Thoughts and Predictions for the Steelers/Bengals Wild Card Game

steelers-bengalsAlthough I’ve been out of the epicenter of the Steelers universe, (in other words, I haven’t been in Pittsburgh since before Christmas) the modern miracle of the internet has kept me up to date in breathless detail. Have you heard that Ben Roethlisberger “called out” Martavis Bryant on his Tuesday radio program? If you haven’t, you must have been not just in the ICU but in a special unit with no TV or cell phones or visitors allowed, because every single word of Ben’s original comments, of his enlargements/ clarifications on Wednesday, of Martavis Bryant’s response, of Antonio Brown’s remarks, and also, presumably, what the Gator Ade guy thinks about it have appeared on fan sites, on ESPN, and everything in between.

If it is like this now, think what it will be like should the Steelers somehow reach the Super Bowl. We’re already overwhelmed with “news” and besieged with predictions.

According to taste, you can pick the Doubters (Jim Wexell, Gene Collier, Gerry Dulac are the notable three so far,) to help you prepare yourselves for defeat. You can pick the Believers (Dale Lolley and Herm Edwards are the two I can remember off the top of my head) to give yourself hope and encouragement. (I’m eliminating the obvious homer Believers such as Ike Taylor and Dave Dameshek.) Vegas is still, as far as I know, a Believer, sort of.

You can make yourself crazy reading all of the analysis and commentary and critiques and reasons why the Steelers will/will not win. You can consult “experts.” I received a text yesterday whilst driving around the southern end of Hawaii (well, my husband was driving) from a young friend. He isn’t really a football fan at all, but a friend of his begged him to consult his “expert” friend (that would be me, hah!) as to whether Ben Roethlisberger was hurt.

I’m not married to Ben Roethlisberger, nor am I his trainer, or best friends with him. I have spoken to him once in my life, for about 15 seconds. Therefore I can’t answer that question, except to say that any NFL player who played last Sunday is “hurt.” But I don’t think that’s what was being asked.

And really, I think what was being asked, what we all want to know is, what Steelers team is going to show up this evening? Part of what has made the team both maddening and incredibly exciting this season is kind of Forrest Gumpian—as you pick through the Steelers box of chocolates you’re not quite sure whether the next one you bite into is going to be the chocolate truffle center or the chocolate-covered garlic clove.

And the reason I think the box of chocolates analogy is the best one is, it can change at any time. That can go both ways. It can be the Denver game where poor play, mistakes, missed tackles, etc. is suddenly replaced with an infusion of competence and a winning effort. They can “give away” a game, such as the one to the Ravens in which the Steelers led 20-7 early in the third quarter. (Of course, it was Michael Vick QBing, but we all know there are no excuses.)

This somehow had a familiar ring to it, and sure enough I managed to dig up the “Surprising Steelers” series I wrote in 2011 recapping the 2010 season. The name “Surprising Steelers” was given in retrospect. During the season we were calling them the Jekyll and Hyde Steelers. Plenty of people were calling them considerably less polite names. Here is an excerpt from one of those posts. The Miami team they played in Game 6 were 3-2 going into the game, but would end the season 7-9:

Game 6 – @ Miami Dolphins – Final Score Steelers 23, Dolphins 22

General game overview: 

This game…began with two turnovers, one on the opening kick return by Emmanuel Sanders, one on a sack/fumble of Ben Roethlisberger. Less than 3 minutes into the game the Dolphins had gotten the ball twice, and each time they only managed to get a field goal out of it…

This was quite an entertaining game to re-watch. About the only thing I remembered about it from the first time was…the infamous challenged Pittsburgh TD that resulted in a ruling that Ben had fumbled, but didn’t give the ball to Miami. It is, of course, possible that the outcome of the game would have been the same had the ref given the Dolphins the ball, as there was still 2:30 to play and Miami had coughed the ball up themselves. However, they were leading at that point, and most likely would have ended up with the W if they had been ruled to have recovered the ball. The Steelers defense had clearly tired at that point, and was thin on the ground anyhow with injuries. It was hot and humid, the Steelers were forced to wear their black home jerseys, and both Henne and the running game were showing signs of life by that point in the game.

