The Weakness Of The AFC East Has Contributed To The Patriots Dynasty

When I first started writing about football on a regular basis–almost a decade ago now–I wrote about how the Patriots ongoing status as a Super Bowl contender could be linked somewhat to the ongoing incompetence of the AFC East, New England’s divisional home.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Little did I know way back when that, not only would the Patriots still be a Super Bowl contender in 2019–they just won their sixth Lombardi trophy with a 13-3 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII–the rest of the teams in the AFC East would be even worse now than they were then.

As a Steelers fan who is somewhat jealous and a little resentful of New England’s success, you might say I’m just looking for excuses when I state that the Patriots’ have benefited from a very weak division.

  • But how can that be so easily dismissed?

When you look around the NFL, how many teams have benefited from a continued lack of competitiveness from not just one, not just two, but all three divisional opponents?

Since the Patriots run started in 2001, the other three teams that remained in the AFC East after divisional alignment in 2002 — more on that later — have combined to make the playoffs 10 times. And only the Jets (2002) and Dolphins (2008) have managed to unseat New England as divisional champs. New York actually managed to make the playoffs six times over the first decade of the Patriots’ run, but haven’t been back to the postseason since 2010. As for Miami, only three playoff appearances since 2001–including just one since 2008. And what about the Bills?

  • My goodness, they’ve been so bad, they’ve only made the playoffs one time since Bill Clinton’s second term as President of the United States.

If you calculate the win-loss totals of every other AFC East team since 2001, the Patriots have been dealing with a 7-9 opponent, which is pretty much on par with what the Steelers have had to contend with in the AFC North over that same period of time.

  • If that’s the case, where is the advantage for the Patriots?

The numbers are a little misleading. First of all, every team in the AFC East has been inept, with only the Jets and Rex Ryan managing to put up a fight (remember the “I didn’t come here to kiss the Patriots rings” comment when Ryan was first hired to coach the Jets)? And, again, that was a decade ago.

As for the AFC North, the Browns have been so bad since 2001 — a grand-total of 90 wins–it totally skews the numbers. While Cleveland has been the laughingstock of the NFL since coming back into the league as an expansion team in 1999, Pittsburgh’s other two opponents in the AFC North — the Ravens and Bengals — have done what most other teams do when one particular divisional opponent has had the upper-hand too long: they’ve made it their goal to stop it.

To be fair, the Bengals overall record since 2001 has been on par with New England’s divisional opponents, but Cincinnati has managed to make the playoffs seven times since 2005 and has captured the AFC North title four times.

As for Baltimore, now we’re talking about a legitimate foe, one that simply refused to sit back and allow the Steelers to reign supreme. Equipped with a great infrastructure — including the owner, general manager and two excellent head coaches — the Ravens have made the playoffs 10 times, won the division five times and won the Super Bowl one time since 2001 (and it would be disingenuous to discount Baltimore’s Super Bowl victory following the 2000 season, which makes what the Steelers have had to contend with over the past two decades seem even more arduous).

Following the Steelers incredible comeback victory over Baltimore in the divisional round of the playoffs after the 2010 regular season, the Ravens made it their offseason mission to upend the black and gold in 2011. What followed was a two-game sweep, which enabled the Ravens to capture the AFC North and a bye on a tiebreaker, while Pittsburgh had to travel to play Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos on Wildcard Weekend (you remember how that ended).

One year after suffering a heartbreaking loss to New England in the AFC title game, the Ravens captured their second Lombardi trophy with a victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Bottom line, the Steelers, like very other team in the National Football league, have been held in-check and been held accountable by their divisional foes (and then some).

  • With very few exceptions, the Patriots haven’t had to deal with accountability from their AFC East foes.

While Drew Brees and the Saints must contend with Matt Ryan and the Falcons and Cam Newton and the Panthers just to escape the NFC South every year, for example, New England begins each season with five or six divisional wins essentially in the bank.

If you’re married, you know how your work can suffer when things are tough to deal with at home. The Patriots have had nothing but domestic bliss since the day they became serious contenders almost two decades ago.

And it’s pretty ridiculous that the other teams in their division have been so bad for so long. Where’s the pride? Where’s the willingness to build a program to take New England down a notch or two? Just because you must deal with the great Bill Belichick and the GOAT Tom Brady twice a season doesn’t mean you have to play like garbage in your other 14 games.

Do you think the Packers, Eagles, Giants or Broncos would sit back and allow a divisional opponent to walk all over them for so long? It’s almost like the rest of the AFC East is just waiting for the Patriots run to end so they can come out from hiding.

