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Pittsburgh Steelers 2011-12 Predictions Update: Post-Lockout Picks for Each Game

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IINovember 17, 2016

Pittsburgh Steelers 2011-12 Predictions Update: Post-Lockout Picks for Each Game

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    You can tell when autumn is around the corner.  The morning air feels slightly cooler, morning dew rests on grass petals and Steelers fans start to become hyperactive for those hypocycloid-wearing warriors garbed in black and gold.

    This summer was great for dehydrating the soul of football fans, but a concentrated offseason has served like an IV drop, reinvigorating the souls of all gridiron faithful.  Like most concerned sports writers, I was compelled to keep spirits alive with my predictions for every game on the Steelers' schedule.  The article received plenty of traffic and many fine folks dropped their opinions.

    The task was banal at best, however.  With those selections coming prior to the end of the lockout, they (admittedly—then and now) didn't account for the inevitable wide-scale changes and decisions that would come with "NFL 2011 Free-Agency Bonanza." 

    Teams pulled triggers faster than cowboys in the wildest westward locales, and every team's roster of opponents took on a different view.

    As an example, fans anticipated a showdown with Matt Hasselbeck, but many could not have known that it would come in unison with the assignment against explosive runner Chris Johnson.

    While there are intangibles that are nearly impossible to predict, such as injuries, severe weather and circumstances (I want to shake the hand of the man who posted about the Metrodome roof collapse last August), we now know enough to be able to safely say...

    "HERE ARE THE OFFICIAL NON-PREMATURE PREDICTIONS FOR EACH PITTSBURGH STEELERS GAME OF THE 2011 REGULAR SEASON!"

    Considered for this prognostication will be the matchups against each opponent as well as Steelers  tendencies.  For example, every fan knows Jacksonville isn't going away quietly, and for all of the squad's potential, there's a throwaway game somewhere!  And, let us not forget the almighty gut feeling!

Week 1: @ Baltimore Ravens

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    Steelers fans know the heated ire that burns bird feather.  Easily the most physical, passionate rivalry in the NFL, Pittsburgh and Baltimore—two cities that serve as historical NFL hotbeds despite the Ravens' relative infancy—will be more than ready to engage in the literal throwdown to open the season.

    Proving that great teams are not always great (but great when they have to be), the Steelers have had slow offensive starts in Baltimore, only to gather themselves in classic gut-check mode before winning games late. 

    In 2008, Santonio Holmes caught a controversial touchdown that broke the plane of the goal line by inches, while Troy Polamalu's late strip of Joe Flacco last season allowed Pittsburgh to exit Baltimore with another crucial victory via late touchdown.

    In a game where both teams always bring defense and muscle, this ability to pull out critical games gives Pittsburgh a decided psychological advantage.  Joe Flacco's memories of the Steelers include blown leads—dating back his first game against them—critical turnovers and the inability to beat Mr. Benjamin Roethlisberger.

    Added to the equation is that while Pittsburgh's young, fast quartet of receivers continues to gain experience and chemistry together, the Ravens enter the season with a corps that is practically brand new to Baltimore.  Flacco has been more of a fluke-o in big matches against Pittsburgh, and opening game against his division foe minus the opportunity to really blend with new targets spells disaster.

    What Steelers fan wouldn't have breathed easier during late last season when Pittsburgh trailed Baltimore 7-0 early?  That drive was set up by a monumental 3rd-down catch against pressure when Joe Flacco hit his big safety outlet Todd Heap. 

    Todd Heap?  Not a Raven. 

    While I believe Pittsburgh's offense will make major strides in a career year for Big Ben, I think the difference in this game, like most in Maryland, will be the opportune ability of our offense to make key plays at those rare opportune moments.

    Expect a big Lamarr Woodley drop-kick as he sacks Joe Flacco late to ice the affair!

    Final Score: Steelers 17, Ravens 10

    (1-0)

Week 2: vs. Seattle Seahawks

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    Cold Hard Football Facts' Kerry Byrne authored an article in which he described big-name receivers as shiny hood ornaments that rarely help teams win championships.  He ascribes winning to other factors, citing these receivers as only productive forces when these other critical measures (like quarterbacking) are already established for a particular team.

