View Full Version : The Steelers' long walk back

01-01-2012, 08:51 AM
The Steelers' long walk back
The final Sunday: Steelers vs. Browns
Sunday, January 01, 2012
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In a season in which the light went on for a talented young playmaker named Antonio Brown and everything went black in San Francisco, over a span of 112 days in which their old and slow defense morphed like Benjamin Button into a unit more closely resembling young and unyielding, the Steelers find themselves on the precipice of historical significance in the very city in which they slinked to an embarrassing and unprecedented low two years ago.

Of more immediate importance is the potential for what can happen today in the state of Ohio when the Steelers (11-4) play in Cleveland against the Browns (4-11) and the Baltimore Ravens (11-4) play in Cincinnati against the playoff-hopeful Bengals (9-6) -- dueling AFC North games that will determine playoff seeding, travel schedules and, perhaps, a more palatable path to the Super Bowl.

But, as a subplot to the ramifications of what those results ultimately will mean, the Steelers can take another step toward erasing what has become their personal Super Bowl jinx -- the hangover that has followed each of their previous two Super Bowl appearances -- and make another emphatic statement about the direction of their tradition-rich franchise under Mike Tomlin.

With a victory today against the Browns, a team they have defeated 15 times in the past 16 meetings, the Steelers will have won 12 games for the second year in a row, an accomplishment they have managed only one other time in their storied history (1978-79).

What's more, it will mark the third time in the past four years they have won 12 games under Tomlin, something no other team can claim in that same period. In fact, the only active coach to win 12 or more games three times in a four-year span is Bill Belichick, who did it twice since becoming the New England Patriots coach in 2000.

"After both Super Bowl trips here, we didn't make the playoffs," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, referring to the seasons following the Steelers' Super Bowl victories in 2005 and '08. "For this group, in this season, with the lockout and everything, it's a good measuring stick to stack 12 wins two years in a row."

The Steelers finished 8-8 in '06 after their victory against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL and 9-7 in '09 after beating the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. In each instance, they missed the playoffs.

The '09 season was so miserable that, after a 6-2 start, the Steelers lost five consecutive games -- three of which came against the league's bottom-feeders.

The ultimate indignity came on a bitter cold night in Cleveland when the Steelers lost to the Browns, 13-6, in one of the most dispirited performances in recent memory.

Since that loss to the Browns, the Steelers have embarked on something of an incredible journey, winning 26 regular-season games -- more than any other team in that span except the Patriots.

Today, they return to the scene of the crime, needing a victory -- against a team that has lost five games in a row -- to finish 12-4, a record they hope will be good enough to win the AFC North.

"I remember when I came into the league, Jim Fassel said our goal is to go 3-1 every quarter," safety Ryan Clark said, referring to his head coach when he was with the New York Giants. "He said if we were 3-1 every quarter, we'd be 12-4 and we'd give ourselves a chance to be in playoffs and maybe have a home game. That's what I came in learning. And, being here, I believe it. The 12-4 seasons we've had, we've been to the Super Bowl."
This was no 2009

Super Bowl hangovers are nothing new, especially for the losers.

Since 1985, only three of the 25 losing teams in the Super Bowl have won 12 or more games the following season -- the 2000 Tennessee Titans (13-3), the 1993 Buffalo Bills (12-4) and the '91 Bills (13-3).

The Steelers can become the fourth -- and the first in 11 years -- by beating the Browns.


"It should be for us, the way we've come out after the Super Bowl years," said defensive captain James Farrior. "It hasn't been our history to have that many wins after a Super Bowl appearance."

The Steelers slipped into some form of hangover after their Super Bowl victories in '05 and '08 and needed a strong finish to help erase some of the bad taste from their performance.

In '06, they started 2-6, in part because of a tumultuous offseason in which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was involved in a motorcycle accident in June, had an emergency appendectomy the week leading up to the season opener, then got a concussion in an overtime loss in Atlanta in Week 7. They had to win six of their final eight games -- the only losses were to the Ravens -- to finish 8-8.

In '09, they overcame a 1-2 start to win five in a row, putting them at 6-2 and seemingly back in form for another run at the Super Bowl. But, in a stretch that was as unexplainable as it was inexcusable, the Steelers lost five in a row, including games against the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and Browns. At the time, none of those teams had more than two victories.

There has been none of that this time, though maybe for a different reason.

The Steelers did not win the Super Bowl this time. They lost to the Green Bay Packers, 30-24, a game in which they committed three turnovers that resulted in 21 points.

To many of the veteran players, the loss made it feel as if they never even made it to the Super Bowl.

"We lost the game," Farrior said. "It doesn't really count for anything when you lose. It was just like another year when we didn't get to the Super Bowl."

"I'd rather not go if you're going to lose it," Clark said. "That's not what we play for. We play to win Super Bowls."

After the game, the Steelers insisted they would use the loss as motivation for 2011 -- a refrain dissimilar to most Super Bowl losers who utter such catchphrases as a "learning experience" or "something to build on."

But, when they committed seven turnovers in the season opener in Baltimore -- giving them 10 in two games -- it looked as if the only motivation gleaned from Super Bowl XLV was how to make more mistakes. Their 35-7 loss to the Ravens caused many to question the age, speed and desire of their defense -- the same defense that heading into the final weekend is ranked No. 1 overall, No. 1 against the pass and No. 2 in points allowed in the NFL.

Now, after a 1-2 start and injuries to many of their key players, including Roethlisberger, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers are back in the postseason and on the cusp of back-to-back 12-win seasons. With a victory by the Bengals, the Steelers could win their 21st division title and gain a more advantageous path to the Super Bowl -- provided they beat the Browns.

"I think our veteran players came back with a sense of urgency," Arians said. "They weren't going to allow it to happen again. We got great veteran leadership on this team. They took a bunch of young guys and made sure through training camp that we made up for our lost time and were ready to go."

Said veteran receiver Hines Ward, in his 14th season with the Steelers: "I think guys were singularly focused just coming back and getting the opportunity to see if we can make it back to the Super Bowl. We had some young guys step up and make some plays, but we still kept some of the veteran guys around who are still making plays. And here we are, going into the last game of the year, with an opportunity to try to win our division and hopefully get that first-round bye."
12 wins nice, but ...

Another 12-win season is a nice accomplishment for a team with more Super Bowl trophies (6) than any other franchise in the league.

But, if they beat the Browns and don't get any help from the Bengals, who need to beat the Ravens for the Steelers to win the division, the significance of the achievement might be diminished.

"Winning 12 games and being the fifth seed is nothing to be proud about," Ward said. "Our whole goal is to win the division. If Baltimore controls what they do, and we do what we do and we end up being the fifth seed and we got to go on the road, that's kind of not what we had planned. But if that's how it turns out, and that's the cards we're dealt, we'll have to handle it."


As it stands now, the Steelers will enter the playoffs as the No. 5 seed. However, they can still win ...

THE AFC NORTH -- and the No. 2 seed -- if they beat the Browns today and the Ravens lose in Cincinnati.

THE NO. 1 SEED if they beat the Browns and the Ravens lose in Cincinnati and the Patriots lose to Buffalo.

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac.

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