It’s the bittersweet time of the NFL year as fans experience the pull of remorse and the push of anticipation.
On one hand there is the stark realization there are only two games left in the regular season. You can’t help to feel remorse that it is all coming to an end and in some ways wish it would all slow down.
Yet, for those teams, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, with playoff hopes still burning brightly there is an anxiousness about getting the “getting in” done and over with.
For the 9-5 Steelers, they have fought back against difficult odds to give themselves as good a chance as any in the top ranks of the 32 to win it all. The back-to-back victories against the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos have been as impressive a duo as just about any during Coach Mike Tomlin’s reign. With five wins in their past six games you can easily assert he has his team on a legitimate roll and surging up the NFL rankings at the perfect time.
With only the 4-10 Baltimore Ravens and the 3-11 Cleveland Browns standing between the Steelers and an 11-5 season with a guaranteed playoff spot, the chants of “I got a feeling…” are resonating throughout Steelers Nation.
But then these are the Ravens, the same team that gave Pittsburgh their most disappointing loss of the season. Although the Steelers control their own destiny, one loss could have the team singing a woeful Auld Lang Syne to its 2015 aspirations.
So in a Season of Joy sprinkled with a wee bit of trepidation, here are you Rapid Fire Conclusions:
The Overblown Blowout
With the exception of the Ravens last couple of home losses (14-34 to the Kansas City Chiefs and 6-35 to the Seattle Seahawks) the Ravens have been competitive in every game they’ve played this year. As much as he is ill-favored by Steelers fans, John Harbaugh remains one of the top coaches in the league. His strategy will be simple for Sunday’s game. His team merely has to stay close to the Steelers until the fourth quarter to give them a reasonable chance for the upset. One or two big mistakes by the Steelers and the Ravens could pull off a spoiler nastier than that Eggnog you left out on the counter.
Yet…Domination Is The Only Victory
If Tomlin walks up to the microphone after the game and says, “It wasn’t pretty…but it’s a victory.” Will it be? Not if the Steelers are hoping to go deep into the playoffs. This is regardless if a win against the Ravens combined with a loss by the New York Jets against the New England Patriots results in a playoff berth. The Steelers have had their fill of ups and downs in 2015. At this point they can’t afford another hiccup in their rush for the roses. The Broncos will be more than formidable at home and they might have Peyton Manning back next time around. The same goes for the Chiefs. The Bengals will be out for revenge blood. And the Patriots? Not only are they the current Super Bowl Champions but they just completed their sixth season in a row with at least 12 wins in the regular season. No…for the Steelers to have the kind of sustainable momentum to take on these worthy competitors, they’ll need to make target practice out of the Ravens. This is a broken down Baltimore. Time for the Steelers to make them black and purple all over.
Make no mistake about it. Had the Steelers not been able to mount a comeback against the Denver Broncos last Sunday their playoff hopes would have been in a terrible place—that is, in the hands of the mathematicians. Linebacker Coach Joey Porter earned his annual paycheck with a halftime speech that may have saved the team’s season. Think Peezy won’t have a word or two to say about the upcoming Ravens game? The younger players on the Steelers squad may not understand the depth of this rivalry and how the Steelers have been shamed by Baltimore in the past at M&T Bank Stadium, but Porter certainly will. If ever there was a game to hang 50 on the scoreboard…and then follow it up with an onsides kick…this is the one.
One of the interesting aspects of last week’s game against the Broncos was Tomlin’s decision not to go for a two point conversion following any of the team’s touchdowns. After starting the season with a severe case of Deuce’s Wild, Tomlin has been playing things more conservative as of late. Perhaps most interesting of these choices was when the Steelers closed the gap with the Broncos at 26-27 with a touchdown. A two-point conversion would have given them the lead…and as it turns out…the win. For the traditionalists among us it was a relief to see Chris Boswell marching out to the field for those attempts but it does pose an interesting question as to what drives Tomlin’s decisions.
More Minor Adjustments, Please
The difference between the Steelers defense in the first half of their game against the Broncos and the second? According to Tomlin, there were only a few “minor adjustments”. Really? Could we have some more minor adjustments, please? In the first half of the game with Antwon Blake on the field and the Steelers secondary on the “soft” setting Pittsburgh made Brock Osweiler look like Tom Brady. What happens if and when the Steelers play the real Tom Brady? No…the new mold for the defense in 2015 was birthed in the second half of the Broncos game. The Steelers need to press tight on coverage, play aggressive and put their best cover guys on the field from the start of the game to the finish. With only two games left to tighten some very loose screws there is no need for coaching pride or obstinacy to get in the way.
Last Chance Dance
Don’t be surprised to see Jacoby Jones make his way back on the field to return kickoffs Sunday. Tomlin is a sentimentalist when it comes to his players and his “gut” might just tell him Jones could re-jumpstart his floundering career with a return to his old haunting grounds.
Success Within Striking Range
NFL Football is like bowling. In this time of parity if you can knock down ten pins (or wins) in a season you’ve got to give the coach and front office a tip of the hat. If the Steelers dispatch the Ravens as they should it will give Mike Tomlin and his talented coaching team at least a 10-6 record for the year, even if they drop their last game against the Cleveland Browns. This would follow an 11-5 showing in 2014 and cement Tomlin’s reputation as a winning leader in this league. Would that satisfy Steelers fans? Probably not. With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown playing at other-worldly heights and with their career clocks ticking, the expectations for this year are at least an advancement past the Wild-Card round. But even those with a Super Bowl or bust mentality would need to credit the head coach for a quality performance in a challenging year.
The Big “If”
But that’s…IF…the Steelers take care of business this weekend and pluck out the remaining feathers of the Ravens in front of their home crowd. And by “home crowd” that means the Steelers home crowd. Expect there to be more Terrible Towels waving inside the M&T Bank Stadium then there has been for over a decade. You can also anticipate the kind of victory that might leave even Joey Porter…speechless.