like much, but it could be the first step in getting the Steelers well again.
The first step is often the most important part of a difficult journey.