Let’s hope we never have to see this again.
Yesterday was one of those days that, at around 4:15, you looked around and recognized that you’d just lost 3 hours of your life that you’d never get back watching a train derail in a most ugly fashion. The Pittsburgh Steelers went into Cleveland, turned the ball over 8 times, committed 11 billion penalties, and lost to a Browns’ team that they had beaten 16 of the last 17 times they’d played. Combined with Norv Turner sucking Baltimore’s win in San Diego, the Steelers are effectively done in the race for the AFC North division title and, as such, will need to win 3 road games to make the Super Bowl…if they even make the playoffs.
If you’re reading this, you saw the comedy errors for yourself. You saw 4 different running backs all fumble, with the Steelers losing a total of 5 for the day. You saw Charlie Batch throw three picks and demonstrate arm strength at which a good high school QB would snicker. You saw Mike Wallace continue to mail it in at WR, you saw an offensive line that got no push in the run game, and you saw a valiant effort by the defense wasted for the second straight week. The yinzers are lining the bridges in Pittsburgh this morning, there is no doubt.
The Steelers, however, are not done. While the chances of repeating 2005′s run to the Super Bowl by winning 3 road games are obviously remote, to write this team off at this stage would be reactionary, premature, and just plain silly. Here are several reasons why the Steelers will still be a factor in the playoffs in 2012:
1. Injuries. The team that lost to Cleveland yesterday was as injury-riddled as any Steelers’ team in memory, with the Steelers playing without Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Brown, Willie Colon, Marcus Gilbert, Jerrico Cotchery, and Byron Leftwich (add in David DeCastro, who still hasn’t played this season, the Steelers had over $40 million of players out of the lineup). Woodley, Gilbert, Brown, and Colon all should return by Sunday, and Ben is 50/50 to make it back for the Ravens. Everyone has injuries in the NFL, but the spate of injuries to KEY personnel for the Steelers is simply unprecedent and impossible to overcome. The reinforcements are coming, beginning this week, and that alone will make this a far more formidable team.
Ryan Clark has been the best player on the 2012 Steelers’ defense.
2. The Defense. For whatever reason, the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers defense is one of the most underrated units in the NFL. The Steelers are giving up only 257 yards a game, far and away the best in the NFL. By way of comparison, the Bears rank 3rd at 307 yards a game…and they are closer to 20th (Indianapolis at 355 yards a game allowed) than they are to the Steelers. This defense doesn’t get the publicity that many Steelers’ defenses of the past received, probably due to the injuries and declines of stars like Polamalu, Harrison, and Woodley, but only the 2008 defense allowed fewer yards during the last decade of dominant defensive teams. Ryan Clark and Lawrence Timmons have had sensational seasons, and Ike Taylor has bounced back from a slow start to be a complete shutdown corner. If they ever get Polamalu and Woodley healthy and if the signs of life shown yesterday by Harrison are real, the unit will only get better.
3. The Schedule. This topic is posted with a great deal of hesitation, as this team has managed to lose to the Raiders, Titans, and Browns this season, thereby proving that they can lose to anyone. That said, however, 3 of the final 5 games are at home and only the Ravens and Bengals have winning records among the remaining opponents. Even if the Steelers lose in Baltimore on Sunday, with games against the Chargers, Cowboys, Browns, and Bengals to close the season and with 9 wins figuring to be enough to make it in, they will be in solid position to make the playoffs.
4. The AFC. The four division winners in the AFC are done before December even starts. Houston, New England, Denver, and Baltimore will be the four division winners, period. The race for the two Wild Card spots comes down basically four teams: Indianapolis (7-4), Pittsburgh (6-5), Cincinnati (6-5), and Miami, sort of (5-6). The Colts’ final five games include Houston twice and at Detroit, thus it’s hard to see them finishing better than 9-7 (unless Houston has the #1 seed locked up by the last week of the season and mails it in against the Colts). The Bengals already lost to the Steelers in Cincinnati, and the Steelers should stave off the Bengals as long as they beat them in Pittsburgh on December 23. The Dolphins are the Dolphins, plus they still have to play New England twice and San Francisco. Simply, if the Steelers finish 9-7, as long as they beat the Bengals on December 23, they will make the playoffs barring Cincinnati running the table in its other 4 games.
Yes, things look bleak today. No, I wouldn’t put money on the Steelers making a deep run in the playoffs. However, those writing the Steelers 2012 season off at this point are doing so very, very prematurely. The team is hurting, but it’s not dead. Not even close.