Sunday, December 13, 2009

NFL Countdown

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter Ed Bouchette echoed and amplified my last judgment on the Steelers (previous post.) He points out in particular the ages of the starters on defense, and their equally aged backups (meaning they are all in their ancient 30s.) He says there are few young prospects to replace them, and notes the large sums spent on an offensive line that isn't getting the job done. Both present future difficulties, and suggest that improvement isn't going to be easy. So he says that the Steelers of the past decade are over.

He's followed up with a column about the challenge facing head coach Mike Tomlin in "salvaging the season." But objectively it looks pretty bleak. The Steelers' next game is with Green Bay, which earlier in the season didn't seem like a big deal, but now the Packers are on a winning streak, one of the hottest teams in the NFL. The Steelers have already lost to Baltimore, who they play again, and Miami is hardly a pushover, especially for a team that fell to Cleveland.

But here's what can be said on the positive side. These losses started after a trip to the thin air of Denver, the loss of a quarterback, and then two games in about ten days. With age a factor in a depleted defense, that all probably contributed, although it's hardly an excuse, especially for lack of coaching preparation. Still, the coaches prepared well for Minnesota and Denver, and maybe they lost their concentration for lesser teams.

So while this is a dangerous time for the Steelers, they are still on paper the team that won the Super Bowl in February. They have a long week to prepare for Green Bay. They are capable of winning this game. If they do--or even if they acquit themselves well--they can face the inevitable changes to come with some dignity, and some order. If they don't, if they give up or play as poorly as they did in Cleveland, then their immediate future is likely to be chaotic.

Though a playoff spot is still mathematically possible, even if they win out it is unlikely. They shouldn't even be thinking about it. They need to concentrate on winning this game. They need an offensive explosion and a defensive shutdown. As unlikely as that is, it is possible.

In any case, they've exposed enough weaknesses that they would be unlikely to get deep into the playoffs. New England is another AFC team that's underperforming, but nobody can count them out for a playoff run to the Super Bowl. Right now the favorites have to be Indianapolis or San Diego vs. New Orleans or Minnesota, with Arizona as the spoiler. In a single game anything can happen, but it does appear that the NFC is a lot stronger this year and should be favored.

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