Speaking of GOATs, Peyton Manning and the Colts were still in the AFC East in 2001 before divisional realignment moved Indianapolis to the newly-created AFC South a year later. Had the Patriots been forced to deal with Manning and the Colts juggernaut twice a year over the next decade-and-a-half, it seems unlikely that their run would have been as sustained and successful.

  • We’ll never know for sure, of course. But we do know what the Patriots have had to deal with in Manning’s absence in terms of formidable divisional foes.

Not much.

You can call it an excuse and maybe it is, but there is no question the Patriots historic run has been aided greatly by a division that has done very little to stand in their way.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Patriots – Just a Blip or Realizing Their Potential Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher wondering whether he’s just seen another momentary upward blip from his star students or a true ascent towards realizing their potential, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the New England Patriots.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Quarterback
For the Steelers to prevail in a Brady vs Ben duel, one would think that Ben Roethlisberger would need to have one of his best days as a pro. Yet, Fantasy owners who started Ben Roethlisberger likely regretted it, as Ben’s overall numbers were pedestrian. The truth is that Ben didn’t have a banner day against the Patriots, but he made the throws the Steelers needed him to make to win. Grade: B

Steelers, Report Card, grades,Running Backs
Stevan Ridley’s revenge ambitions drew attention going into this game and Ridley did an excellent job of getting the Steelers out of danger with his 12 yard run from Pittsburgh’s one. However, the real star of the show was Jaylen Samuels who rushed for 142 yards on 19 carries and displayed incredible instincts by staying in bounds late in the game. Roosevelt Nix wasn’t used often, but as usual he was effective. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald scored the Steelers first touchdown and forced his way to extra yards to earn a third down on the Steelers final scoring drive. Jesse James had one catch for 9 yards. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown caught the Steelers second touchdown, which JuJu Smith-Schuster help set up with two electrifying catches, and Eli Rogers made his presence known with a couple of key 3rd down conversions. But the real star of the show was James Washington who led the Steelers in both catches and yards and for the first time looked like he really belonged. Grade: A

Offensive Line
The Patriots got more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger than has been the norm this season, but the offensive line provided pass protection when it was needed the most, and Alejandro Villanueva’s block on the second touchdown serves as a great example. But the line’s biggest contribution to the win came in the run blocking it provided as it almost seemed to have symbiotic relationship with Jaylen Samuels. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
The Patriots had some success running the ball, but the Steelers also limited them at key moments in the game. Likewise, while the sack numbers weren’t there, the QB pressures were and a good number of those plays were made by the defensive line, as evidenced by Stephon Tuitt’s 2 QB hits. Grade: A-

Linebackers
In statistical terms,it was largely a quiet day for the Steelers linebackers, although Vince Williams and Anthony Chickillo had success in dropping ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. Patriot rushers made it to the second level a number of times, but they didn’t get far when they did, and the Steelers linebackers deserve a lot of credit for that. Grade: A-

T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Secondary
Where to start? Play-by-play stats would appear to indicate that Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett handled the bulk of the duties when it came to shutting down Rob Gronkowski and the number show that the duo delivered. Those same stats also show that Coty Sensabaugh did his part to shut down the Patriots.

Mike Hilton came in second in the team on tackles, behind Joe Haden, who snatched a throw way jump ball from the air to stop the Patriots cold and get the ball back for the Steelers. The unit did give up an easy touchdown, which brings their grade down, albeit slightly. Grade: A-

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer had one return for 27 yards. Jordan Berry did not have any returnable punts, and the Steelers attempted no returns. Chris Boswell missed another field goal, but unlike last week, he redeemed himself with a 48 yarder – no small feat at Heinz Field. Grade: C

Coaching
Honesty check: If I’d told you one team would have 14 penalties called on it and the other 4, you’d have guessed the Steelers self-destructed with penalties, again. No worries, I’d have said the same. But it was the Patriots who kept scuttling their own drives with penalties.

Unlike one week ago, Randy Fichnter appears to have gone into the game intent on establishing the run, and he deserves credit for designing plays that maximized Jaylen Samuels unique skill set. The Steelers lined up regularly with empty sets, but still ended up with well over 100 yards rushing.

More importantly, when the coaching staff saw that Samuels could move the ball, they gave him more opportunities to do so which was a difference maker in the game.

  • Keith Butler’s defense has taken a lot of heat in recent weeks, and for good reason.

