And then there were 12. The regular season has ended, and wild card weekend is upon as the final dozen teams seek a chance at the Super Bowl and NFL glory. The familiar teams are all there, as Green Bay, Seattle, New England, and Denver are tending to their byes atop the conferences.
What of this weekend, though? Years past has seen wild card teams get hot and make deep playoff pushes. The future Super Bowl champion could very well take the field on Saturday or Sunday. So why not the Steelers? A rocky start to the year saw them lose to the Cleveland Browns and inexplicably to the two-win Tampa Bay Buccaneers, dropping three of their first six. Since then, however, the Steelers have rebounded.
After besting the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday night to close out the year, the Steelers have been crowned champions of one of the toughest division in the league, as both AFC wild card teams came from the North. It seems that the chaos of the division, with focus on the once optimistic Browns and the continued analysis and confusion concerning Andy Dalton, has made the Steelers an afterthought. They aren’t a particularly sexy team after all, but they weren’t when they won the Super Bowl in the recent past either.
So the Steelers will host hated rival Baltimore this weekend with a chance to visit Denver and Peyton Manning the following week. Any AFC champion will have to go through New England as well (this makes the Steelers a 14-1 bet to win it all).
Pittsburgh has as good a shot as any to take out the powerhouses of the AFC and return to the Super Bowl. These playoffs boast teams with championships already to their credit, as Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin won together in 2008, with Big Ben winning another with Bill Cowher in 2005. With that, we take a look at the ten reasons why the Pittsburgh Steelers can go four in a row to win the Super Bowl.
10 They’re on a Roll
It’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish. It’s also about taking that momentum with you into the playoffs. In 2011, the Giants won three of their last four regular season games and then won the Super Bowl. The Steelers have won eight of ten to close out the season, including four in a row, while questions swirl around the suddenly inconsistent Peyton Manning and the quarterback-less Arizona Cardinals. Then again, it’s hard to say why or when these spurts come – after all, the 2012 Ravens lost four of five before the playoffs, but found their groove Wild Card weekend en route to a Super Bowl Championship.
9 They Win on the Road
First they have to get by Baltimore, but of any team this weekend, the Steelers seem to be the best equipped to play anywhere in the country. Pittsburgh is a solid 5-3 on the road this year and by playing in a cold weather city in the wildest of stadiums, they are well equipped to travel, to either Denver or New England, or both. They’ve shown they can win in Cincy already, they won in New York in 2011 to advance to the Super Bowl, and last year they won at Lambeau in December. They also beat the Patriots at Foxboro during their 2008 season, when they won a Super Bowl, and most notably in 2005, they became the first team in NFL history to win three road games in the playoffs and then the Super Bowl.
8 Playoff Experience
After two 8-8 seasons, the Steelers are back in the postseason for the ninth time since 2000. Under Roethlisberger, the Steelers have two Super Bowl wins, three Super Bowl appearances, and are 10-4 in the playoffs. The Steelers have several players from the 2005 winning team, including Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, and James Harrison as well as a few others on the winning team from 2008. That leadership and experience will be necessary to deal with the pressure on the big stage. Then again, it’s not all about the mileage logged…
7 The Steelers are Youthful
We’re having our playoff cake and eating it too. That’s because nearly half of the Steelers’ 53 players have three seasons or fewer of NFL experience and many more have no playoff experience whatsoever. Balance is a good thing though, and you want some reckless abandon, some ferocity and fearlessness that only comes with youth and inexperience. Just look at the rookie WR class of 2014, including Steeler Martavis Bryant, which has torn up the league this year. Bryant has only 26 catches, but eight for touchdowns in 10 games with longs of 94 and 80. Second year WR Markus Wheaton has 53 catches and two TDs on the year as well. Both are young offensive threats each and every game.