    I have a feeling that he would not disagree with describing the addition of Sidney Rice in Seattle as part of this description.  After all, with a suspect defense and a quarterback that was systematically removed from the ranks in Minnesota, Pete Carroll's crew should count themselves lucky to be in the NFC West.  There, they may win eight games.

    Reasonably, this is a five-win team in most other divisions.

    Make no mistake that whether justifiable or not, fans will take this match with the Seahawks as personally as the first rematch in 2007, a 21-0 shutout of the franchise that cries with the same frequency as their local precipitation. Fans sick of hearing about the Super Bowl XL "shafting," one of the most overblown controversies in Pittsburgh sports history (video above), will enjoy beating the tar feathers right off the ugly blue-and-lime-green cadets. 

    The only other option is to see Carroll smugly walking off the field having been victorious over the defending AFC champions at Heinz Field. 

    Simply put, that isn't going to happen.  Every factor of this matchup favors Pittsburgh.

    Final Score: Steelers 31, Seahawks 10

    (2-0)

Week 3: @ Indianapolis Colts

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    In their last meeting, the Steelers contained Peyton Manning and the Colts for 55 minutes.  An ill-advised interception by Ben Roethlisberger late in the fourth quarter gave Indianapolis the ball back with a chance to win the game.

    It was a frustrating affair.  The Men of Steel had plenty of opportunities to put the game away, taking an early 7-0 lead.  On their first drive, the Colts quarterback threw a deep pass to Reggie Wayne—that deflected off the defense and into the air, directly into the arms of the targeted wideout!

    From that point, the game had an odd feeling: Somehow, the Colts would pull it out.

    Ben's aforementioned turnover realized that aura.

    The Steelers defense left a crack during the subsequent drive, and Manning dropped a perfectly thrown pass for a wide-open winning score. 

    There are a handful of quarterbacks that will beat you every time if you give them a chance late. Pittsburgh is blessed to field one of them.  Two played on that particular day.

    On the road against a premiere AFC opponent, I had originally anticipated a slim Colts victory.  As reports of Manning's surgery and recovery continue to push back his timeline for a fully healthy return, I begin to wonder about the quality of a Colts team without a Peyton that is firing at all cylinders.

    What I come up with is pretty good, but not great.

    Whether or not Peyton is firing on all cylinders, it is likely his best receiver will be back in the lineup, and this poses a serious threat as Dallas Clark is a game-breaker. 

    Against Indianapolis, any defense will surrender plays.  Peyton is simply gonna' make 'em!  The key is to not allow play after play after play.  Preventing Manning from finding a fluent rhythm should allow Pittsburgh to take the momentum from a charged RCA crowd early.

    By Week 3, I fully expect the Steelers offensive line to be confident, and it needs to be effective in this match.  Controlling the tempo of this game is critical, but I feel the team will be up to the task.   Balance on offense will be a key, as 3rd-down conversions are easier to accomplish when a defense is left to guess what approach (run vs. pass) the offense will take.  And, as we all know, staying on the field on offense means that Manning is off the field watching the game with the rest of us.

    Unlike his last meeting with the Colts, Ben's gunslinger mentality will not cost the team this season.  Yet, to do this, Roethlisberger will need to be upright.  Whoever is placed into the left tackle position that particular week (hopefully, this season's line will not be a carousel) will need to do a fine job of containing spinster defensive end Dwight Freeney.

    I truly believe that the Colts' window of opportunity has passed, and while their overall grade is lowering, another member of the AFC South is slowly putting together a team that is dangerous (next slide)...

    Final Score: Steelers 24, Colts 17

    (3-0)

Week 4: @ Houston Texans

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    The Houston Texans have been a fad pick of prognosticators during recent offseasons to make the playoffs.  These predictions felt irresponsible as the team possessed a high-powered offense and putrid defense. 

