Those were games with built-in excuses, natural stumbling blocks in any regular season. Sunday's game was against the best, on a stage, and the loss was complete. And it stings.
The New England Patriots were supposed to be the measuring stick for the fully prepared Steelers. But, as Mike Tomlin said, "If that was the measuring stick, we're not close."
So it appears the Steelers' path to a Super Bowl – the only expectation for their fans – is blocked by a team they wouldn't be able to beat if the game went on for a week.
Of course, the same hopelessness existed two years and two weeks ago. That was a time when the seemingly invincible Indianapolis Colts made fools of the Steelers on the national stage, and they did it in similar fashion: A precise quarterback made a young defensive back bite early in the game to hit his Superman wide receiver for a long touchdown pass that opened the gates to a three-touchdown margin of victory.
The Steelers bounced back from that loss in a big way of course. Their left tackle got healthy, they came up with a new role – "closer" – for their big, back-up running back, and they changed their offensive play-calling philosophy to one of passing on run downs and running on pass downs by the time they next met the Colts in the playoffs. The rest is history.
Can the Steelers again make such strides? The hopelessness inside says no way. But never doubt the resiliency of anyone, anything, that's hit rock bottom. That's the positive side of being beaten up, embarrassed, and exposed.
So, along with human nature, there are potential changes to be made. Some of these might cut the gap between the Steelers and Patriots:
1. A healthy Troy Polamalu. No, Polamalu's not having his best season, but don't tell Dick LeBeau that. If there's anyone on the team he wants on the field for the NEXT play, it's Troy. Perhaps the Steelers could use him at free safety, or perhaps he's the one guy with enough quickness to get to Tom Brady off the corner. That's the least of what he'll add: needed quickness.
2. An emerging Lawrence Timmons. Right, the rookie linebacker may not be able to cover Wes Welker, but he'd do a better job of it than Clark Haggans. To be serious, though, Timmons, together with Polamalu, would give the Steelers two more quick-twitch athletes against the five who catch Brady's passes. And even though Timmons is more coverage backer than pass-rusher, he'd get to Brady quicker than Haggans or Larry Foote or Ty Carter or Anthony Smith, to name a few.
3. Special teams. This one just hangs on the wish list from year-to-year, week-to-week, but the bust known as Chad Jackson can't be returning kickoffs to midfield for Brady. It just can't happen. Joshua Cribbs? Sure. Chad Jackson? No stinkin' way.
4. A healthy Santonio Holmes. Without him, the Steelers don't stand a chance against the Patriots. The Bengals, yes, but not the Pats. Aside from his ability to stretch the field, Holmes is another red-zone threat. The Pats have the worst red-zone defense in the NFL, but they tied up Hines Ward and Heath Miller on Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger had Holmes isolated on Randall Gay in the end zone – and Holmes is certainly tough enough to catch and hold on to any fastball – but Roethlisberger overthrew him on third down.
5. Get physical. Not after plays, or during extra-points, but at the line of scrimmage with receivers. Giving a cushion to Brady has NEVER worked. Coaches use soft coverage because they don't think a quarterback can execute all the way down the field without making a mistake. But Brady can. Does. Will.
7. Enough of the play-action. The Steelers cut it out of the game plan against the Bengals and Roethlisberger wasn't touched. Were they trying to set up Bill Belichick? The Steelers called three play-action passes against the Pats and the result was two sacks that killed drives and a pressure-induced incompletion. The linemen just can't hold their blocks that long.
8. Don't play their run. It's the flip-side of No. 7. Let them run. Play cover 2 and don't bite on play-action or laterals. In fact, let your safeties jam the receivers at the line and let the corners play the receivers deep. Invert your secondary because, remember, we're not worrying about the Patriots' run game. Deshea Townsend could come up to make the tackle if needed, but his priority should be the deep receiver.
9. Stop being so nice. The Steelers don't have to make like Arnold Harrison and splatter someone in the back after the whistle, but enough of the I-respect-the-heck-out-of-you hugs and butt slaps after plays. Let James Harrison take the coin flip by himself in the rematch.
10. And, of course, everyone, altogether now: KEEP YOUR MOUTHS SHUT. Let that be the last word.