Playoffs? You kidding me? I just hope we win a game.
These were the immortal words of then Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora at a press conference years ago. And although he was deflecting questions following a disappointing regular season loss for his team, his words should be the mantra of every playoff team.
I just hope we win a game.
Anyway, anyhow. There is no art. No style points. No fancy, dancy. Just get to the next gate.
Unfortunately, despite their impressive Wildcard win against the Miami Dolphins by a score of 30-12, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a tremendous challenge ahead as the well-rested Kansas City Chiefs await as do their boisterous fan base.
Is this where the story of the 2016 Steelers comes to a sad ending? Or is this merely the next chapter in the unfolding saga of one of the greatest mid-season turnarounds in team history?
The suspense shouldn’t be allowed to kill anyone. The answer is herein…here in the Spin:
Breeching The Fortress
Steelers fans will have their work cut out for them in trying to secure away seats at Arrowhead Stadium. By most accounts it’s one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL and every swinging Terrible Towel will have been hard earned. An early pan of the audience will speak volumes of how hostile an environment the Steelers will be facing.
Let’s Go Surfing
Speaking of fan support…a few weeks ago the Oakland Raiders had a home game against the San Diego Chargers as black and silver decorated fans filled practically every seat of the stadium. The problem? The game was in San Diego. Having grown up in San Diego, there were many times when I would watch my Pittsburgh Steelers play at…then…Jack Murphy Stadium amongst tens of thousands of my brethren and sistren. Charger fans are notoriously among the most fair-weather in the league. If the team is winning? No problem. You’ll see everyone with their Charger shirts and lightning bolt bumper stickers. If the team is struggling? Yeah…we’re off to the beach. Having grown up in San Diego, the reason why Chargers fans aren’t anything like…say…Green Bay Packers fans is simple. The weather is perpetually 80 degrees, the surf is up and there are girls in bikinis who need help putting sunscreen on their backs. Despite San Diego being a wealthy city of three million plus, it’s no surprise the team is leaving for Tinsel Town. San Diego is just not a football town. But that doesn’t mean the “San-Dee-A-Go-Supa-Chargers…Pow, Pow, Pow” didn’t have great teams. Air Coryell? One of the greatest offenses to ever play in the league. I had a few walks of shame to the stadium parking lot in my Steelers jersey after having QB Dan Fouts, TE Kellen Winslow and WR John Jefferson shred our faltering 1980’s defense. Still, my heart goes out to those…few…real Chargers fans.
Ice, Ice Baby
The pregame headline for this divisional game was the surprising news the game will be moved to 8:30 ET because of an impending, fierce, ice storm. How will this affect the game? Despite Pittsburgh being no stranger to cold weather games it remains advantage Chiefs. Kansas City doesn’t have anything close to the deep passing game the Steelers have where QB Alex Smith is all about ten yards and a cloud of dust. QB Ben Roethlisberger often struggles in stadiums where the crowd noise is against him. If the top is taken off of Pittsburgh’s passing game it will be up to the Steelers defense to win this game.
Honey, Who Shrunk The Game?
Kansas City has the ability to burn clock and to compress the game to just a handful of key moments. They are the boa constrictor of the NFL. A slow, somewhat tedious and…yes…boring death for their foes and fans. The Steelers will have fewer opportunities to express themselves on offense so those first few drives in the game are going to be critical if they are hoping to build a comfortable cushion. It seems as if the only cushion at this game will be of the seat variety.
Tyreek Gives A Peek
The biggest X-factor in Sunday’s game is Kansas City Chiefs Rookie WR Tyreek Hill. When Hill was drafted this year the skinny on him by the draftniks was he was a dangerous kick returner with world class speed, yet it was questionable whether he would be able to contribute much at wide receiver or running in the pros. Hmmm…the Steelers had a player just like this last year who had the fastest 40-yard time in the combine in 2014 at 4.28. I can’t mention his name, because the trolls would come out and go apoplectic at the mere mention of it. Okay…I’m going to do it anyway. Dri Archer. Since he was let go early last year while his kickoff return average was in the top five in the NFL, please name a single good return the team has had since? Still waiting? Could Archer have done worse? Was there a chance, just as Kansas City did with Hill, that Todd Haley could have figured to convert his speed into a significant NFL weapon? I say yes.
LB Bud Dupree’s hit on QB Matt Moore in last week’s game was a few inches away from being legal, and certainly wasn’t a cheap shot. But it is a highlight reel that will roll in the heads of every quarterback who plays against him for the remainder of his young career. NFL Draft guru Mike Mayock had this to say about LB Bud Dupree when he was drafted by the Steelers. “Dupree is a big, strong, fast, freakish athlete. He’s a height-weight-speed guy. He’s explosive, big, strong and fits what Pittsburgh does defensively.” Yeah…it took awhile for these words to come true…but that sounds just about right.
