Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NFL Preview

The final weekend of the season will determine the Wild Card teams in the AFC. The Steelers are technically still in contention, if they win their game with Miami (in Miami) and several combinations of other teams lose. It's not something I'd bet on happening.

Regardless of whether the Steelers win, if Baltimore and the New York Jets win, they take the Wild Card spots in the playoffs. It's very likely both these teams will win. Baltimore is unlikely to have two bad games in a row, and the Jets are playing the Bengals, who not only are likely to rest their starters for the playoffs (they've won the division) but very probably don't want the Steelers in the playoffs enough to do as little as possible to win their game. (That's if the Steelers win over Miami earlier in the day.)

Contrary to the oddsmakers and the Steelers' LaMarr Woodley , I don't think New England cares that much about the Steelers to take a dive, and I expect them to win their game. I think they have a particular incentive to be sharp going into the playoffs, since they have been out of synch for much of the season.

All of this is academic if the Steelers don't win, and they might not. They're pretty banged up, Troy P. is unlikely to play, they haven't done well on the road this year. Yet it is important for the team--and for many of the players individually--that they play well.

Even if they do, there are changes coming, perhaps within weeks. I still expect their revered defensive coordinator to retire, and there might be players on the defense who make that choice as well. The offensive coordinator may have saved his job with the last two wins. But all of this depends on the internal assessment of what went wrong this season, and there's evidence suggesting coaches as well as players. Whether the Steelers can do much with trades, free agents or in the draft is an open question, and will be for awhile. But in any case, I expect "next year" to start for them Monday.

If it doesn't? It looks as if Troy P. could play in the playoffs. He could make the difference for the defense. And with Big Ben, anything is possible on offense, although it would help if they were healthier. That's really been the one common element their last two Super Bowls: everyone was healthy. That's not going to be the case this year--they're still missing starters on defense. The Steelers are good enough and experienced enough to play at a high level, but past the first round, they'd have to hope that their opponent comes out flat, and makes lots of mistakes. Yes, anything can happen. And that's the beauty of this week, preceding the last game of the regular season.

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