Friday, November 26, 2010

Steelers Update

I watched the Steelers Sunday night game with New England while I was in Pittsburgh, with my two best friends, my two remaining friends from high school. The Steelers played a miserable game, and Clayton in particular was upset (he showed up in a Jerome Bettis Steelers shirt) but I had to confess that I was having a great time.

So it's taken a lot of years to have fun while the Steelers lose, but I've apparently achieved it under limited circumstances. But New England was so clearly dominant that it would have fueled sports talk shows for the week if Michael Vick and Philadelphia hadn't had such an amazing game on Monday night, which inspired amazing effusiveness--how he was now unstoppable, had transformed the quarterback position and NFL football, etc. Well, Philadelphia did win its next game, but Vick was relatively quiet, and non-transformational.

Then this past Sunday, the Steelers thoroughly trounced Oakland 35-3. As much as I saw of that game, I enjoyed (even by myself.) But analytically speaking, the Steelers getting into the playoffs is not assured. Their remaining schedule has but two games that on paper present real challenges, and one of them is with the Baltimore Ravens, their rivals for winning their division. They are technically tied at the moment, but if the Ravens win this upcoming early December game (in Baltimore), they will hold the tiebreaker by having defeated the Steelers twice. And the Ravens' remaining schedule is no more difficult for them than the Steelers. For both teams, their matchup is the most forseeably key game.

But it's been a weird season, with teams looking brilliant and unbeatable one week, and hopeless the next. So anything can happen really, especially with so many teams with nearly the same record. The league is divided into teams that have won a lot of games and teams that have won very few. That makes wildcard slots really unpredictable. So if the Steelers defeat the Ravens, their chances improve but are not certain. If they lose to the Ravens, their chances diminish substantially, but don't disappear.

There's another interesting factor. The two recent Steelers Super Bowl teams had one thing in common--though they had rocky periods during the season, they got healthy at the end of the season. This week a few key injured players start coming back, but the two most important injured players are not expected back this year at all. So we'll see, but they may not have enough to get deep into the playoffs.

In their games with New Orleans and New England, it was clear that the Steelers did not have the best quarterback on the field. How Big Ben plays from now on will have a lot to do with the Steelers fate this year. But with so many extraordinary quarterbacks--the proven and once again very sharp Tom Brady and Dru Brees, the younger quarterbacks like Vick and Sanchez and even Colt McCoy, not to mention the Manning brothers--it's more of a question where Ben ranks among them.

Another interesting factor though is that the Steelers are now playing with a chip on their shoulder. Before it was just James Harrison apparently being singled out for fines in the laudable quest to stop illegal helmet hits and other concussion-causing collisions. Now it's Big Ben getting slugged by an Oakland player, after the play was over, and the Oakland player not getting suspended, or much of a fine. What if somebody slugged Tom Brady? That's the question the Steelers ask, and because everyone knows the answer, they are going to be playing with an attitude.