Pittsburgh Steelers Face Tough Test Over Next Month

Todd FlemingAnalyst IOctober 23, 2009

BALTIMORE - DECEMBER 14:  Ryan Clark #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates his interception against the Baltimore Ravens with teammate Troy Polamalu #43 on December 14, 2008 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

In their next three games, the Steelers will face off against two teams that are yet to lose this year and another team that has already beaten them once.  


This is effectively the murderer’s row portion of the schedule, something that would have been impossible to predict at the beginning of the year when the Tennessee Titans game looked like one of the most ominous on the schedule.


And this comes before they’ve even played their first game against the Baltimore Ravens.


The Steelers just finished up a somewhat impressive three game winning streak against the junior varsity portion of their schedule.  They effectively beat a badly coached average team and two dregs of the league. 


But, considering all three of those games were effectively must –win games, that is still no small achievement, not in a league in which anyone can beat anyone on any given Sunday. 


Unless you are talking about the New Orleans Saints who look near unbeatable, or the St. Louis Rams who I’m not sure could beat my old high school junior varsity team. 


Come to think of it, I’m not so sure the old adage that anyone can beat anyone on any given Sunday holds much water.  With that in mind, that three game winning streak probably didn’t tell us much, at least not in the overall scheme of how the Steelers compare to the rest of the league at this point.


This is the make it or break it portion of the schedule.  If they win their next two games, they are well on their way to another terrific season.  If they lose them both, we can start obsessing about the draft a bit early while writing plenty of “what went wrong” post-mortem articles. 


They still would have time to recover and make the playoffs.  But, considering how good some of their AFC rivals are looking, it is hard to see a scenario where they can recover from that. 


So, what should we expect over the next three games? 


For what it’s worth, my guess is that the Steelers will go 2-1, beating the Favreings and Bengals and dropping to the Broncos.  There isn’t much science applied to that.  It is just a hunch.


Minnesota is the best of the three teams during that stretch with a balanced and very dangerous offense ably backed up by a very good defense anchored by the best defensive line in football. 


But, the Steelers are chomping at the bit for this game, looking for a chance to prove that they are for real after beating up on twenty pound weaklings for the last couple weeks.


With the collapse of Tennessee, the only noteworthy win the Steelers have recorded so far this year was against a questionable and inconsistent San Diego team.   


The Steelers can erase a lot of doubts with a win over the Vikings.  I’m looking for the Steelers to attack the Vikings’ questionable secondary early and often and win this one more comfortably than expected, 31-17.  


They will follow that up by losing a close game in Denver with Ryan Clark understandably choosing to sit that one out due to his medical condition which flared up the last time he played in Denver.   Who would have thought that the overall success of the Steelers’ season could pivot on whether Clark was able to play in Denver?  Not I.


The Steelers will be coming off a bye week, which may help avoid a potential letdown.  If I was doing a power rankings purely on where I think each team should be at based on potential and ability, I’d put the Steelers ahead of the Broncos.  But, with the Broncos playing at home against a potentially depleted Steelers’ secondary, I think this one will be tough.  My prediction is a 24-21 loss.


The game against the Bengals is a near must-win game if the Steelers would like to repeat as division champions.  They cannot afford to drop a second game to the Bengals.  And they won’t. 


They should have won round one but slipped into coast mode a bit early.  That won’t happen in round two.  The Steelers win that one, 38-21, in their best offensive output of the year.


That would leave the Steelers at 6-3, and relatively well positioned to win their division entering the final seven-game stretch, a stretch that will include two grudge matches with the Baltimore Ravens. 


If I was a betting man, I think the Steelers will finish 11-5, dropping one game against the Ravens and a second one to either Green Bay or Miami.  That will be good enough to win the division but not good enough to land them a first round bye in the playoffs.