    Steelers locker room, Alejandro Villanueva

    Steelers locker room. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Thus far the Steelers defense has been chronically incapable of closing games. Yet the Steelers defense not only ensured that the Patriots didn’t on two Steelers turnovers, it also secured one of their own the Red Zone.

The Patriots reached the Red Zone as time was about to expire, but unlike previous weeks, the Steelers defense delivered.

  • Finally, there’s the job that Mike Tomlin has done.

While momentum is often oversold in today’s NFL, losing, particularly in December, can have a snowball effect. The Steelers had lost three tough games and things could have easily spun out of control. Yet Tomlin got his team to stay focused on the Patriots, and doubled down on his investment of trust in his players, which in turn fostered trust within the locker room. The results speak for themselves. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Normally a 1 sack performance indicates a putrid pass rush. Yet the Steelers got in Tom Brady’s face early and often, and while they only brought him down once, they flushed him from the pocket numerous times and forced him to rush his throw.

While the entire Steelers defense deserves credit for this achievement, Tom Brady’s to biggest antagonizes were T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward and, for that, they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

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Steelers Defeat Patriots 17-10 as Mike Tomlin Trusts Defense, Boswell and They Deliver

The Pittsburgh Steelers history against the New England Patriots in the 21st century is a miserable. New England has beaten Pittsburgh 11 of 14 contests, and most of those haven’t even been close.

  • Sunday, the story was different as the Steelers beat the Patriots 17-14 in an electrifying win at Heinz Field.

Mike Tomlin appropriately termed it a team victory. But the essential ingredient to the win came from Tomlin himself: Trust.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

If You’d Have Told Me….

The Steelers came reeling into this game on a 3 game losing streak. And while the Patriots looked vulnerable, the Steelers would need to do a lot of things right to win this game. And if you’d had told me….

…That James Conner would not play
…That T.J. Watt would log the sole sack of Tom Brady
…That Rob Gronkowski would put the Patriots into the Red Zone inside the 2 minute warning
…That Ben Roethlisberger would face the fiercest pass rush of the season
…That Chris Boswell would miss yet another makeable field goal
…That the Steelers wouldn’t see the end zone in the 2nd half

I’d have told you that the Steelers would lose in no uncertain terms. Yet all of the statements above were true, but the Steelers pulled out a win.

How the Steelers Won

The Steelers won the game because at every critical juncture, players stepped it up and made plays. Pittsburgh set the tone for this on the opening drive, highlighted by Jaylen Samuels ripping off a 25 yard run and making each of his other 3 touches count. Eli Rogers stepped up and helped convert a critical first down.

  • Vance McDonald delivered in the end zone putting the Steelers up by 7 at the 8:40 mark in a rare opening drive touchdown.

While the Steelers essentially gifted the Patriots a touchdown on the next drive, no one in Pittsburgh blinked. The Patriots got the ball back four other times in the second half, and each time it ended with a Ryan Allen punt.

The Steelers defense didn’t put on much of a fireworks show in the first half. They didn’t make any “Splash plays.” Yet, each time New England attempted to convert a third down, Sean Davis, Mike Hilton Vince Williams or Joe Haden was there to stop them short, while T.J. Watt seemed to be in Tom Brady’s face, even if he wasn’t bringing him down.

By the time Ben Roethlisberger took a knee to end the first half, the Steelers were up 14-7. Could they hold on…?

Tomlin Trusts in his Defense, Boswell and They Deliver

As the second half began, it looked like the answer was going to be “no.” The Steelers defense opened by forcing a punt after just 5 plays, and the offense marched all the way to the Patriot’s 4 yard line on the strength of two sensational James Washington catches.

  • Yet, it was déjà vu all over again in Pittsburgh as Chis Boswell missed on a 32 yard field goal.

The Patriots advanced to the Steelers 10 where Terrell Edmunds stopped Julian Edelman cold, limiting New England to a field goal. Yet 5 plays into the next drive, the Patriots intercepted a deflected pass to Antonio Brown giving New England the ball at mid field.

  • All of the elements were in place for another Steelers 4th quarter meltdown.

A week ago, Mike Tomlin trusted in his defense and trusted in Chris Boswell, and they let him down. Against the Patriots, the Steelers defense delivered, as the Patriots advanced to the Steelers 16, only to have T.J. Watt force Tom Brady to throw the ball away as Joe Haden beat both Rob Gronkowski and Julian Elderman in a jump ball for an interception.

  • All season long fans have watched interceptions slip through the Steelers finger tips.
  • Finally, when they needed one they got one.

