Saturday, December 10, 2011

Where are we?

A fortnight before Christmas, and it's a good time to take stock.

The schedule lets Steeler fans take a breather this weekend before the team travels to San Francisco to play the 49ers, who are 10-2 and have clinched a playoff spot already. Tomorrow, San Francisco squares off against Kevin Kolb and the Arizona Cardinals, who somehow beat the Dallas Cowboys last week.

After the Baltimore Ravens beat the 49ers 16-6 on Nov. 24, Baltimore running back Ray Rice said San Francisco's defense was "the best we've played, by far."  Presumably, then, since the Ravens had already beaten the Steelers twice, Rice meant the 49ers defense was better than Pittsburgh's.

William Gay saved the day late in the game vs. Cleveland.
Maybe, maybe not. We shall find out a week from Monday. More relevant is just what kind of team the Steelers have. Really, what can we expect from week to week?  Hard to say. The Steelers have been up and down all season. Then again, so have the Ravens ... and the Steelers are the first AFC team to reach 10 wins.

Any other AFC team would love to have 10 wins -- so, yes, we Steeler fans are spoiled and have high expectations. Maybe we're cautious about getting too excited because we're too close to this team. We see the warts.

That will cost James Harrison.
The Steelers may be without Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and James Harrison when they go to San Francisco. Roethlisberger may play, but his high ankle sprain will hamper him for several weeks. High ankle sprains are notoriously problematic and slow to heal. Roethlisberger probably shouldn't play for two or three weeks, but he almost certainly will play in San Francisco. 

James Harrison may not have a choice. 

Rodney Harrison, former NFL safety now serving as a commenter on the NFL Network, whom players routinely voted as the "Dirtiest Player in the NFL" ... Rodney Harrison, of all people, says James Harrison "has to be suspended" for his hit on Colt McCoy and his history of such hits.

James Harrison's handiwork.
Rodney Harrison, who admits he was "the poster boy" for dirty play and NFL fines (having paid more than $300,000 for questionable hits during his own NFL career), says nothing short of a suspension will get James Harrison's attention and make him even think twice about adjusting his style of play.

It is entirely possible the commissioner's office will agree.

To have any chance of winning the AFC North, the Steelers must win their remaining three games: 
  • at San Francisco on the evening of Monday, Dec. 19
  • at home vs. St. Louis on Saturday, Dec. 24, Christmas Eve
  • at Cleveland on New Year's Day
Baltimore has four games:
  • at home tomorrow vs. the Colts
  • at San Diego on Sunday, Dec. 18
  • at home vs. the Browns on Christmas Eve
  • at Cincinnati on New Year's Day
There you have it. Maybe San Diego and/or Cincinnati knocks off the Ravens. Maybe not. No matter. The Steelers must win the rest of their games -- regular season and post-season. 

Looking Ahead
Mike Wallace, going for paydirt.
Because the Steelers allowed that last-minute 92-yard touchdown drive against the Ravens at Heinz Field on Nov. 18, they put themselves in a position where they must win out to have any chance of winning the division.

Let's assume the Steelers win their remaining three regular-season games and enter the playoffs as a wild-card. That means they would be on a seven-game winning streak entering the playoffs and would have won 12 of 13 dating back to their 17-10 loss in Houston Oct. 2.

Entering the playoffs, then, they would need four additional wins to claim the Super Bowl trophy. Those four wins on top of the seven-game winning streak entering the playoffs would make an eleven-game winning streak and 16 wins in 17 games dating back to Oct. 2. They do that, and they deserve to win the Super Bowl -- but then, they may be facing a Green Bay squad gunning for a perfect 19-0 record. This could get interesting.