    The latter no longer applies, and the Texans are a popular pick to upset the Colts in the AFC South.

    Exploiting a weak secondary with fast, young receivers and a big-play wide receiver in Mike Wallace seemed reason for Steelers fans to salivate upon release of the 2011 schedule.  The contest in Texas seemed like the perfect chance to fire up some season-high offensive numbers.

    With the additions of Jonathan Joseph, the team has an experienced, proven cover corner that can groom the rest of the unit.  Immediately improved on that note alone, the franchise also added Danieal Manning, a major improvement at safety who will likely spend a great deal of his time anchoring the play of the secondary.

    Already equipped with arguably football's finest receiver, an underrated quarterback and a fantasy football running back, the Texans hope to field a defense that can proudly play opposite to their terrific offensive skill.

    While it seems unlikely that Foster will gain the type of yardage against Pittsburgh that he saw early last season, the Steelers will have their work cut out for them against the beastly Andre Johnson.  Johnson has proven himself as a one-man wrecking crew at receiver (see: @ Washington, 2010) who can take over games—covered or not! 

    Ike Taylor will need to play one of his finest games.  Additionally, the importance of controlling the ball on offense and avoiding turnovers increases against a young team that will surely circle the Steelers on their calendar, using whatever marker color that means "team that we can send a message against."

    In a contest with Texas-sized hype, the Steelers will battle valiantly, but for the first time in 2011, they will fall.  A late Andre Johnson touchdown—a tightrope act down the sideline that defies his size—will break the hearts of Western Pennsylvania.

    Final Score: Steelers 20, Texans 24

    (3-1)

Week 5: vs. Tennessee Titans

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    Very quietly, the Tennessee Titans have fielded an atrocious pass defense that doesn't cut called to the cutting board nearly as much as the deficient Texans.  Hell, I think they're excused more often from the scornful eye of NFL critics than the Steelers.

    Ranked near the bottom in consecutive seasons, fans will remember the unnecessarily stressful 2009 kickoff game against the Titans.  Kerry Collins and Company nearly pulled off an upset, ultimately losing 13-10.  The game was memorable for a late Hines Ward fumble during the apparent original winning drive.

    More impressively, Ben Roethlisberger carved the Titans secondary, completing 33-of-43 pass attempts.  Unfortunately, his efficiency did not translate to the scoreboard.  Why?

    Simply, it never does in this rivalry.  In consecutive weeks, the Steelers will host two teams that beat them more often than they justifiably should for no other reason than football astrology—the Titans and Jaguars.

    That said, the Titans should be incredibly easy to slice and dice defensively.  In the past few years, they have lost Albert Haynesworth, Jason Babin, Stephen Tulloch and Kyle Vanden Bosch—all after reliable and oft-studly years in Nashville.

    There is nothing to suggest that the Steelers' combination of power running back, franchise quarterback and firecracker receivers won't score at least three touchdowns against such a lame defensive unit. 

    Matt Hasselbeck will be cited as the reason for optimism amongst most fans, grooming Jake Locker for a hopeful future under center and bringing veteran leadership to the position.  With average receivers at best (it's the truth), Chris Johnson will have a lot of the load to carry on his capable shoulders.

    The same Chris Johnson who has been unable to crack the Steelers defensive front.  Yet, it only takes that one burst to change the complexion of the game, as Steelers fans witnessed before a holding call in last year's game against the Titans.  Johnson nearly had an 80-yard touchdown on the stat sheet.

    If the Steelers run defense can prevent that one incredible play from Johnson and the offense can translate inevitable yardage into touchdowns, this game should be a blowout in spite of the series history.

    Final Score: Steelers 37, Titans 13

    (4-1)

Week 6: vs. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Fans of the Steelers dating back to 1995 have a hatred for the Jaguars that dates back to an unforeseen AFC Central rivalry, the last great slugfest in the old division.  The upstart Jacksonville defeated the Steelers in their expansion season and contended for the division crown as early as their third season, finally overtaking Pittsburgh by the late '90s.

