By Jeremy Hritz
This is it, the final game of the 2013 Steelers season.
Or is it?
Heading into week 17, the Pittsburgh Steelers still have a chance to sneak into the postseason, if by chance the stars happen to align.
Everything was in order this past week, as not only did the Steelers win a hard-fought game in Green Bay, but the Patriots, Bills, and Jets also won.
Now if only that momentum can keep rolling forward in the positive direction for the Steelers this week with a win against Cleveland, and they benefit from wins by the Jets, Bengals, and Chiefs.
This has been a unique season for Pittsburgh, and despite however bleak and abhorrent things have looked at times, the team battled and turned what could have easily been a 4-12 season into a potential 8-8 one, something that cannot be overstated considering the transitioning of new players and the myriad of injuries that hammered the Steelers at several key positions.
What were seemingly undeniable weaknesses of this team have developed and now turned into bright spots and reasons for optimism.
I’ll be the first to point out that after the Dolphins game, I was critical of the Todd Haley experiment and thought that he was as good as gone after the dearth of touches for Le’Veon Bell in the second half. However, when examining the offensive output over the second half of the season, there is no denying the efficacy of the offense. Sure, the extracurricular embarrassments of Haley are annoying, but the impact that his approach has had since players have grown comfortable and some continuity was established on the offensive line is worthy of recognition.
A running game that was putrid at the beginning of the season is now advancing, and it has a figurehead in the form of Bell, a player that undoubtedly will be able to carry this team as he does opponents attempting to tackle him.
The uncertainty surrounding the receiver corps at the beginning of the season because of the departure of Mike Wallace has been shattered by the emergence of Antonio Brown as a near-elite, if not elite wide out.
And the offensive line that was as bad as can be imagined in the opening games, has rebounded nicely, despite the spate of injuries, and it is a reason for optimism as well heading into the offseason.
While there are more positives offensively for this team than defensively, Cameron Heyward and Jason Worilds validated their draft selections and have flashed what they can bring to this team in the future.
There are still holes on this team at safety, inside linebacker, and depth issues at cornerback and outside linebacker, but that is what the draft is for, and potentially this year for the Steelers, free agency. There is no reason to believe that if the talent that was developed this year defensively continues to grow, and if the right players are added to the unit this offseason, the defense can return to playing at a high-level.
Ultimately, regardless of how the events of this NFL Sunday play out, there is much to be hopeful about for the 2014 season.
But as things stand as they are, what can we expect in this second contest between the Browns and Steelers at Heinz Field?
In their first meeting this season, the Browns were playing solid defense, but since then, their performance has deteriorated. In fact, over their last six contests, the Browns have given up a minimum of 24 points, with highs of 41, 38, and 32. Overall for the year, the Browns are surrendering 25.7 points per game, which is 23rd worst in the NFL.
The Browns are also coming into the game beat up, with the status of Joe Haden up in the air, and with left guard Jason Pinkston and nose tackle Phil Taylor ruled out. These injuries weaken an already demoralized team.
The Steelers may be weakened as well, as Emmanuel Sanders and Jason Worilds are both questionable for the contest.
However, with a chance to make the playoffs, no matter how small it may seem, the Steelers will be ready for this contest, especially in front of their home crowd. The way that the offense has been playing recently is a reason for confidence, and considering the harassment of Jason Campbell by the Steelers in the previous matchup, this a game in which I like the Steelers in a big way.
The Steelers take care of business and end their regular season on a three-game winning streak, accompanied by another 8-8 record.
Now if only the Bengals, Jets, and Chiefs can take care of theirs.
Here’s to a gift that will keep on giving in January for the Steelers.
Steelers 41 Browns 13