Yep, I really stepped in it. I'm hesitant to make prognostications, primarily because I'm always wrong (ROBO-PUNTER pick notwithstanding), so it should come as no surprise, then, that the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday, or, as I was calling it after the fact: Ken Whisenhunt's Super Bowl. Whatever. To channel Bill Cowher, it is what is it, and to channel Bill Belichick days after he was slapped on the wrist for cheating, we're looking forward to the Seahawks. And that's what I'll do.
But before I do -- you knew that was coming, right? -- I have to admit something: this loss didn't tear me up like, say, any of the eight losses from a season ago. Or the three-game losing streak back in '05. Part of the reason I touched on above: This was the Game of the Year for the Cards. They were playing for Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, and for respect from the rest of the league. This isn't so much an excuse for the Steelers, but as Amos Zereoue said every week during that fateful 2003 season, "those guys get paid too."
Arizona, despite the history of futility, is not a bad team. They've just been the victim of crappy ownership and suspect coaching. Until now, anyway. After Sunday's win, the Cards rank seventh in team efficiency, according to Football Outsiders (5th in offense, 12th in defense). I was the ringleader for the "Kurt Warner Is Still Washed Up" campaign and that blew up in my face. Sure, he wasn't in NFL MVP form, but he looked pretty damned good for a 36-year-old backup. Pittsburgh should've been so lucky to have such an option when Big Ben went down for a handful of games in 2005 (Oh, wait, they did … but Cowher went with Tommy Maddox instead).
The the seven-point loss was disappointing, no doubt, but my latest kick suggests that when two above-.500 teams get together, the results are much more likely due to chance. And last Sunday, Arizona got the bounces and Pittsburgh didn't. It happens, but I don't think it's indicative of a larger, season-long problem that will keep the Steelers out of the postseason.
In fact, if anything, I'm guessing Mike Tomlin will find a way to motivate his guys for this week's game against the Seahawks. In Wednesday's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, John Harris and Scott Brown had their weekly (dopey) point/counterpoint column, and Harris -- almost predictably, after consulting the NFL columnists in-season handbook, no dobut -- busted out the "is this Week 5 game a 'must-win?'" I'd paraphrase Tomlin's usual response to questions about the pressure of being Pittsburgh's third coach since 1969: "Pressure is being a single mom and providing for your family. This isn't pressure … it's a challenge." Same with Week-5 "must-win" games for teams sporting 3-1 records.
Obviously, I thought the Steelers would win the Cardinals game. And I feel the same way about the Seahawks this week. But a funny thing happened in the first month of the season. The allegedly strong AFC North fell flat on its face save Pittsburgh and a surprising Cleveland outfit, and the NFC West, supposedly one of the weakest divisions in football, has two teams in the top-7 of Football Outsiders efficiency rankings. Shocking, I know.
This isn't to say the Steelers should be worried about the Seahawks -- at least no more so than they worry about any opponent -- but it does point to how fluid the NFL is … the trip from the top to bottom is a short one: just ask the Bengals, who are on the express train. But -- and as a fan, there's always a but -- there are mitigating circumstances. I've already touched on one: the September Super Bowl in the Desert played a role in Sunday's outcome. Also, we all know how important Troy Polamalu is to Dick LeBeau's defense, but we seldom have the occasion to focus on Casey Hampton as he goes about doing his job because, well, it's kinda boring watching a 330-pound guy blow up double teams all day. You pay attention when Travis Kirshske's trying to do the job, though. It just reinforces how important Hampburglar is to the whole operation. I'd say he's more important than Polamalu.
I admit to overlooking Hines Wards' importance to this team. Like a bad partner, I've taken Ward for granted, and it came back to bite me in the ass. We all know Ward has the surest hands on the team, but when the Cards had eight defenders standing on the line of scrimmage and the Steelers only had seven willing blockers, those are the times that he's most missed. I want to get behind Nate Washington -- I really do -- but he continues to make the kind of mental mistakes that drive coaches and fans bonkers. Physical miscues, like dropping passes, are maddening, sure, but it's the little things that are harder to tolerate. Missing blocks, for example. Or running a go route at 100 percent for 30 yards, then 75 percent for 10 yards, and once the ball is in the air, kicking it back up to 100 percent … only to miss making a play by a half-step. AAARRGGGGHHH!
On the other hand, Santonio Holmes continues get better. I feel like I'm cheating on Hines every time I watch, bug-eyed, as Holmes makes another great catch and run. But it's a good problem to have.
(By the way, I have this ridiculous habit of calling players by their nicknames -- either real or imagined … by me -- during games. I've cleverly started calling Santonio "Shhhhhhhh" because: 1) those are his initials, and 2) he quiets the opposition with his play. I'm a genius, I know.)
I'm not willing to concede that Ward fixes the Steelers blocking ills, but if we're keeping score, the offensive line has had three solid efforts and one stink bomb. And before you point out that the Cardinals were the best front seven Pittsburgh's faced this year, I'd remind you that the 49ers weren't far behind. Cleveland and Buffalo were jokes, so controlling for opponent, Pittsburgh's o-line is effectively 1-1 against good competition. Seattle's defense -- strong against the pass and the rush -- will present another test. And this time, it's no one's Super Bowl … just another Week 5 game in the NFL. Which still makes it pretty important, I guess.
So much for 16-0
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