In fact, this game sounds a lot like what we might have seen from the 2015 Steelers. Coughed up the ball, defense is giving up yards (257 of them) to a not-particularly-highly-thought-of quarterback (Chad Henne), officiating may have played a part in the outcome, and it was an impossibly close game decided during the final few minutes.

As I thought about the reasons given by both the Believers and the Doubters for their picks, it was interesting that the Doubters mostly based their picks on a hunch. Gene Collier said he just didn’t see the Bengals losing a seventh play-off game in a row. Gerry Dulac said much the same thing:

I think it’s their turn. Believe me, I can easily see the Steelers winning. I just think the Bengals have been more resilient and more steady ALL season.

Jim Wexell said this:

Maybe I’m still raw from last year’s playoff game, which the Steelers entered with a back off their practice squad. And maybe I’m still chapped from the blase performances of the last two weeks. Maybe I’ve just become accustomed to this Steelers team coming up short in recent years. But I don’t like the fact the Bengals seem to have little fall-off behind injured QB Andy Dalton and are otherwise healthy against a Steelers team that won in Cincinnati too recently. The emotional edge would seem to favor the Bengals, so I’ll go with that. (And hopefully I’ll jinx them like a Bengal using a Terrible Towel to clean his cleats.) Bengals, 24-19.

On the other hand, the Believers love the Steelers’ passing attack, feel their defense is capable of holding the Bengals’ scoring down to a dull roar, and that the Steelers will prevail.

I’m not given to predictions, and I’m not going to start now. My headline wasn’t meant to deceive, and after all I did give you some other peoples’ predictions. Perhaps not the scores. But ultimately who cares about the score? As Mike Tomlin says, they need to leave the stadium having put up one more point than the other team—in fact, just like they did to Miami back in 2010.

But I do have some thoughts on “desire” and “coming out flat” and all those terms we use to try to talk about what happened when a team doesn’t win, or win as handily as we expected them to.

A team is a bunch of guys thrown together. They may like each other. They may hate each other. Or more accurately, some of them may get along and some of them may not. They come from incredibly different backgrounds, were raised (or raised themselves) with widely varying styles and expectations, and have different levels of talent, work ethic, and desire. At that level of competition, those differences have significant effects on how well they play, not only individually, but in how they help or hinder their team.

We have seen a number of sub-texts, you might say, with this team this year which have received more or less attention depending on what else was going on. This is, of course, part of the “winning cures everything” mantra. But the truth is, winning may temporarily paper over problems but it doesn’t cure them. Here are a couple of the sub-texts we’ve seen thus far:

Antonio Brown Wants the Ball

In some ways this is “well, duh!” Antonio Brown is a playmaker par excellence with the ball in his hands, and we all want him to have it. But when Antonio Brown started making a fuss to anyone who would listen about not getting enough targets during the Ben-less purgatorial period it created some discomfort in Steeler Nation. I was one of the discomfited. I want Antonio Brown to be so focused on the big picture that whether he is getting targeted shouldn’t matter to him.

But the truth is, Antonio Brown is not Heath Miller. It’s hard to see how even Heath Miller is Heath Miller. The man must be a saint. Because as anyone who has ever done anything competitive knows, you have to want to win in the first place. And it takes a certain amount of sainthood to be so focused on the group goal that you sublimate the individual desire for accolades.

And the fierce desire which made Antonio act that way is part and parcel of what makes him so dangerous after the catch—he just doesn’t give up. For heaven’s sakes, this is a young man who goes through a day of meetings, a full practice, extra work with the JUGS machine afterwards, and then goes to the gym to work out. You can’t buy that kind of work ethic and desire for greatness.

In some sense, I think everyone learned a lesson from the situation. But mostly, I think Antonio grew up a little bit more. And that has to be a good thing.

Brandon Boykin and the Bench

Boykin was traded to Pittsburgh because he didn’t want to play slot corner—he wanted to start on the outside. Well, by the end of training camp it became evident the Steelers weren’t even going to start him in the slot. There are only two possible explanations for this—1) he really wasn’t even good enough at that point to beat out Antwon Blake, or 2) the Steelers coaching staff took an across-the-board and inexplicable dislike to him during training camp, and they refused to see how much better he is than their other options.

