The NFL’s regular season is now eight weeks old. We’ve seen enough out of each team to have a pretty good idea which teams are clear-cut elite squads, which teams are maddeningly unpredictable, and which teams just plain aren’t very good.
And then there are the bad news Browns, who are well to the left of that last category. If only they could play the Washington Redskins for 16 straight weeks, they might be able to post a decent record since the Redskins are somewhat charitable to bad teams.
The categories are unstable since a single injury can mean the difference between being elite and being only much better than the Browns.
The year started with sky-high expectations for Steelers fans, who largely viewed the Patriots as the biggest threat to the Steelers repeating as Super Bowl champions. Those expectations remain high despite two frustrating losses in their opening three games.
It is a credit to the Steelers and their consistency that most fans are disappointed with the 5-2 start. Plenty of fanbases would kill for that level of futility.
Here is my take on which teams offer the biggest threat to the Steelers’ chances of repeating and which teams are the NFL equivalent of fool’s gold.
They way I see it, there are five teams who have a legitimate shot of winning it all and five teams who are likely to be exposed come playoff time. The Steelers are one of the core group of five who are the most likely to win the Super Bowl.
The four teams who join them among the elite are below.
1. The New England Patriots
I saw the Patriots as the biggest threat to the Steelers preseason. During the first few games, it looked like their time may have passed. But back-to-back demolitions of the Titans and Buccaneers have shown they have plenty of life left.
I know what some of you may be thinking—those were the Titans and the Buccaneers. It doesn’t matter. Even the worst teams have plenty of talent, and putting up a 59-0 score shows that you have something under the hood.
The main reason I see the Patriots as a threat is because they are very good at dinking and dunking their way down the field, which happens to be the one thing the Steelers are not particularly great at stopping this year.
All things being equal, I’d prefer to see the Steelers play the Patriots at home if they meet in the playoffs.
2. The New Orleans Saints
The Saints look nearly unstoppable at the moment and are the biggest surprise of the early season on the positive side of the ledger.
I’m actually a bit more surprised at the complete collapse of Tennessee.
The Saints combine an almost unstoppable offensive juggernaut with a more than respectable defense. That’s an impressive combination.
Conventional wisdom says that defense wins championships. But so do offenses that can put up 40 points a week.
Through the first half of the season, it has looked like everyone else is playing for second place. The Saints played a miserable half against the Dolphins and still managed to put up 46 points. That is a team to be respected...even feared.
Of course, if the Steelers are playing the Saints, it means that they are already in the Super Bowl, which is not an altogether bad thing.
The Ravens were a very good, and unlucky, team before their dismantling of the Denver Broncos. They lost a trio of very close games.
Add in the fact that the Steelers and Ravens players hate each other almost as much as their fans, and you can bet that the two games they play later in the season will be nasty and meaningful.
The teams know each other. There are no surprises when the teams play—just two teams trying to knock out their opponents, both figuratively and literally.
The Steelers are 1-0 against the Vikings, but a rematch at a neutral site would be a compelling matchup.
The Vikings are plenty good, pairing a very good and balanced offense with an equally stout defense. The Vikings have the best chance among the NFC teams to derail the Saints' machine.
However, they are also one injury away from falling back to earth. The key question is, “Will Brett Favre be healthy come playoff time?” I’m guessing no. But then again, I didn’t expect him to be playing at the level he is playing even at this point in the season.
The below five teams are the high–flying squads that represent a much lower threat level. I think all five of these teams have a variable in the equation that will prevent them from getting it done in the playoffs.
I may be one of the last skeptics when it comes to the Colts. For all of his accolades, I just don’t trust Peyton Manning to play at his highest levels come playoff time, especially if they are playing on the road.
They also have a new coach who will be experiencing the playoffs for the first time.
The Colts are not as good as their record. They’ve mostly played the dregs of the NFL. Credit them that they’ve managed to beat them all, some of them convincingly—but don’t overcredit them. They beat the Jaguars by two, the Dolphins by four, and the 49ers by four.
A win is a win, but they are not exactly the equivalent of the Saints or the Patriots of a couple years back.
I’m reserving judgment on the Colts until I see them play the Texans twice over their next three games. My strong hunch is that this team is nowhere near as good as people think. But we'll know soon enough.
The Eagles appear to be one of the best teams in the NFC. They are playing well on both sides of the ball and followed the Saints' lead in dismantling the Giants.
But it is hard for me to get past their years of football futility, and I don’t completely trust Donovan McNabb to win a close game during the playoffs.
If the Steelers are to fall short, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Eagles win one. But I don’t think it is going to happen.
The Cowboys are the flavor of the week after putting together a three-game winning streak and looking impressive in the progress. However, I refuse to believe a Wade Phillips-coached team is a threat to anyone in a single elimination tournament.
Ditto that for Norv Turner and the San Diego Chargers. They don’t even make the list.
The Bengals are a very good football team. I will state that up front. Truth be told, I expected them to be tough this year. Carson Palmer is a very good quarterback, and they have a respectable defense.
But there has to be an odd man out in the AFC North, and I think the Bengals will be that team. As with Phillips and Turner above, I don’t really trust Marvin Lewis as a head coach.
They can go a long way towards changing my mind by beating the Ravens this week.
5. Denver Broncos
Every team has a bad game in them at some point during the season, and the Broncos were more than due to lay their stink bomb of an egg against an underrated Ravens’ team. That isn't quite as noxious as the stink bomb the Eagles left on the field against the Raiders or, for that matter, the Technicolor mess the Steelers left on the field against the Bears.
However, I just don’t think the Broncos, with Kyle Orton, are really that big of a threat. That being said, I don’t think anyone is going to want to travel to Denver come playoff time. Denver is a tough place to play.
There are a few other teams that could make some noise down the stretch. The Texans have a chance to cause some damage, and the Cardinals can still get on track in a weak division. But these are the core teams that should be clawing at each other come playoff time.