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The Illusion of the Big Win

Last night I found myself watching some late-night sports talk show with a bunch of local newspaper and radio jocks discussing the Steelers game. It was the typical back and forth stuff one always here on shows like this with the added twist of sprinkling in viewer emails and tweets. The emails and tweets were as bizarre and ridiculous as one would expect, but one that got my attention echoed a sentiment I have heard for as long as I have been a football fan. The emailer stated (I’m paraphrasing here) that if the Steelers want to be an elite team – a Super Bowl Contender – they need to learn how to absolutely demolish bad teams in the same manner the Saints demolished the Colts 62-7 last night in front of the entire country.

This concept is nothing new to the Steelers and Steeler fans. There is this idea floating around that Pittsburgh lacks the “killer instinct” of the league’s top dogs. There was an overwhelming sentiment following last week’s victory over Jacksonville that the Steelers were lucky to pull that one out after “letting the Jaguars back into the game,” even though it was pretty clear the Jags never really had a shot. When the Steelers shut out the Seahawks in week two, fans groaned that the offense only managed three touchdowns. When they beat the Colts 23-20 in week three, fans grumbled that the defense played a poor game after allowing the Maning-less Colts to put up 20 points. When Arizona closed the gap in yesterday’s game to three points in the third quarter, my twitter timeline erupted with people predicting an imminent Steeler collapse. After the game there were no shortage of tweets that read an awful lot like the email above.

Mike Tomlin is notorious for praising his team in victory no matter the opponent and no matter the score. The Steelers could beat Woodland Hills 7-6 and after the game Coach T would say, “We’ll put that one in the win column and move on.” I think this is one of the keys to Mike Tomlin’s success: He finds flaws in every victory, success in every loss, and emphasizes the idea of simply winning enough games – no matter how – to get into the tournament.

I wish more fans could be like this because if we could pause for a moment and look back at the Steelers’ very recent history, we might realize that the old cliche – it’s not how, but how many – really makes sense.

How about we go back to last season when the Steelers finished 12-4 and nearly won a championship:

  • Week two, the Steelers muster just 127 total yards (including only 21 passing yards!), convert only seven first downs (one from a penalty), and defeat the Titans 19-11. Tennessee finished 6-10.
  • Week seven against the Dolphins the Steelers have a 17-9 lead in the second quarter but need an 18-yard field goal from Jeff Reed with 2:26 remaining in regulation to edge Miami 23-22. You’ll recall Ben’s fumble late in the game deep in Miami territory that the officials missed and could not overturn due to a lack of video evidence. If the refs don’t kick that call the Steelers likely lose this game. The Dolphins finished last season at 7-9.
  • Week nine, the Steelers take a 27-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, only to let the Bengals score 14 unanswered points. The Steelers hang on to win that game 27-21. Cincinnati finished 4-12.
  • Week twelve against the Buffalo Bills, the Steelers take a three-point lead with 6:12 to go in the fourth quarter, only to allow the Bills to drive down field and tie the game with two seconds remaining. Then in overtime, Stevie Johnson of the Bills drops a giftwrapped game-winning touchdown pass. The Steelers manage a field goal on their next possession to escape with a 19-16 victory. The Bills finished last season at 4-12.

How about 2008?

  • Week two, the Steelers edge the Browns 10-6. The Browns would go on to a 4-12 record that year.
  • Week five, the Steelers fall behind Jacksonville 14-7 in the first quarter. The Steelers claim a 20-14 lead at halftime but allow the Jags to retake the lead 21-20 in the fourth quarter. The Steelers trail in this game until Hines Ward catches an 8-yard touchdown with 1:53 to go in regulation. The Jags would finish that season at 5-11.

2005, another Super Bowl season.

  • Week eight, the Steelers are totally outplayed by the Ravens (outgained 318 to 261) and get outscored by six in the fourth quarter yet manage a 20-19 victory. The Ravens were 6-10 that year.
  • Week nine, the Steelers face the 1-6 Green Bay Packers and manage only one offensive touchdown en route to a 20-10 victory. The Packers finished 4-12 that season (behind the Lions).
A bunch of close victories over lousy teams. In the end, it didn’t matter that they didn’t dominate in these games, it only mattered that they won. They won enough games in each of these three seasons to get into the postseason tournament and in each season they got to play for a Super Bowl. Everyone is 0-0 in January. All you have to do is get there and anything is possible.
Do the Steelers look as crisp as the fans would like them to look? Clearly not. They aren’t clicking at 100 percent yet and we know that, but that’s exactly why we should be excited by what we see from this team. They have room to improve. They have not yet reached their full potential. All that matters right now is that they keep winning – no matter how – and keep improving.
If I have learned anything about the NFL during the Ben Roethlisberger era it’s the importance for a team to be playing it’s best football in January, not October. You can worry about how the Steelers get their wins if you want, but the fact is 62-7 or 10-9, each one counts the same.
Categories: NFL, Steelers
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