Believing that the 0-3 Pittsburgh Steelers can make the playoffs in 2013 might be akin to believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and unicorns.
The Steelers have never done it, but they did reach the playoffs in 2002 after a 1-3 start. That's where they would be if they defeat the Minnesota Vikings Week 4 in London. The 2002 Steelers improved to 10-5-1 after their 1-3 start and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs. Even in 2000, when they started 0-3, the Steelers won five straight and remained in playoff contention into December. They finished 9-7 that year.
Four AFC teams are 3-0, so getting an AFC wild-card berth won't be easy. But a 9-7 record might be enough to win the AFC North, where there are no unbeaten teams.
If the 2000 Steelers can finish 9-7 with Kordell Stewart at quarterback, the 2013 Steelers can do it with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
Like most players on the team, however, Roethlisberger has to play better. Before thinking about the playoffs the Steelers have to follow a lot of bread crumbs to get back on the path to respectability, and the first step in that direction is a win Sunday.
If the Steelers lose to the winless Vikings, their bye week might as well be their bye-bye week. It will be time to say "Wait 'til next year."
Even Santa Claus might wait 'til next year and skip Pittsburgh.
The Steelers practice in London Friday.
Few would disagree that the Steelers in Week 4 will face their softest opponent so far this season.
The Titans, who defeated the Steelers 16-9 at Heinz Field in Week 1, are 2-1 and have allowed 307.7 yards per game, eighth in the NFL. The Bears are 3-0 with an improved offensive line that has yielded just three sacks this season. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has been sacked just twice, is the only regular starting QB in the NFL who's been sacked less than Jay Cutler.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings defense is 29th in the NFL in both yards allowed (429.7) and points allowed (96). The Vikings, who like the Steelers are 0-3, have allowed at least 31 points in every game.
On the other side of the ball, quarterback Christian Ponder suffered a rib injury last week and will be replaced by Matt Cassel, according to NFL.com.
The Vikings offense starts with reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson. But since running for a 78-yard touchdown on his first touch of the season, Peterson is averaging fewer than three yards a carry.
The Steelers have allowed 115.3 rushing yards per game, 22nd in the NFL. That's partly because they've been losing the time of possession battle. They've giving up only 3.3 yards per rush, tied for fifth in the league.
They can stop Peterson and beat the Vikings.
Even without rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers ground game perked up a little bit in their loss to the Chicago Bears.
The Steelers ran for 80 yards against the Bears, more than they did in the first two games combined. They averaged more than four yards a carry.
Add Bell to the equation, and the numbers theoretically will improve even more.
Bell missed the first three games with a ligament tear in his right foot but is expected to make his debut against the Vikings, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 10 times this season, including three times against the Bears. He was under less pressure, however, when the Steelers moved the ball on the ground. Now Roethlisberger can hand the ball to a guy who ran for 1,793 yards last year at Michigan State, tops in the Big Ten.
The Steelers drafted Bell in the second round, so a lot is expected.
The Steelers haven't forced any turnovers this season. They're one of just six teams in the history of the NFL without a takeaway in the first three games of a season, according to Pro Football Reference.
So what's to suggest the Steelers will suddenly force opposing offenses to cough up the ball?
The law of averages.
A defense with players like Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons not forcing turnovers is like Brad Pitt walking into a bar and getting rejected by every woman he talks to.
It would make more sense if this was a weak defense, but it's not. The Steelers have allowed 298 yards per game this season, fifth in the NFL. And the defense has been on the field an average of 33 minutes, 44 seconds, fourth in the NFL.
Rookie Jarvis Jones has been good enough to earn a starting job at outside linebacker. He's learning on the job but eventually will cause some splash plays.
Cornerback Cortez Allen, who missed two games with an ankle injury, is expected to be back against the Vikings, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Allen earned the starting job after intercepting two passes and forcing three fumbles in the last two games of the 2012 season.
With all the talk about Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell returning, Allen's absence has almost been forgotten. But he's a ballhawk the Steelers desperately need in their secondary.
The Steelers have been in every game in the fourth quarter this season despite a minus-9 giveaway/takeaway differential. If they win the turnover battle, they'll start winning games.
Despite their woeful record, the Steelers have something going for them that they haven't had since 2010.
Their rookies have provided an infusion of talent.
First-round draft pick Jarvis Jones is the first rookie to start on defense since Dick LeBeau became defensive coordinator in 2004. He's third on the team with 13 total tackles, according to NFL.com. Second-round pick Le'Veon Bell makes his long-awaited debut Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. And, it's only a matter of time before third-round pick Markus Wheaton surpasses 31-year-old Jerricho Cotchery on the depth chart.
Fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas hits like a safety and can cover like a corner. Thomas gave up a 17-yard touchdown pass to the Chicago Bears' Earl Bennett, but he covered him like a blanket. That's an encouraging sign.
The Steelers think enough of sixth-round pick Vince Williams to have him wear the helmet with the audio device that relays the defensive calls.
The biggest first-year contribution from the Steelers' 2011 draft was 13 starts at right tackle from Marcus Gilbert, and he hasn't made much progress since. Cortez Allen showed his potential but played just 60 snaps on defense in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus.
Injuries truncated the seasons of the Steelers' top two picks in 2012, David DeCastro and Mike Adams. David Paulson's seven catches was all they got out of the rest of the class.
Those lackluster drafts are a reason for the talent deterioration that has put the Steelers in an 0-3 hole this season.
The 2013 draft already looks better, and the improvement of these rookies will aid the Steelers as they try to turn their season around.
The road back from 0-3 won't be easy. It will be long and fraught with obstacles.
A key checkpoint will be the end of November, after the Steelers play at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night.
It's not too much to ask that the Steelers are 6-6 at that juncture, starting of course with a win over the Vikings before their bye in Week 5.
That allows for three losses in October and November. Here is their schedule in those eight games.
|6||Oct. 13||at New York Jets||1 p.m.|
|7||Oct. 20||Baltimore||4:25 p.m.|
|8||Oct. 27||at Oakland||4:05 p.m.|
|9||Nov. 3||at New England||4:25 p.m.|
|10||Nov. 10||Buffalo||1 p.m.|
|11||Nov. 17||Detroit||1 p.m.|
|12||Nov. 24||at Cleveland||1 p.m.|
|13||Nov. 28||at Baltimore||8:30 p.m.|
One of those three losses probably will come at New England in Week 9. Another could come at Baltimore. Winning at Oakland is never easy no matter the Raiders record.
If the Steelers take care of business against the Vikings and win five of these eight games, they go into December at 6-6 with three of their four remaining games at home.
If Le'Veon Bell is as advertised, if the Steelers are taking the ball away more than they're giving it away and if their rookies continue to grow, 9-7 would be within reach.
That record gets a lot of teams into the playoffs.