Starting from their own 4 with 7:43 left to play, the Steelers milked 5 minutes and 13 seconds off the clock in a drive that saw them move the chains four times. On third and 6 Ben Roethlisberger tried to connect with JuJu Smith-Schuster, but J.C. Jackson played it perfectly and the ball fell to the ground.

Mike Tomlin had a decision to make. New England was out of time outs, and a first down would have iced the game. A field goal would have given the Steelers a 7 point lead.

  • Mike Tomlin trusted in his kicker, and Chris Boswell rewarded that trust nailing a 48 yarder.

Now it was time for the Steelers defense to do what has been unable to do all year – prevent an opponent from making a game winning drive.

Tom Brady moved his team to the Red Zone, but Cam Heyward repeated forced him to rush his throws, and after 5 tries he was unable to connect with anyone in the end zone as Morgan Burnett defected his final pass.

Another Win = More Work to Do

Steelers Nation erupted into celebration as the final seconds ticked off the clock with Ben Roethlisberger taking a knee. That’s to be expected, as this is a victory that every fan who bleeds Black and Gold has been begging for.

  • As for the Steelers themselves?

David DeCastro explained to 247 Pittsburgh’s Jim Wexell, “No one’s too overjoyed. We hadn’t beaten this team since I’ve been here, so we’re happy. But we’re not overjoyed.” Given the precarious place Pittsburgh occupies in the AFC playoff picture, that’s exactly the attitude you need to hear out of this locker room.

 

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Loyalty vs Rationality: Does “Finding Room Temperature” = Another Upset for the 2018 Steelers?

Just a week ago you could muse that the Steelers might be on the verge of a breakout without risking being labeled as a hopeless homer. I did just that, asking if the Steelers recent troubles signaled that the team was regressing to the mean or if perhaps, Pittsburgh was primed for a serious playoff run.

“Regressing to the mean” is a nerdy statistical term that doesn’t seem to belong in a football blog. So a more illustrative way to think of what is going on is that the Steelers started the season morbidly cold, got red hot in October and early November, but are now finding room temperature in December.

  • And room temperature in December is pretty darn chilly (even here in Buenos Aires, where spring continues to mercifully hold summer at bay.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit:
Charlie Riedel, AP via PennLive.com

And that’s what’s going on. One could reasonably look at the Steelers performances in September and imagine this team contending for a top ten draft pick. By the time November arrived, they looked like AFC Championship, if not Super Bowl Championship material.

  • Now, outside of something extraordinary, they’re going to finish within spitting distance of .500.

But what does finding room temperature really mean for this group of Pittsburgh Steelers? Does it mean that the Steelers will tease but ultimately lose to the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints only to finish the season with a face-saving win over the Bengals?

  • Or does the process of finding “room temperature” also imply that the Steelers have another upset in them?

The way the Steelers have played, and more importantly, the plays they have chronically failed to make at critical junctures during losses to Denver, the Chargers and Raiders make it near impossible to trust this team.

If the law of averages governed outcomes of football games, what could we conclude? Well, let’s take a look at an interesting stat someone posted on Twitter:

That doesn’t seem promising, does it?

Yet, if already having dropped games to Oakland and Denver, it would almost seem like the odds favor the Steelers beating either New Orleans or New England. The Steelers positive performances would also seem to suggest that Pittsburgh is due for just one more fireworks display during this regular season.

  • And that’s what makes the prospect of an upset remains tantalizing.

And New England would seem to offer the best shot. Yes, the Patriots are the Patriots. And yes New England has owned Pittsburgh for a generation. And the Steelers are going to play the game without James Conners and with Stevan Ridley promising revenge against his former team (oh, I’m sure the threat of Ridley’s revenge has Bill Belichick quaking in his boots.)

Yet just a year ago, absent Ryan Shazier and absent Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell came within a Jesse James replay recalled touchdown of beating the Patriots.

  • And this Patriots team isn’t as good as last years.

But does the prospect of Artie Burns and Cam Sutton replacing Coty Sensabaugh and Mike Hilton inspire confidence that Steelers will finally crack the Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski riddle? No, it does not.

  • And that’s what makes these Steelers so hard to predict.

Aside from their own deficiencies, the ball has not bounced the Steelers way much this season. They seem due for a break. But remember, dice don’t have memories. Call me out for a cop out if you want, but I’m going to fall back on the Joe Gibbs party line that I heard so often growing up in the Washington D.C. suburbs, “I really don’t know what to expect.”

