The Super Bowl hangover was bounced around when the Steelers' 2009 season began, though thoughts of an actual meltdown were the farthest thing from most people's imagination.
The season began on a breezy evening at Heinz Field, as the Steelers finally got their chance to exact revenge on those disrespectful of the Terrible Towel, the Tennessee Titans.
However, the atmosphere soon changed to a palpable feeling of uneasiness descending over Pittsburgh's lack of fire power on the field.
After the Steelers eeked out a win in overtime, the lack of a running game was a major topic fueling discussion throughout Steelers Nation. The injury to Troy Polamalu early in the first quarter of the season opener was another.
The team minus Troy proceeded to limp apathetically through two losses in games that, through three quarters, looked like they would end as Steelers victories.
A Week 4 win over San Diego at home reestablished a team with the patient acceleration that was a hallmark of the Super Bowl-champion Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger was armed with two Super Bowl MVP receivers and a speedy rookie phenom in Mike Wallace. Rashard Mendenhall finally was bringing the reinforcement of a run threat to an offense that had struggled with that facet through recent weeks.
The Steelers defense stepped up as well, icing the Vikings in Pittsburgh with two thundering takeaways in the forth quarter to bring a solid win to the team in Week 7.
While respectable margins separated the final scores through five straight wins, nearly every game had its share of moments when the scores became uncomfortably close.
Then, terminal errors starting handing the close calls to the Steelers' opponents, and the victories stopped.
Devastation in the wake of the second loss to the Cincinnati "Bungles" in Week 10 was attributed to the appalling play of special teams during kickoff returns. The second consecutive and third total touchdown return from of a kick-off was cited as being a glaring reason the Steelers lost the key divisional game.
Despite the intense scrutiny heaped first upon special teams, then upon play calling, then upon the secondary, the team as a whole lost game after game.
An angry rhetoric of accountability flowed through Mike Tomlin's post-game statements.
Yet, with all of the posturing occurring as losses, which should have been wins, have we seen real change?
The men are increasingly dysfunctional as a team out in the public, so based on their performance on the field, we can imagine how they are interacting in private at a time when they desperately need to get back in sync.
Tomlin has faced the fiercest criticism of his young career, and to stave it off he must find a way to clear this stagnant air between some of his key players. He succeeded in motivating Rashard Mendenhall.
Mike Wallace, Brett Keisel, James Harrison and others have played with motivation all year, but the team as a whole has played without the resolution to outmaneuver their opponent week in and week out in '09.
The Thursday night game in Cleveland is the Steelers' last chance to find a foothold or free fall from the playoff race for good.
Steeler Nation hopes Tomlin can instigate improvement in his secondary, but even with minor adjustments, the team looked like they could have turned their losses into wins by playing with more mettle.
Recent comments by Ben Roethlisberger, saying "there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It's a long tunnel and a small light, but it's still flickering down there," don't sound like the words of a supremely confident man. But many of us never count out No. 7 while there's still time on the clock.
In Week 14, time is rapidly running out.
When we look at the teams in the league that are pressing ahead, we see them advancing along side of their pocket protagonists. Every team on a roll has received exceptional play from its quarterback, who's set the tone for the squad.
Favre, Brees, and Manning have played exceptionally well so far. Fortunately, there is still a slim margin of space for those who want to compete against these pros.
With our backs against the wall, it's up to Ben to compel his team to fight, and his team in turn will put him on that list.
In the words of the Jedi master Yoda: "There is no try. There is only do or not do."
On a frigid and blustery night in Cleveland, we don't care if Ben is handing off or burning them through the air, our quarterback must be the one to lead his men to victory against those old rival Clowns.
Behind a strong leader, the team will find resolve and become a group that dug in to preserve its chance to play another Sunday.
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