    Fun fact: The video above showcases a game from 1996, a loss that dropped Jacksonville to 4-7.  This video marked their last loss until the AFC Championship game that season.

    With a losing record in the series, fans have shed some angry tears into their Terrible Towels courtesy of the Jaguars.  Often, it seems that the Steelers have the stronger team, only to be "out-Pittsburgh'ed" by modern Florida football.

    Maurice Jones-Drew has had success against the Steelers front, which could translate into confidence for the back or an extra desire to stuff the run by our defense.  His big plays on special teams and offense helped Jacksonville to a devastating road win during a 2007 playoff game at Heinz Field. 

    During that game, quarterback David Garrard's long scramble late set up the winning points, a 31-29 final that negated a furious Pittsburgh comeback from a 28-10 fourth-quarter deficit.  The league would later apologize as holding occurred on the play, but the damage was done.

    Steelers fans angrily grasped their towels once more, the young and pesky Jags victorious again.

    This season, the Jags enter with virtually no receivers, no confidence from their front office regarding the quarterback (an issue that became vocal and public) and fears that Maurice Jones-Drew won't be able to finish the season.

    The defense is better than the declawed offense, giving these cats a little bit of paper weight.  Rashean Mathis is a Steelers killer.  Ben Roethlisberger needs to be careful, especially with a safety upgrade with the signing of Dawan Landry, to not throw unnecessary interceptions that keep Jacksonville in the game.

    These are the games where conditions are ideal.  The Steelers: off to a fast start, feeling confident against their opponent, a team that always seems to find a way against Pittsburgh, with the late lead—and finding a way to blow it.

    A series of historical frustration will see a dominant Steelers effort go to waste.  This game can be classified under the category of "gut feeling." During a home stand against two thoroughly beatable teams, we will give one away—and I suspect this is the one.

    Leading 21-13, the Jaguars kick a late field goal, prompting announcers to say, "If you look at the statistics, you would think this is a 31-3 football game, but Jacksonville simply won't go away.  These two teams always go to the wire against each other.  In fact, the Jags are one of the few teams with a winning record against...and oh my gosh!  Are you kidding?  It appears we have a fumble on the snap.  Who has it?"

    Final Score: Steelers 21, Jaguars 22

    (4-2)

Week 7: @ Arizona Cardinals

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    Kevin Kolb may be the most undeservedly spotlighted quarterback with more interceptions than touchdowns in the history of football that isn't named Joe Namath.

    He should have relative success throwing to the game's finest receiver, but the unproven quarterback is now a nomad who holds the potential fate of an entire coaching staff in his inexperienced hands.  The addition of Todd Heap will also help a stagnant 2010 unit by giving Kolb a solid intermediate target. 

    Heck, this experiment cannot have a worse result than last season's Arizona offense.  Backward is not available.

    The secondary is very serviceable, and the loss of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be fine with his replacement being rookie and future shutdown corner Pat Peterson.

    The defensive front is also fine, though they do struggle with getting pressure on the quarterback.  With Porter and Haggans, the "Geriatric Steel Curtain" doesn't promise to overwhelm on passing downs in 2011.  Darnell Dockett heads up a front line that gets little pressure but stops the run with some success.

    Simply, they're OK.

    Coming off of a bitter loss, the Steelers will execute well against their former Super Bowl XLIII counterparts.  Yet, they'll find no Kurt Warner to riddle the secondary this time around, and their all-around better balance and skill will secure a victory on the road against a team that will surely be fired up to see them again.

    Ken Whisenhunt will fall to 1-2 against his former squad.

    Final Score: Steelers 23, Cardinals 17

    (5-2)

Week 8: vs. New England Patriots

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    Bane.

    Boo.

    Bummer.

    And, I can think of another five-letter word that starts with "B," but it is inappropriate, so I'll just end my list with:

    Brady.

    Steelers fans represent the purest ire as it concerns the California native, complete with Super Bowl rings, model wife (and not in behavior) and penchant for destroying Pittsburgh.