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Steelers Activate Eli Rogers, Place Marcus Gilbert on IR, Possibly Ending his Time in Pittsburgh

His “Questionable” listing aside, don’t expect the Steelers to have James Conner suit up against the Patriots, but Pittsburgh’s offense will welcome back a familiar face after a long absence. In a move that had been anticipated, the Steelers activated Eli Rogers.

The Steelers had until the middle of this coming week to activate Rogers or end his season by putting him on IR. With Ryan Switzer nursing an ailing ankle and James Washington still trying to build a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, activating Eli Rogers makes sense.

While it is unknown what his role will be, Eli Rogers could provide a good number 3 target to help take heat off of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Eli Rogers

Steelers activate Eli Rogers ahead of Patriots game. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Gilbert Goes on IR, Ending his Season, Possible Career with Steelers

Of course, to activate Eli Rogers meant the Steelers had to let someone go. The obvious candidate would be Trey Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds brother who was recently added from the practice squad. But with James Conner, Edmunds will serve as the emergency back behind Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels.

There are not too many “expendables” on the defensive side of the ball either, with Daniel McCullers or perhaps L.T. Walton being the only candidates.

  • As it turns out the elephant was sitting in the room.

The Steelers opted to put right tackle Marcus Gilbert on season-ending injured reserve to make way for Eli Rogers. Marcus Gilbert opened the season as the Steelers starter at right tackle, missed the Steelers week 3 win over Tampa Bay, returned for weeks 4, 5 and 6 but has been out since then.

Given that Marcus Gilbert also missed 7 games in 2017, and given that Gilbert is set to make close to 5 million dollars in the final year of his contract, one would have to think that the Steelers would consider moving on.

If that do, that will be a real shame, as Marcus Gilbert played a major role in the transformation of the Steelers offensive line from a unit cobbled together with a Plug and Patch approach, to one of the NFL’s best.

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With Steelers Playoff Fate In Doubt, Mike Tomlin Faces Toughest Coaching Challenge Of His Career

This hasn’t been a good week for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin following his team’s 24-21 playoff-damaging loss to the 2-10 (now 3-10) Raiders last Sunday at Oakland Alameda County Coliseum.

In addition to coming under fire for yet another road loss to a heavy underdog (Pittsburgh was favored by 11.5 points), Mike Tomlin is feeling media, fan and even former player wrath for his coaching decisions in Oakland that included keeping his franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, stationed on the sidelines for the majority of the second half after he sustained bruised ribs late in the second quarter.

  • That’s one of the acute coaching symptoms that has the masses in an uproar this week.

A chronic symptom would be Mike Tomlin’s poor clock-management skills as evidenced by his failure to properly use his timeouts when the Raiders had a first and goal with less than two minutes remaining and were driving for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin faces the biggest challenge of his coaching career. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Then, of course, there’s Mike Tomlin’s inability to rebuild the defense as well as his team’s perceived lack of discipline and preparation.

  • Should Tomlin be fired as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers?
  • Should he, at the very least, be placed firmly, and uncomfortably, on the hot seat?

If you’re a long-time detractor of Mike Tomlin, this week has probably been heavenly bliss, considering both questions have been asked ad nauseam. However, if you’re also a long-time supporter of the Steelers, you better hope Mike Tomlin can pull off perhaps his best coaching job over the final three weeks of the regular season.

Because, no matter what you may think of the man, his body of work speaks for itself, and he certainly didn’t amass such a lofty resume — one that includes 11-straight non-losing seasons, six AFC North titles, two AFC championships and a Lombardi trophy — by accident.

In other words, Mike Tomlin may be in a coaching slump these days, but he’s certainly more than capable of coaching his football teams out of funks, something he’s been able to do time and time again. The jury may still be out on 2018, but Tomlin  never lost a football team in the past, not after his franchise quarterback got suspended to start the 2010 season; not after his football team started 0-4 and 2-6 to begin the 2013 season.

  • And that brings me to the next two games, and the huge challenge Mike Tomlin and his charges face.

Losers of three-straight games, the Steelers (7-5-1) may still occupy first place in the AFC North by a half-a-game over the Ravens, but with match-ups against perennial juggernaut New England this week and 2018 buzz-saw New Orleans in Week 16 looming on the horizon, that lead seems tenuous and temporary.

But while Mike Tomlin’s reputation for having his team’s ill-prepared against huge underdogs is well-founded (since Tomlin became the Steelers head coach in 2007, road teams favored by nine points or more are 58-15, with Pittsburgh accounting for five of those losses), his reputation for having his guys ready to play against marquee opponents is also legit.