Although Dupree is now the undisputed starter as is the great LB James Harrison, LB Jarvis Jones has quietly been playing well as a backup. It’s hard for a former number one draft pick to become a career support player for a team, but Jones is making a good argument that at a reasonable price, he would provide quality depth for the Steelers at the position for several years to come. Sometimes a guy’s got to be out of the spotlight to rise up from the shadows.
Yes…RB Le’Veon Bell got all of the press from his dominance performance over the Dolphins, and deservedly so. But the members of the Steelers offensive line were the true stars of the game. It seems as if their level of play rises from week to week as they become a more and more tightly stitched unit. All of the hope and promise of a healthy C Maurkice Pouncey is coming to fruition as he’s enjoying his best year as a pro and the entire line is flourishing because of it.
Remember The Days…
When the left tackle position was a fright show? Big Ben does. And remember the days when people were questioning whether T Alejandro Villanueva was too tall to be a viable offensive lineman? The Spin said a couple years ago that he would end up being one of the greatest offensive tackles in Steelers history by the time he’s finished up his career in Pittsburgh. Does that sound so crazy now?
Didn’t I See You Twerking?
Anybody else hold your breath following WR Antonio Brown’s touchdown celebration against Miami Dolphins? Didn’t that look like the thrusty wusty that got him a 15 yard yellow hanky earlier this year? At this point, who cares? When it comes to playoffs, there are players who get tight, and those who get it right. There are times in the year when those spotlight seeking type of players can be an annoyance…but playoffs are the time when you want your stars to shine. Dance, Antonio, dance.
Where’s Gilbert Grape?
Coach Mike Tomlin may be a MUCH greater coach than Terry Bradshaw gives him credit for being, but some of his decisions remain a huge mystery. Like the fact that CB Justin Gilbert isn’t being used in kickoff returns despite being one of the best in the NFL at that role. Rumor has it he’ll be toting the rock against the Chiefs on Sunday. Here’s a farfetched prognosis for your amusement: Gilbert will out-return Tyreek Hill.
Point Of No Returns
If Gilbert doesn’t get the opportunity…or if he does and he doesn’t make a difference…the Steelers may be reaching the point of no returns. As in: no returns…and Special Teams Coach Danny Smith won’t be returning. Yeah…go Gilbert go.
Not too long ago, the Steelers had the future of their defensive invested in the likes of DT Cam Thomas and DE Clifton Geathers. That wasn’t long following the fizzled career of former first round draft pick DT Ziggy Hood. When both DE Cameron Heyward and DE Stephon Tuitt went down this season it really threatened to throw the Steelers back in the dark ages up front. But the opposite happened…the backups really stepped up and DE L.T. Walton is one of those very deserving of praise. Has he been a standout? No…but when you’re filling the shoes of Heyward, being fairly unnoticeable in replacing him is a notable achievement.
When the Steelers were 4-5 this year, the Coach Mike Tomlin fan club was having a difficult time recruiting new members. Eight wins in a row later, it still is premature to prepare a spot for him in Canton, OH. If the streak goes to eleven wins…well, then maybe that discussion becomes relevant. But, what if the Steelers season ends on Sunday at Arrowhead? Has Tomlin taking them far enough to be acknowledged for doing an excellent job this year? Uh…it’s getting close, but this is the game that will decide the vote. If Tomlin can at least take him team to Foxborough, the year can be considered a success…and everything else is Lombardi flavored gravy.
I Hate Fantasy Football – The Sequel
The Miami Dolphins game was, by far, my most enjoyable Steelers game of the year. Not only because it was a playoff win. Not only because it was a blowout. But because I wasn’t checking my ESPN fantasy football app every two minutes during the game! Even worse…and here is a terrible confession…I wasn’t rooting against Big Ben because my opponent had him on their team. I never actually…ever…rooted for Roethlisberger to fail. I just might have…kind of encouraged him to hand off the ball for a touchdown rather than passing it. Yeah…I hate fantasy football. Well…I guess I kind of did just win the first ever Steelers Depot contributors fantasy football league. I didn’t want to share this because I’m such a humble guy. I didn’t want to mention that those bums had the guy who had never played fantasy football before get the last pick of the draft. I didn’t even want to share that I started 1-3 and roared back to the great prize. That would be boasting. Instead, of flaunting my trophy in public, I just stayed at home, put Queen’s “We Are The Champions” on auto-loop and moonwalked on the kitchen table. When you win…win classy. That’s the lesson here. Okay…when it comes to fantasy football…maybe it’s not “hate”. Maybe it’s simply one of those “it’s complicated” types of relationships. When’s the draft next year?
Enough chasing butterflies…what about the game! All right…I wish I could make it easy for all of you, but this will be one of those miserable, dogfight type of games where you chew your nails down to the cuticle. Unfortunately, one of those skinny, little kicker guys with funny accents are either going to be hoisted on massive shoulders…or they will be sulking off of the field in shame. But…the Bos comes through. Steelers 24, Chiefs 21. Oh…and then Big Ben, after running off the field, will come to the postgame press conference being wheeled in a hospital gurney draped with IV bottles. No fears, Steelers Nation. He’ll be fine to take on Tom Brady.