While no game in the NFL should ever be considered anything but a “must-win” contest, there are some games that are simply more pivotal to the outcome of a season than others. The Steelers have just such a mountain to climb this week.
Position is everything late in the season, but in a division in which the Steelers already are looking like also-rans, it’s important after every game to take a look at the out-of-town scoreboard.
Right now, the Steelers are ranked fourth in the AFC North thanks to a lack of points scored. A win against the Titans won’t completely fix the standings, but right now the Steelers must win to keep pace with Cleveland and Cincinnati and remain a game behind the Baltimore Ravens.
The Steelers look like a team that’s still thinking about the playoffs even though they aren’t looking like much of a contender right now.
The Steelers' next two opponents (Arizona and Jacksonville) look a lot like teams that will be picking in the top five of next spring’s NFL draft. The Titans, while it may not continue, look like a team that could make a move in an AFC South that is lacking its usual top contender (Indianapolis).
The time is now to show that Pittsburgh can beat a team they may see again if they make it to the AFC’s final six.
Right now, the Steelers could sneak into the playoffs by virtue of a terribly easy second-half schedule. But getting there isn’t the goal. Getting to the trophy at the end is the goal. Right now, the Steelers aren’t anywhere near reaching it.
Okay, let’s assume the Steelers win against Jacksonville and Arizona. That would give them four wins against two losses. Let’s assume that they aren’t good enough to beat New England (few are) yet and that they struggle again with Baltimore. That puts them at 4-4.
Tennessee could be the difference for them between a sub-.500 first half and a chance to set themselves up for a second-half surge.
You can’t assume anything in the NFL, but let's look down the road a bit. The Steelers visit the Bengals after the bye week. Cincinnati may not be anything special, but their defense looks pretty tough and Andy Dalton hasn’t embarrassed himself yet. After that they get a week off before Kansas City, the Bengals again, Cleveland, San Francisco, St. Louis and Cleveland to finish it all out.
This is the first time in years that you can’t write off at least two of the AFC North teams right away. In fact, you can’t write anyone off on that list really. All of them can be dangerous if they get a bit of a groove. Right now, the Steelers aren’t exactly disrupting teams’ plans.
The Steelers have historically had a lot of success against the Titans. While that means nothing in reality, it is something that is used as a measuring stick anytime the two teams face off.
The Steelers are usually good at stopping the run and they’ll need to corral one of the best if they are going to win on Sunday. Chris Johnson is starting to finally get himself going. That’s bad news for anyone in his way, especially a Pittsburgh team that hasn’t been able to stop anyone lately.
The Titans defense is good, but they haven’t had a really tough test to pass yet. The Steelers offensive skill players represent one of the best collections of talent in football, but their line has let them down. They’ve brought Max Starks back to help remedy that, but it’s unclear how soon he’ll be on the field.
This game isn’t just a must-win. It’s a must-play-well game. Winning in hollow ways like they did against Indianapolis, where an under-Manning-ed team stayed in the game, and Seattle, where they left a ton of points off the scoreboard, won’t do for a team trying to find itself. This is a time to play the Steelers football everyone remembers.
Have you noticed something odd about the Steelers? They don’t know who they are anymore. This is a team that used to be about running the ball, Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to make anything good out of a disaster and a defense that could stuff the run completely and harass a quarterback into big errors.
Now, things are different. The team’s traditional cornerstones of running and defense have let them down mostly due to ineffective work up front on both sides. Ben Roethlisberger has spent more time eating grass than he has escaping people.
This team needs to find its identity again. Fast.
Maybe they are a team with the league’s best receivers and a quarterback who can throw any pass in the book. Maybe they’re a team that will simply outscore people (boy would that be a departure). Maybe they’re still the same old Steelers we love, just having a bit of trouble with their Super Bowl loss.
Whoever they are, Mike Tomlin and his staff need to find them fast and get them playing winning football.