  • That goes back to never losing a locker room or your football team.

That’s all about knowing how to circle the wagons. That’s all about knowing how to come out swinging when your back is firmly against the wall. That’s all about never blinking in the face of adversity.

  • The Steelers face some serious adversity right now.

How will they respond? At the moment, very few people give Pittsburgh a chance to defeat  New England this week, which is unfortunate since the 2018 version seems vastly inferior to many Patriots teams of yesterday.

The Patriots mystique is a strong one: “Oh no, the Patriots are going to be fighting mad after losing to the Dolphins!” However, the 2018 Patriots are more myth than they are reality. They’re definitely ripe for the picking, and if the Steelers were rolling the way they were in 2017, no doubt you’d have to like their chances.

But with the exception of last season, when they came into the match-up riding an eight-game winning-streak, the Steelers never seem to play New England at the right time. Three years ago, it was as the dreaded road team in the Thursday night regular season kickoff in Week 1.

A year later, the match-up with the Patriots came one week after Ben Roethlisberger suffered a torn meniscus in a game against the Dolphins, thrusting Landry Jones into the starting lineup. And, obviously, this season, the match-up takes place when the Steelers seem to be in an irreversible death spiral.

  • Can the Steelers stop their slide in time and do so by knocking off legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the process?

If they do, this will likely lead to a playoff spot. And if it leads to a playoff spot, Mike Tomlin might finally be worthy of your praise. Will you give it to him?

It doesn’t really matter at this point. What matters is whether or not Mike Tomlin can pull off a coaching performance befitting his coaching resume.

The Steelers 2018 season depends on it.

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Recent AFC Trends Suggest Steelers Aren’t Among Conference’s Best

No matter how people broke things down or what record they may have predicted heading into the 2018 regular season, there’s no question the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were considered Super Bowl contenders.

Even after an 0-1-1 start that includes a tie with the Browns and loss to the Chiefs in-which the Steelers defense was totally embarrassed by Patrick Mahomes, it would be foolish to give up on a true Super Bowl contender this early in the year.

  • But that would only be if we’re talking about a true contender, something recent trends suggest the Steelers are not.

Why do I say that? Because the Steelers have lost three straight games–all at home–to teams that are among the best the AFC has to offer.

Ben Roethlisberger, Myles Garret, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie

Myles Garrett sacks Ben Roethlisberger in Steelers tie with Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, PennLive.com

The first loss came last December 17, when the Patriots stunned Pittsburgh with a 27-24 victory that many thought was a miscarriage of justice, thanks to the controversial reversal of a Jesse James touchdown with just seconds remaining.

Had Jesse James touchdown stood, it would have likely given the Steelers a 31-27 victory and the inside track to capture the AFC’s top seed. OK, if the reversal of the Jesse James’ touchdown indeed was a miscarriage of justice, how can I hold that against Mike Tomlin and Co.?

Because Mike Tomlin, former offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appeared to panic (or at least failed to communicate properly) during the sequence of plays that followed the reversal, and Roethlisberger wound up throwing an ill-advised pass that was deflected and intercepted in the end zone.

  • There’s no way that game should have ended in regulation.

To make things brief, I will just combine the last two games that saw the Steelers defense yield a grand total of 827 yards and 80 points in back-to-back losses to the Jaguars and Chiefs.

The loss to Jacksonville last January 14 came in a playoff game at Heinz Field and put an end to a 2017 campaign in-which the Steelers, who finished 13-3 during the regular season, appeared to be destined for a rematch with New England in the AFC Championship game.

As for Week 2’s defeat to Kansas City, the performance of the defense was so alarming, it made one absolutely dread the regular season rematch with the Patriots this December at Heinz Field.

  • As I said, it is really early, and the Steelers wouldn’t be the first team to start a season slowly before showing its true championship colors.

However, 2017, one in-which they struggled to defeat some of the more mediocre teams in the NFL on a weekly basis, often needing kicker Chris Boswell to bail them out with game-winning field goals in the final seconds, may have been the true colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers–maybe it just took the top contenders in the AFC to flesh them out.

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NFL Approves the Jesse James Rule. Now Steelers Nation Needs to Get Over It and Move On

Its official. The NFL has approved the Jesse James Rule, modifying what exactly counts as “a catch” in the pro football. Now receivers no longer must “survive the ground” but merely establish possession, two feet in bounds, and make a football move or an ability to make one (whatever that means.)

  • On other words Jesse James touchdown catch against the New England Patriots would now, in fact be a touchdown catch.