I have a lot of trouble believing the latter proposition. The coaches aren’t stupid, and even if there was some prejudice in one or two of the coaches, I can’t buy some sort of mass hysteria.

But my purpose here is not to speculate on the whys and wherefores but to muse on how this could potentially effect a locker room. To get very middle-school about it, it would have been easy for two factions to form and for this to create a fair amount of friction. Of course, Blake having been on the team in some capacity since 2013 would give him the advantage here, but it would be easy for discontented players to rally around someone they felt was being overlooked.

But Boykin appears to have taken the high road, and it paid off, as he has gotten more and more playing time. Although he did get some defensive snaps earlier in the season (11 vs. the 49ers, 1 vs. the Rams, and 10 vs. the Chiefs), he had none between Week 7 and Week 13. Then suddenly he has had ever-increasing snaps, ending with a season-high 62 @ Cleveland. (He did play special teams all season.)

Had he not taken the high road, had the staff considered he was creating a division in the locker room, the story might have ended differently. Thankfully it didn’t, and hopefully the increasing snaps reflect an increasing trust from the coaches.

I could go on and on with Story Hour, and there are probably a great many stories I don’t know. Martavis is just the latest one to go public. The point is, there are potentially any number of things which can derail a team, and the Steelers have had their share. There have been the injuries, the intrigue, the beating of teams they were supposed to lose to and losing to teams they were supposed to beat. And the truth is, we have no idea what things go into the collective team psyche as they run out onto the field each week.

In some ways, I find it encouraging they could beat the Browns on what seemed to be a relatively low-energy day. (If a goodly percentage of the team was under the weather from the flu that was running through the locker room, this would explain the lack of energy.) Yes, it was the Browns, but it was also divisional football. There are some excellent players on the Browns, and it would have helped to assuage what has to be a massive sense of failure to have kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.

I think we are going to see a focused and determined team today. In fact, I think we are going to see two of them. I think the game is going to hinge on a couple of seemingly small things, and I think it will be very close.

If either team does stupid stuff, though, this could change the whole equation. I’m hoping Vontaze Burfict does the Steelers a solid by being himself and bringing down the ire not just of the Black and Gold but of the refs. I hope he does so without irrevocably injuring someone else.

But there are a few hot-heads on the Steelers side of the ball as well. Let’s hope they can channel that into productive energy and bring home a win.

I’ll be watching the game at 3:15 this afternoon, as we’re still in Hawaii. But we have to catch a plane at 10 pm and I probably won’t have time to put up a post which is much more than perfunctory for Sunday morning. So please help me out and give your thoughts and impressions in the comments of said perfunctory post. More will be forthcoming after I get home, and I expect Homer and Ivan will have thoughts to share as well…

3 comments

  • I do think the Bengals win this game (though I will, of course, be rooting for the Steelers). Both teams have limping offenses, but only one team has a solid defense. Being one-dimensional will make it tough for the Steelers to do a lot against a good Bengals defense. AJ McCarron is a step down from Dalton, but he has a rather shocking amount of confidence in his ability. I don’t see a turnover or two affecting that guy — the Bama pedigree is good for that, even if it didn’t help his arm strength. I see an ugly game, a low scoring game…and one where one final mistake in the secondary will send the Black and Gold home.

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  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    I think it will depend on which Steelers offensive player is injured for the season by an unpenalized cheap hit by a Bengals player and when it happens (I assume it to be a given now as it seems to happen every time we play) and which Bengals player injured himself by doing something foolish (like a QB tackling a 300 lb DE with their thumb) and when. The Steelers are thinner on the ground at many positions and probably can least afford the injury.

    The other key factor will be whether DBs are allowed to mug WRs and TEs or not. If they are then the game will favour the better running team and that has to be the Bengals atm.

    With these in consideration, I would have to think the Bengals should be favoured to win.

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  • I agree with Rebecca that this will be a close game that could go either way. I will take the we win side. Pass protection as always will be at the top of the list. If Ben gets the protection he needs to progress thru his reads and he is accurate with his throws we score 30. AJM is pretty accurate himself so it will be interesting to see what he brings for his first playoff game. We need to put the pressure on the kid and win the turnover battle. We win a close one. Steelers 30 Bungles 24.

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