    Since a 30-14 shellacking to open Gillette Stadium in 2002, Brady has made Pittsburgh's Steelers to look like "Stillers"—motionless challenges against his fierceness and offensive aggression.

    On Halloween 2004, the Steelers gathered their lone win against Tom Brady, a 34-20 party that ended Boston's 21-game winning streak.  In that contest, the defense played close to receivers, bumping them off of routes when necessary.  I witnessed it in the third quarter, when down 31-10, the Patriots had to settle for a field goal after Brady missed a receiver in the left corner of the end zone.  Why?  The defense contacted the receiver early enough in his route to disrupt the timing.

    This also marked the only time in the series that Pittsburgh frequently harassed Belichick's "beaut."  

    My plea to Dick LeBeau and the Steelers defensive brass is this: 

    "If we lose, we lose—but stop backing away.  I've seen it.  It seems a pedestrian observation, and it is.  But, it's the truth.  Get pressure on Tom Brady, disrupt his timing and make their offense have to adjust.  Don't play back in zones and rely on the 3-4 to simply and 'inevitably' create turnovers.  That strategy will not ever work against a quarterback of Brady's caliber."—Mr. Joshua P. Hayes (2011)

    Some may disagree, citing that it's not a philosophical difference between the times with the Patriots simply playing better.  I'd not argue that point, but my own two eyes have seen a different defense during New England games. 

    There's no shame in being aggressive and getting burnt.

    Until I see the defense get after it against his NFL highness, I cannot rightfully pick the Steelers to beat the Patriots at any venue, no matter the performance of the offense.  At this point, it's irresponsible.  Hopefully, 2011 changes that.

    Final Score: Steelers 25, Patriots 29 (gotta' be an odd score sometime, right?)

    (5-3)

Week 9: vs. Baltimore Ravens

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    When the Ravens last took foot on Heinz Field during the regular season, T.J. Houshmandzadeh's last-minute touchdown catch silenced the towel-waving faithful.  A 4-0 start reverted to 3-1, the inevitable first loss of the season coming like a punch in the gut.  In a game that the Steelers appeared to win with a late goal-line stand just moments earlier, they lost. 

    The Men of Steel were close to a perfect start to 2010 without Ben Roethlisberger.

    When the Ravens last took foot on Heinz Field altogether, their season ended.

    With the return of Big Ben came the return of normalcy in the rivalry.  In the biggest spot, the Steelers won.

    This season, the Ravens return to Pittsburgh for a prime-time affair.  In the past, the modern-day purple people-eater complained that they did not want to play future night games at Heinz Field.  After all, they'd lost three consecutive evening caps in Pittsburgh, including a 38-7 blowout that saw Roethlisberger throw five touchdown passes.

    With a bitter offseason of heated words exchanged, the war of semantics will eventually give way to the only thing that matters—the game on the field.  Yet, Hines Ward will surely remember the mouths that questioned his integrity from the Baltimore locker room, and who knows?  Maybe a few more clean, but quite physical, hits will be planted by the wide receiver with the heart of steel!

    In the biggest contests, Joe Flacco has wilted like a dying purple pansy flower and the Steelers have come out of the games alive and well.  With history on their side and an electrifying crowd on hand to voice their full support, don't expect the fourth-year quarterback to look very unflappable (no pun intended).  While he has experience in these tilts, losing experience isn't exactly ideal.

    Practice doesn't make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.  And, in these matches, Flacco has been decidedly imperfect.  Key turnovers have cost his team in huge spots against the Steelers.

    In 2008, a fumble returned for a touchdown turned the momentum in a 23-20 overtime affair on Monday night.  Later that season, the quarterback threw a game-clinching interception to Troy in the AFC Championship game.  A strip last season set up a winning score, followed by an ill-advised interception that set up the tying Pittsburgh score in the most recent divisional playoff.

    In a low-scoring affair, expect an excited Pittsburgh crowd to further bolster an amplified defensive effort.

