Steeler Update 1/11: Steelers 35-24 over San Diego. The Steelers rediscovered the running game, with a finally healthy Willie Parker, and pass protection. Since the Baltimore Ravens won their game, the conference championship between the Steelers and Ravens will be in Pittsburgh, which means another $20 million or so for the city, and a lot of partying.
The Steelers ended their season by beating all but one in a string of tough opponents, and earned a division championship. They did it with tenacious defense, opportunistic offense and by their skin of their teeth.
The lack of respect they get from the media and the league continued. When Big Ben engineered a late 4th quarter 95 yard drive to win against Dallas--the kind of drive that made John Elway's reputation--all the sports media wanted to talk about was the rumor of dissension in the Dallas locker room. Yet the Steelers were almost silently installed as favorites against the Titans, a team that had been undefeated most of the season.
That game was their significant lapse in their stretch run. After hammering the hapless Browns in the final game, they seem to be still as healthy as they've been all year (assuming Ben's "mild concussion" was just that) and the elements are still there for victory, but so are the vulnerabilities. And as sports analyst and former Steelers running back Merle Hoge says, the playoffs are when vulnerabilities are exploited.
The surprise--maybe the shock-- of the Wild Card round so far was the Indianapolis Colts, widely predicted to win it all, losing to San Diego. Depending on the outcome of the Ravens-Dolphins game Sunday, the Steelers could play their first playoff game against San Diego. The Colts being out of it is a significant advantage for the long-term chances of the Steelers, but San Diego is not necessarily good news, even though the Steelers began their 5 game winning streak by defeating them in an ugly game, 11-10. The Chargers are a better team right now than they were then, and they can exploit the problems with the Steelers offense: pass protection breaking down, and Big Ben taking a lot of chances. Still, Big Ben threw for a lot of yards and the running game was solid in a badly officiated first meeting (hence the score.)
Still, the danger for the Steelers tomorrow is a Ravens victory. Although they defeated the Ravens twice this season, a third time might be pushing it. I feel better about their chances against Miami, if the Dolphins win tomorrow.
The Steelers had a good year, even if they didn't often look that good. They didn't lose to a bad team; all four of their losses were to playoff teams. Now one of them (the Colts) is gone. If the Ravens lose tomorrow, and the Steelers get by either San Diego or Miami in the next round, I like their chances against the Titans (assuming they advance), even though they defeated the Steelers pretty soundly a couple of weeks ago.
So what I'm saying is, that although some fans were high enough a few weeks ago to ask if this team is as good as the 70s dynasty teams, I'm not so irrationally exuberant. Especially because of the inconsistent offense, I don't necessarily believe their playoff games are going to be fun to watch. But with this team, you never know. The Super Bowl is not inconceivable.
Update: The Baltimore Ravens won their AFC Wild Card game today, and Philadelphia won the NFC. Philly plays the New York Giants next week, a game they will lose. The Ravens play the Tennessee Titans, and the winner of that game will play the winner of the San Diego vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers game Sunday. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride. Though Pittsburgh sports media is a lot more optimistic about beating San Diego.