This was the Pittsburgh Steelers team people expected to see throughout the 2006 season.
A dominant defense, solid special-teams play and an explosive running game propelled the Steelers to their fifth win in six games Sunday at Carolina, 37-3.
But now, instead of simply watching the Steelers play, fans will also watch what's going on around the league.
Heck, even the Steelers admit to being forced to scoreboard watch at this point.
"The toughest thing about this is having your playoff hopes in somebody else's hands," said linebacker Joey Porter. "I don't like being in this situation, to tell you the truth. We have to watch and see if this team does this and that team does that; we shouldn't even be in this situation. But we can't cry over spilled milk now. That's the situation we're in. All we can do is cheer for the teams we need to cheer for and take care of business ourselves."
Things just seem to keep breaking the Steelers' way. In each of their last three games – in which they've given up only 13 points – they've faced a backup quarterback. Outside of Jacksonville's romp over Indianapolis last week, the teams they've needed to lose have lost games that have allowed the Steelers to be mentioned as a playoff contender.
But even at that, it probably won't be enough for this team to make the playoffs.
The Steelers can certainly be a spoiler, though. It's a role they started Sunday by ending Carolina's playoff hopes. They will be in that role next week at Heinz Field against Baltimore, a team in the hunt to receive a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. Finally, there is the possibility the Steelers could knock the Bengals out of the playoffs with a victory in Cincinnati the final week of the season.
Sure, the Steelers would love to finish 9-7 and make the playoffs. And right now, if they did get in, you'd have to give them a good shot at winning the whole thing again. Why not? They won the Super Bowl last season in a similar situation.
But some of those games Pittsburgh gave away early in the season – at Oakland and Atlanta, in particular – will likely be enough to keep this team out of the postseason.
When you saw the Steelers play as they did against the Panthers, you can't help but wonder where that has been all season. It was a dominant effort. Sure, it came against the likes of Chris Weinke, a quarterback who owns a 1-17 record as a starter. But Carolina's defense is still pretty good. And the Steelers' offense pretty much had its way with that defense.
When the season is over, the Steelers will have plenty of time to reflect on the things that went wrong – things that kept them from defending their Super Bowl title.
And they'll only have to look in the mirror to find the culprits.
As they have proven over the last six weeks, this is still a pretty good football team. It just didn't play like one all season long.
© At the beginning of this season, the Steelers' coaching staff made a choice of keeping tight end Tim Euhus over cornerback Chidi Iwuoma, one of their best special teams players.
Iwuoma was brought back last week because of injuries in the secondary. Euhus was released back in September.
All Iwuoma did Sunday was make a great open-field tackle on Carolina's first punt return Sunday and finished the game with two special teams tackles. Couldn't have used that all season, huh?
Then again, Iwuoma did injure his arm during the game and had it in a sling in the locker room. He's not the biggest guy and had gotten banged up in the past few seasons.
But he sure does give his all on special teams.
© Speaking of special teams, James Harrison said his punt block Sunday came from film study.
"He did what I saw him do on film, which was try to just give me a one-handed block before releasing," said Harrison, giving me a shove with his arm to demonstrate how Kortez Hankton liked to block. "I knew I'd have an opportunity to block one today."
I was just glad Harrison was in a good mood.
Shame on Carolina, however, for trying to block Harrison with Hankton, a wide receiver.
© Anthony Smith's one-handed interception in the fourth quarter was a thing of beauty. His high-stepping to the sidelines during a live play was not and drew the ire of both head coach Bill Cowher and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who I've never seen that angry.
"I didn't appreciate his gesture," Cowher said. "We don't do that around here. He understood that. You won't ever see that again."
Smith is a keeper and also had some big hits in the game. He also learned an important rookie lesson early in the third quarter when he got run over by running back DeShaun Foster when Foster caught Smith flat-footed.
© Chad Brown's season – and career – are likely over. Brown suffered a serious knee injury Sunday. It's too bad a classy vet like Brown has to have his career end that way.
© Was it just me or did Cedrick Wilson look like a shortstop firing the ball to first base from deep in the hole on his end around pass?
Wilson threw the pass so hard he knocked Hines Ward over with it.
Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.