    Final Score: Steelers 20, Ravens 7

    (6-3)

Week 10: @ Cincinnati Bengals

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    Rebuilding is a profane term in most NFL circles.  It denotes inevitable losing and requests patience from the fans.

    Bengals have black and orange stripes, and occasionally Cincinnati has covered up the dark portion of that pattern during surprise playoff trips.  Winless in those postseasons and without success in subsequent campaigns, the Bengals' stripes reemerge more often than not: lovable losers who so desperately want to win.

    The current regime wasn't getting it done.  Many players have left, including Jonathan Joseph and Chad Ochocinco.  Most notably, Carson Palmer seems steadfast with his decision to sit out as opposed to playing through his contract.

    If that doesn't illustrate the state of football in Western Ohio, nothing else can.

    I've encountered some polls that blame Mike Brown in the Palmer vs. Brown feud, but I can't say that I blame the man.  In an era where contracts are practically written on napkins, the principled Brown refused to allow his employee fall through on his professional commitment.  It is to be applauded moralistically—though competitively, it may be a bad decision. 

    Nonetheless, I can't help but support it.  Then again, the notion of the Steelers facing Andy Dalton seems appealing at first glance.

    And second and third...

    A.J. Green is a promising receiver who has stud potential, and he will be learning the Jay Gruden system on the fly with his rookie counterpart at quarterback.

    On the other side of the ball, Rey Maualuga is the bright spot on a defense that has lost Jonathan Joseph in—for all purposes—a swap-out with Nate Clements. 

    Against a team learning to play at key positions and downgraded at others, the Steelers have no excuse for losing to Cincinnati in 2011.

    In the video above, the accompanying song starts with a line that says, "I could really use a wish right now..."

    Actually, Bengals fans need many wishes before this team returns to competitiveness.

    Final Score: Steelers 35, Bengals 10

    (7-3)

Week 12: @ Kansas City Chiefs

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    With memories of a 2009 upset at Arrowhead Stadium fresh in their memory banks, the Steelers will not overlook the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011.

    Bill Cowher's Steelers teams had great success on the road against the Chiefs, the obvious exception being an overtime loss to the Joe Montana-led squad of 1993. 

    Mike Tomlin should look to continue this trend with the current roster.  Arrowhead Stadium is a difficult environment, unanimously observed as one of the most challenging venues for the opposing team.

    The Chiefs showed great talent and promise in 2010.  They're not to be taken lightly.

    Yet, 2011 for Kansas City may be the perfect illustration that getting better does not mean having a better record.

    Their secondary is one of the league's finest.  Todd Haley and the Chiefs drafted tremendously well, a promising sign for the future.  Safeties Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis played beyond their experience as rookies.

    Jamaal Charles was a game-breaker, evidenced by the lone offense in the Chiefs' playoff against Baltimore.  The addition of fullback L'ron McClain should translate to big blocks and a lot of bulk yards picked up by the explosive runner.  Thankfully, the Steelers run defense is equal to the task.

    There are negatives, and that is my first: The lack of a deep passing game must be addressed.  Against great run defenses, the Chiefs offense is at risk of self-destructing without help.  Dwayne Bowe caught 15 touchdowns, but every other receiver combined for three.  That is not enough of a universal threat for Matt Cassell to lead Kansas City deep into January.

    Also, their defense was radically inconsistent.  They gave up 49 points to Denver, and surrendered six in their follow-up meeting.  The Colts struggled to find the end zone against the Chiefs, but their rivals in Oakland made huge plays in a season sweep.

    Chiefs fans insist they've turned the corner, and they would love the 2010 season to be duplicated.  The only issue is that a more difficult schedule promises some growing pains, and the NFC West is the North's buffet in 2011.

    Final Score: Steelers 24, Chiefs 14

    (8-3)

Week 13: vs. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Two games and three weeks removed from humble pie, the Bengals will make like Oliver Twist: ragged, in shambles and asking, "Please, sir...can I have some more?"

    If the Bengals win five games in 2011, it will be a relative success considering the drastic changes and overhauls occurring to the roster.  Fans of Cincinnati need not be angry however; Pirates fans have been waiting for something to cheer about for far longer!