It says here that the NFL made the right decision, however belated it might be. The Jesse James non-catch in the Steelers December loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field represents everything that wrong with the way the NFL is officiating professional football. Take a look for yourself:

Remember, the Steelers were on the ropes. The Patriots had just taken the lead and the Steelers got the ball back with 52 seconds left and one time out. Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for what had to have been the most electrifying 69 yard pass in Pittsburgh Steelers history.

  • Then Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James to seemingly put the Steelers ahead with 34 seconds remaining.

Jesse James, Steelers vs Patriots, Jesse James Touchdown Patriots, Jesse James Rule

Thanks to the Jesse James rule, this would have been a touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Yet, instead of the extra point and furious attempt by the Patriots to rally in less than 30 seconds, football fans were treated to…

…Several minutes of dead air space, while some guy in a suit sat there in New York, reviewing the play frame-by-frame, back and forth, from 15 different angles and ultimately reversedthe call.

  • Instead of most valuable player being someone who did something on the field, NFL officiating czar Alberto Riveron had the most influence on the game’s outcome.

Hat’s off to the NFL Competition Committee and the owners for doing the right thing. Now Steelers Nation must follow suit:

  • Get over the Jesse James Catch/non-catch and move on.

That’s right you heard it. Get over it and move on. Did the Steelers get screwed? Yep, they did, especially when you consider that the NFL secretly modified the rule going into the Super Bowl. Is the play indicative of much of what ails football? Yes, as discussed above.

But you know what? The impact of this call has grown exponentially since that December evening. To listen to some Steelers Nation citizens, it is almost as if the Immaculate Reception had been nullified. It pains me to say this, but Steelers fans whining about the play is almost reaching the level of Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl XL excuse making.

Enough with the “What Could Have Been”

The Steelers loss to the Patriots cost them the first seed in the AFC playoffs, which brought the Jacksonville Jaguars to Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. And we shant say who won that one. But some in Steelers Nation seem to hold Alberto Riveron responsible for that shellacking. He’s not. Let’s look at why.

Go back to the Patriots game itself and review what the Steelers could have done in the 28 seconds after the touchdown reversal.

  • Pittsburgh could have kicked field goal to tie the game. They chose not to.
  • Darrius Heyward-Bey could have dropped the pass to stop the clock. He did not.
  • The Steelers could have clocked the ball and called their final play on their terms. They did not.
  • Ben Roethlisberger could have tried to do something other than force the ball to Eli Rogers in triple coverage. He did not.

OK, the referees could have penalized the Patriots for blatant pass interference on Eli Rogers. They did not.

NFL football teams do not get to choose when they suffer bad calls, only they get to choose on how they react afterwards. Perhaps the ensuing chaos was a straw that broke the camel’s back in Ben Roethlisberger’s fractured relationship with Todd Haley. Maybe the cause lie elsewhere. It matters not. The Steelers weren’t ready.

But let’s imagine that the Steelers had  had scored. Are you so sure that Pittsburgh’s defense would have stopped Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski, the same combo at annihilated the Steelers in the 4th quarter? I’m not.

  • But let’s say the Steelers defense holds. Can Steelers Nation jump to the conclusion that today Lombardi Number 7  is getting polished on the South Side?
  • No you cannot.

In a playoff game at Heinz Field, with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have a fair shot at beating the New England Patriots. But which outcome are you more certain of? A decisive Steelers win, or a game that goes down to the wire?

My money’s on the game doing down to the wire. Let’s say Pittsburgh beats the Patriots in the playoffs.

  • Would the Steelers have prevailed against the Eagles in Super Bowl LII?

It is possible. But if the Ryan Shazierless Steelers defense was powerless to stop Leonard Fournette, is there any reason to think that they stopped LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi? And while we’re at it, let’s remember that this same Philadelphia defense humiliated the the Steelers offense to 3 points the last time the two teams faced.

The Steelers got wronged by the NFL on that fateful December day. But the truth is that the Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion dealt a far graver blow to Steelers 2017 Super Bowl chances the Jesse James non-catch, non-touchdown replay reversal.

Steelers fans need to accept that and move on.

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In the End, Pennsylvania Delivers. Eagles Super Bowl Win Preserves Steelers “Sixburgh” Status

The message of Super Bowl LII, for Pittsburgh at least? In the end, count on Pennsylvania to deliver. The Philadelphia Eagles brought the first ever Lombardi Trophy back to the City of Brotherly love with a thrilling 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots that went all the way to the wire.

