The Irregular Season
The NFL regular season is over, and it was weird. Denver began it by winning six straight games, and lost so often afterwards that they didn't make the playoffs. Indianapolis and New Orleans came into the last weeks within striking distance of a perfect season: now Indy has lost two in a row, and New Orleans three.
No team looked good for the whole season. The hot teams right now--San Diego and Dallas--were pathetic early on. Not to mention the New York Jets. Some of the league's worst teams for much of the season--Cleveland, Kansas City, Oakland, San Francisco--went on winning streaks and scored a lot of points. Except for Oakland, with another injury to another quarterback, they ended the season strong.
Within that irregular context, the Steelers strange season doesn't seem so strange. At one time poised to make a run for the division championship on their way to the playoffs and the Super Bowl, after winning big games and entering the soft part of their schedule facing weaker opponents, they lost five games in a row, including three inexplicable ones. Then facing quality opponents, they won three in a row to end the season, including Sunday's victory over Miami. For a few hours afterwards, their slim playoff hopes were alive. But as predicted, Baltimore and the New York Jets won their games, and the Steelers season was over.
But within the strange scheme of wins and losses, there were meaningful patterns. The Steelers won or lost by not many points. Sometimes their offense sputtered, but more often their defense couldn't stop the other team, particularly late in the game. Sunday was no different. The offense scored early and often, but the defense gave up points. Then a key injury to Miami--their second-string quarterback went out--allowed them to pile up a lead. But Miami's third string quarterback scored two quick touchdowns on the defense, and was poised to score another when he made a fatal mistake. And that was the game.
That's how the Steelers won and lost this year. They won when the other team made more mistakes, and they got lucky. They lost when they made more mistakes, and the other team got lucky. Nobody overpowered them. And they couldn't overpower anyone.
And all through the league, injuries to key personnel made a big difference. For the Steelers, it was Troy P. What was different for the Steelers was that without Troy and another key defender, the defense showed vulnerabilities that maybe even the team didn't understand were there. And now they know.
Sunday's Steelers game was bracing in several ways. Fans had to be excited seeing the running game return, and especially Willie Parker show some spark. Special teams performed well, and Stefan Logan may have saved his job with several skillful returns. (Parker may have as well, assuming he wants to stay in Pittsburgh and will accept a lesser role and contract.) And Big Ben--well, when the extent of his arm or shoulder injury is known, we'll know if not getting into the playoffs may be a blessing. But he played so valiantly and so well, taking the Steelers on their final drive to seal what had suddenly become a close game, throwing accurate passes in obvious pain...it was the most courageous performance I've seen since the famous Michael Jordan playoff game when he was so weak from flu he could hardly walk onto the floor.
Going out with these three victories, and with some great highlights, helps the fans keep the faith, and helps the players restore some self-respect. But it doesn't change the likelihood that there are going to be changes.
As for the rest of the day, the Jets blew out Cincy, and play them again in the first round. I don't see the Bengals or the Ravens getting very far. New England played Brady on Sunday, and they still lost--but more to the point for their chances, they lost their top wide receiver. Indy may have run out of luck. San Diego looks like the AFC favorite.
Dallas blew out Philadelphia in a game that both teams wanted, and they play each other again next week in the first round. Despite the score, Philly is capable of turning the tables on Dallas. Minnesota won big, so they go into the playoffs with some confidence. New Orleans lost again, and their confidence must be pretty low. Green Bay finished strong, too, but Minnesota beat them twice. I'm thinking Minnesota.
But if the playoffs are as irregular as the season, all bets are off.
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