    The Steelers will easily handle the 2010 Buccos in this year's NFL.

    In 2010, the Bengals had a surprisingly fast start in Pittsburgh, taking an early 7-0 lead.  Their offense stagnated, being shut out for the final three-plus quarters.  The turning point was a Carson Palmer interception returned for a touchdown by the beastly banshee.

    Guess who?  Andy Dalton (or whoever), prepare for pain.

    Final Score: Steelers 28, Bengals 6

    (9-3)

Week 14: vs. Cleveland Browns

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    With Peyton Hillis residing in Cleveland, Madden Cover Curse enthusiasts need only correlate another Browns losing season to the continuation of the phenomenon.

    Unless of course, Hillis goes down with a disastrous injury early in the season.  Either way, his running stops at Heinz Field on this Thursday night in early December.

    Videos of last year's season finale in Cleveland show a frustrated McCoy tossing his helmet, incensed and rattled after taking another big hit from the Steelers defense.  In the 41-9 domination, the promising young quarterback, who engineered upsets of the Saints and Browns earlier in the season, took one of his first true whippings.

    The young former Longhorn will have to shake off memories of that game, being better served to recall his first start at Heinz Field.  In that game, a 28-10 loss, he showed an aplomb hidden in the statistics.  Those on hand or watching witnessed an arm making most throws, putting the ball on the money on many plays where disaster seemed imminent.

    A solid middle of the season against quality opponents has promoted optimism along the shores of Lake Erie, a proud anxiety for 2011 that has been long awaited by a fanbase historically used to strong contention.  In the '60s, the Browns were dynastic.  They stayed fierce into the '70s, entertained as the Cardiac Kids in the early '80s and lost to Elway later in the decade on the doorstep of Super Bowl glory.

    Fans in Cleveland want a reason to proudly cheer again.

    The Steelers want to make them jeer.

    No rivalry has been more lopsided than the Browns vs. Steelers and Bills vs. Patriots in the last decade.  In the last 22 games, Pittsburgh has beaten Cleveland 20 times. 

    At home with an opportunity to secure a bye week and/or home-field advantage late in the season, these critical, winnable games will not be overlooked by the Steelers.

    In fact, their final eight weeks of 2011 are tailor-made for a momentous entry into the postseason.

    A win over Cleveland should come without much of a fit.  While Mike Holmgren and company may have a long-term master plan, there's still work to be done.

    Colt McCoy needs better targets, and Hillis—the team's offensive strength—will be running at the football equivalent of a brick wall.  Or....dare I say it...a steel...c'mon, you know what I'm referring to!

    Jabaal Sheard and Jayme Mitchell are not the names you want to hear as a Browns fan.  They are the defensive ends, and the team is switching to a 4-3 scheme that relies heavily on ends.  See a problem?

    Maybe cornerback Joe Haden makes an immaculate interception to keep this close, but I doubt it.

    Final Score: Steelers 27, Browns 17

    (10-3)

Week 15: @ San Francisco 49ers

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    Steelers fans remember Jim Harbaugh as Captain Comeback.  Now, they get to meet Jim Harbaugh, Captain.  Or, in the normal lingo, head coach.

    A weak second-half schedule gives ample opportunity for a strong finish, and this is the one game that could serve as the trap.  It seems unlikely that Pittsburgh will automatically win their last eight games, though for their talent it would be foolish to ignore the possibility.

    Yet, with no upgrade at quarterback, Alex Smith does not strike fear in the hearts of Steelers Nation. And his backups don't cause teeth to chatter either.

    Hiring Jim Harbaugh, of AFC Championship game Hail Mary fame, was a wise move.  The 49ers were the pick of many to win the NFC West heading into last season.  Alex Smith was showing flashes that he could compete at the NFL level, they promised to field a competitive defense, and Mike Singletary was considered the man who would make it happen.

    As it turned out, Singletary was cited as part of the problem.  Players did not respond to his approach, and the 49ers turned a 4-0 preseason into a winless start. 

