After beginning the year ranked 19th in the ESPN.com NFL power rankings and 10th in the AFC (where only six teams qualify for the playoffs), the Steelers are now ranked as the top team in the NFL after a 3-0 start without suspended, superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is set to return to the team after this Sunday’s home game against the hated Ravens.
While such a tremendous start allows Pittsburgh fans to dream about recording the franchise’s first undefeated season, putting that possibility down on paper after three games, as Pro Football Talk did recently, is absurd.
Nothing would add more joy to my life than seeing the Steelers become the first team in NFL history to go 16-0 and win a Super Bowl in the same season. It would also cement the 2004-2010 Steelers as one of the great dynasties of all-time, with a trio of Super Bowl titles, four trips to the AFC Championship Game, and 16-0 regular season to go with a 15-1 mark in 2004. No franchise has recorded both 16-0 and 15-1 seasons.
Last year before what would become a hugely disappointing 9-7 season, I pointed out to J.J. that the Steelers’ schedule, depth, talent and experience were all in place for a run at perfection. His logical response was “That’s ridiculous. You can’t even mention that until after 10 weeks of the season in the unlikely even that your team is still 10-0.” Turns out, he was right.
Unlike the 2007 New England Patriots, the only team in NFL history to go undefeated in a 16-game regular season, the Steelers are not an offensive juggernaut, even after the return of Roethlisberger. They completely dominated the Titans in week 2, but still needed a defensive stop to secure a win in the game’s waning moments. Teams that play that style cannot go undefeated — nor can a team that faces a 4-game stretch beginning on Oct. 24th (Ben’s second week back from suspension) at Miami, at New Orleans, at Cincinnati, and home against New England.
Beat Baltimore this week (which is no better than a 50/50 proposition) and go 2-2 during that brutal four-game stretch, and Pittsburgh will be a strong favorite to win the AFC North and challenge the Colts (who are annually guaranteed to win at least 11 regular-season games) for the top playoff seed in the AFC.
There is a second difficult three-game stretch later in the year, too: at Baltimore, followed by Cincy and the N.Y. Jets in Pittsburgh. While nothing should be taken for granted after 2009, the rest of the opponents (home and away against Cleveland, Oakland and Carolina at home, and Buffalo on the road) should be relatively easy wins, which would already put the Steelers’ victory total at eight on the season.
Win just three of the aforementioned eight remaining games against playoff caliber opponents and the Steelers will be back in the playoffs, likely as the AFC North champ and possibly with a playoff bye. Win half and the Steelers will likely be assured a bye if not the No. 1 seed. Win five and they will likely be the top seed in the AFC. But 16-0 … that’s not happening.