6 They Play to Win
This sounds simple and cliché, but hear me out. Most teams in the NFL, most coaches, play to not lose the game. The Steelers play to win. While all too often teams punt from midfield, follow statistics and probabilities, and keep the ball on the ground to run out the clock, the Steelers would rather lose playing their game than get beat without getting the ball back. We see it time and time again: teams will slowly destroy themselves watching the clock wind down rather than gamble for the win. The Steelers will throw the football late with a lead, they will go for it on fourth down, and I bet they would even let a team score a touchdown while down a point just to get the ball back with a chance to tie. Just look at their Week 17 game: they did a ridiculous fake punt that turned into an interception that could have cost them the game and the division. It looked like a dumb move, and it certainly was a risky one, but they were going for the win.
5 The Secondary is Peaking
This is definitely not the Steelers’ defense of old, but outside of the Seahawks, most defenses aren’t strong enough to singularly win games. The Bills, Lions, and Cardinals have formidable defenses, but the NFL in 2014 is stacked in favour of the offense. Still, the Steelers defense has been playing impressive of late, not allowing more than 21 points in four December games, and earning nine sacks and four turnovers in the final two. Pittsburgh has one of the smallest secondaries in the league and they've seen nearly a complete turnover since the start of the year, but they are peaking. While Polamalu and Taylor have been injured, cornerbacks Brice McCain and Antwon Blake have stepped up. McCain and Willie Gay each have three picks, tied for the team lead, as part of an opportunistic defense that bends but doesn’t break.
4 Le’Veon Bell
It looks as if the Steelers have avoided disaster, as their workhorse back does not have ligament damage to the knee he injured in Sunday’s finale. While Le’Veon Bell’s status is still uncertain for Saturday, his presence will be needed if the Steelers want to make it back to the Super Bowl. The second leading rusher in the NFL, the sophomore sensation not only has over 1,300 yards rushing, but 854 receiving yards this season as well. He has at least four catches in 13 games this year, with three catching TDs to go with eight on the ground. At 6’1” and 240, Bell is both a power rusher and a speed back, earning 4.7 yards a carry. He also hasn’t fumbled this year.
3 Antonio Brown
Simply, Brown is one of the best wideouts in the league and a player whose presence changes the game. Coming off his best year in the pros in 2013, he had an even better season in 2014. He led the league in receiving yards with just under 1,700, with 13 touchdowns and at least seven catches in 11 straight games. He also returns punts and is a serious threat on special teams, as evidenced from the Sunday night finale. Unlike some teams in the NFL that may shy away from their best player when double or triple teamed, Brown always gets the ball on the Steelers, be it with screens, deep passes, or from the backfield.
2 Big Ben
Whether we like it or not, this is a quarterback’s league. Just look at the team with one of the best coaches and defenses in the league in Arizona. They were once a Super Bowl contender and now few expect them to go into 7-8-1 Carolina and beat them, because they don’t have a QB. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco – they all made the playoffs. No rookies made it, nor did Kyle Orton or Case Keenum or Shaun Hill or Johnny Manziel lead the way from the bench. We can’t really figure out just what makes a quarterback great (because it seems completely intangible), but without a quality one, and they are scarce, you’re not going to win, let alone get to the postseason. The Steelers have a big, tough QB who can run, extend plays, and do whatever it takes to win, because he has already.
Most importantly, Pittsburgh can win a lot of ways and change their gameplan according to their opponent. They beat Kansas City with defense 20-12 in Week 16. They ran it to beat the Titans, gaining 206 rushing yards while handing the ball off to Bell 33 times (before kneeling twice, they ran the ball six straight plays to close out the game, and the Titans knew it was coming). Hosting the Ravens, they gained just 55 yards on the ground, but Roethlisberger threw six TDs to win. That came a week after he threw 49 times for 522 yards and six touchdowns to beat the Colts (he also threw 58 times in a loss to New Orleans). All of that is to say that the Steelers can grind out the ball on the ground, trade off big play touchdowns, play with a lead or play from behind. They can win a lot of ways, and that makes them dangerous and always in contention.