    Loss after loss mounted, and the NFC West was so bad that the team had a playoff chance into early December.

    The division promises to be weak again this season.  While its teams have improved, they all still feature glaring weaknesses.  Mediocrity will reign the West again, and for this reason, the 49ers should be in the thick of a championship race. 

    In other words, they are not going to lie down and go quietly in a statement game against the stellar Steelers.  Like their theme, these 49ers know that playing the Steelers is a golden opportunity.

    Make no mistake that Smith must have amazing workouts and camps.  This is his fourth coach, and he's still alive and kicking as the projected starter in San Fran.  It defies logic, yet he stands tall, waiting for his opportunity in 2011.

    If Michael Crabtree smells the coffee and is playing, the offensive talent and continuity around Smith will give him a great chance for success.  Viewing their roster, it's no wonder they were picked to win their division last year.  Edwards, Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore: options, baby!  And, with the line healthy, Smith working with a former quarterback at head coach and a fresh start, this may be the year that supplants last year's expectations by the Bay.

    While concern rests on Alex Smith, the real questions will be on a defense that the Steelers can easily exploit.  Patrick Willis has seen the talent around him fly away in free agency, making the 49ers a team that most should be able to successfully run against.

    The pass defense was inconsistent.  One week they look amazing, and the next game they're atrocious.

    Depending on the version, the Steelers could be in for a true battle. 

    By all rights, the Steelers should beat the 49ers.  Yet, my instincts speak to a loss somewhere late in the season, and this game against an upstart squad and its ambitious head coach seems to have the makings of a trap.

    These road games go the same way.   The Steelers should move the ball, but I'll predict a night of bending—but not breaking—for the San Fran defense, holding Pittsburgh to field goals instead of critical touchdowns.

    On paper, the Steelers should win this game, and the statistics may bear this out.  Yet, there's always a gut check somewhere, and maybe a loss out west will be the perfect tonic to prevent us from looking back at 2011 as a season where the team peaked a month too early. 

    Check out the video above for a classic affair in San Fran, the lone loss for the 1984 champion 49ers.

    Final Score: Steelers 19, 49ers 20

    (10-4)

Week 16: vs. St. Louis Rams

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    Love his high school face or hate his head coach scowl, Josh McDaniels has a brilliant offensive mind that should work well with Sam Bradford.  The young quarterback comes off of a rookie season that saw the Rams ascend from the pits of football to...well, mediocrity.  But it was a meteoric rise for a franchise that seemingly had far more questions than answers just 18 months ago.

    Steve Spagnuolo has to be credited for the biggest part of this difference.  His defensive mindset paid huge dividends for St. Louis.  They turned previous defensive rankings of 31, 31, 31, 31 and 28 in the five prior seasons into the 12th-best defense in the game (based on yards).

    The improvements were only enough to propel absolute garbage into the "stratosphere" of the average, evidenced by the team's 7-9 finish in a lowly NFC West.

    In other words, even if they make some more strides this season, the Steelers will be hosting a talented team still turning the corner and transitioning toward—not into—the NFL's elite.

    Stuffing Stephen Jackson and keeping Bradford confused, the Steel Curtain will turn a bad-weather game into a huge advantage over the dome-loving Rams.  Expect the Rams defense to make Jack Youngblood smile by forcing a few inopportune turnovers. 

    At the end of the game, Roethlisberger will shake off the offensive inconsistencies and outscore his young counterpart, thus finishing 3-1 against NFC opponents for the season.

    Final Score: Steelers 23, Rams 13

    (11-4)


Week 17: @ Cleveland Browns

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    Each year, you can count on a few things. 

    Teams will rest starters, making Week 16 the time to have fantasy football championship games.

    If the Patriots or Colts sit atop the AFC, sports journalism narrows its view.

    And, the Steelers will blow out the Browns in a biblical manner once.

    Can't ruin tradition...right?

    Final Score: Steelers 38, Browns 7

    (12-4)

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