  • Nick Foles, Jeffery Lurie and all of the Philadelphia fans fully deserve all of the celebration and accolades that come with this win.

The Eagles earned it, they overcame adversity and they never lost faith in themselves even when they were playing their backup quarterback. They humbled the mighty Tom Brady and while they didn’t stop, they contained Gronk. Good for them.

They also did the franchise that sits down on the opposite end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike a bit of a favor by preventing New England from netting its 6 Lombardi and preserving the Steelers status as the only football team to win six Super Bowls.

  • So, for another year at least, Pittsburgh is “Sixburgh” and the Steelers Nation can proudly tease the rest of the NFL, “Got Six?”

That doesn’t make up for the disappointment that was the 2017 season. But its nice to see some of the Steelers records intact, even another franchise has to do the dirty work.

Tom Brady, Brandon Graham, Super Bowl LII

Tom Brady following Brandon Graham’s strip sack in Super Bowl LII. Photo Credit: Matt Stone, Boston Herald

In 2014, the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell going into the playoffs and the team was not ready. As a result, New England tied Chuck Noll’s record. In 2015, the Steelers reached the divisional round without DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Brown and with a less than 100% Ben Roethlisberger. The Broncos stopped the Patriots anyway, but one has to wonder if Pittsburgh would have been up to the task.

Last year the 2016 Steelers Super Bowl run petered out in the AFC Championship, as Steelers again lost Bell early on, while Martavis Bryant was out suspended and JuJu Smith-Schuster was yet to be drafted.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers were of course the first team to win 3, 4 and 6 Super Bowls.

The franchise was good at setting those records, but not so good at defending them. Even with Hall of Famers  like Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson, the likes of Bubby Brister, Louis Lipps and Merril Hoge weren’t going to stop the 49ers from getting to 4 in the 80’s.

And of course the 1994 Steelers blew their chance to face off against the 49ers in the Super Bowl, and a year later in Super Bowl XXX Neil O’Donnell to Larry Brown paved the way for Dallas, not Pittsburgh to reach 5 Super Bowls first.

So be it. You always prefer to count on yourselves and never on another team to defend franchise honor. The Seahawks came up short, and the Falcons folded in the 4th last year. But our fellow Pennsylvanians the Philadelphia Eagles delivered. Thank You Philly.

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Sight of Ryan Shazier Standing with Ben Roethlisberger Offers a Lesson for Steelers Nation

Even if we admit that Steelers Nation is spoiled (we are) the fact is Steelers fans have had a rough 61 days. But yesterday the news out of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center gave every Black and Gold bleeding Steelers fan something to smile about.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so:

Ryan Shazier, Ben Roethlisberger, Shazier Roethlisberger UPMC, Ryan Shazier UPMC

Ryan Shazier with Ben Roethlisberger at UPMC. Photo Credit: Ryan Shazier Instragram, via the Tribune Review

The sight of Ryan Shazier standing alongside Ben Roethlisberger is a sight for sore eyes. It was just 61 days ago that we watched Ryan Shazier made a seemingly routine tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals only to roll over pointing at his back.

  • Word was, even a few days afterward that Shazier would walk again.

Yet, the inside linebacker has been in a wheelchair in every image relased since then. Until now. Shazier has some sort of brace on his leg, it looks like he’s holding onto something for balance with his right hand and his wheel chair, which he used to leave the hospital, is visible in the background.

  • But Ryan Shazier is standing on his own and you have to stand before you can walk.

And, the image of Ryan Shazier standing upright offers an important lesson for everyone in Steelers Nation:

Complain about Jesse James touchdown/non-touchdown vs the Patriots. Gripe about the spectacle of the Steelers cutting James Harrison, then watching James Harrison sign with the Patriots and help them get to the Super Bowl. Moan about Le’Veon Bell‘s contract talk and his tardiness. Whine about Pittsburgh’s piss poor performance against the Jaguars. Ridicule Randy Fichtner’s reverses to Antonio Brown in the Pro Bowl….

Steelers fans might think they’ve had to “endure” a lot, they might argue that taking Mike Tomlin to task without insisting that Art Rooney II fire him amounts to hollow criticism, but let’s be honest folks, no one in Steelers Nation has had a tougher stretch in these last 61 days than Ryan Shazier. And its not even close.

  • Ryan Shazier standing next to Ben Roethlisberger signals he’s turned an important corner in his recovery.

Perhaps it should also signal to both the franchise and fan base that its time to put a disappointing end to the 2017 season in the past and firmly focus on 2018.

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