But first they must get past the Cincinnati Bengals.
The 4-1 Steelers are undefeated in their last 7 in Cincinnati, against a team that is currently 0-6. The Benglas are without All-Pro quarterback Carlson Palmer. The Steelers will be returning key starters to the line up and/or getting them back to health. The conventional wisdom would peg the Steelers as hands down favorites in this game. The conventional wisdom is correct. The Steelers should win this game.
And that’s what makes this game so dangerous.
Think it’s silly?
What about the Ram’s knocking off the Redskins? Or Arizona beating the Cowboys? Or the Browns upsetting the Giants?
One of the quickest ways an NFL team can torpedo itself is to play the schedule game – you know, looking a couple of games ahead in the schedule, and mentally ticking of the “W’s.” During the latter half of the Bill Cowher era, the Steelers avoided that pitfall, perhaps better than any other NFL team. Nonetheless, the boys in black and gold still played better when they were underdogs, and underdogs this week the Steelers are not.
In Mike Tomlin’s rookie season, much like the early Cowher years, the Steelers were a team prone to let down.
- Start 3-0!
- Enter the Seahawks game without Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Casey Hampton and Tory Polamalu and steal your first shutout
... only to lose the next week to the Broncos.
- Throttle the Ravens in the 75th Anniversary game
...Follow by struggling back to beat the Browns in the 4th quarter, lose to a 1-7 Jets team, and the escape with a 3-0 win against the 0-11 Dolphins.
If those letdowns were a result, the underlying causes are well known: Poor kick coverage, disappearing pass rush, and an inability to win the close ones.
The 2008 Steelers are still very much a work in progress, but five games into his sophomore campaign Mike Tomlin appears to have made significant inroads towards rectifying the woes that bedeviled the Steelers in 2007. Steelers have closed two close games in the 4th, kick coverage has greatly improved, and the pass rush has returned with a vengeance.
But what about averting let downs?
After all, the Steelers started a strong 2-0, only to get embarrassed by the Eagles.
Mike Tomlin is keenly aware of the danger of complacency. During his press conference this week he brought up the specter of last year’s Jets loss, and went at great pains to point out that Cincinnati is still a very talented team that took the Giants into overtime and almost beat the Cowboys (then again, the later example looks less impressive now than it did then.)
One of the things that Mike Tomlin said when he was named head coach was “the test isn’t how you handle success, but how you handle adversity.”
Mike Tomlin believes every word of that, and the Cincinnati game will reveal if he has succeeded in getting his players to put what he preaches into practice.