Last fall I followed the projections of most NFL experts in picking my beloved Steelers to finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs, while picking the evil Cowboys to win the Super Bowl in their own lavish stadium.
Nostradamus, evidently I am not, but yet I will try again this fall with my annual projected records, playoff pairings, and results for each team for the 2011-12 NFL season that began tonight with Green Bay hosting New Orleans in a battle of the last two Super Bowl champions
Despite losing star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games due to suspension and being decimated with injuries on an already-weak offensive line, Pittsburgh posted a 12-4 regular-season record in 2010 and was one drive away from winning a seventh championship in a 31-25 loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV. The Cowboys, meanwhile, fired their coach midseason and finished 6-10.
Recent trends indicate the Steelers are in for a down 2010 and will miss the playoffs for just the third time since drafting Roethlisberger in 2004. Over the past decade, 8 of the 10 teams that lost the Super Bowl the previous year failed to qualify for the playoffs the following fall, no Super Bowl loser has made it back to the big game since the 1993 Buffalo Bills, and the 1972 Miami Dolphins (the only team in NFL history with an undefeated start-to-finish record) are the only team to lose a Super Bowl and win the world title the ensuing year.
In comparison, Super Bowl winners fare much better the next fall. Ironically, though, the Steelers were the only Super Bowl champions of the past eight years who did not qualify for the postseason the following season, and that actually happened with both of Pittsburgh’s world championship squads in the past decade.
But this Steelers’ squad is ready to buck league trends and the franchise’s recent Super Bowl hangovers. Pittsburgh is the most experienced and probably the deepest team in the NFL, particularly at defensive line, linebacker and receiver.
Roethlisberger has always been clutch in the fourth quarter but now is in line to post huge fantasy-type statistics for an offense that should be both balanced and more explosive. While accurate quarterbacks who receive good pass protection will again be able to pick on the No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks, the Steelers will field a championship defense that ranks among the NFL’s top two or three in run, scoring and total defense.
In addition, the new kickoff rules will alleviate special-teams problems that have long been a Pittsburgh debacle. More important is a very favorable schedule that is most challenging for the first nine games, but Pittsburgh seemingly always plays its best under Mike Tomlin in the first half of the season, having started each of his four years as the team’s head coach with a 6-2 overall record.
A road date against the quarterback-challenged Chiefs in game No. 11, which follows a Pittsburgh bye, will mark the only opponent in the Steelers’ final seven contests that finished 2010 with a winning record. In other words, if Pittsburgh can win at least six of its first nine matchups, including at least a split of the two games with division rival Baltimore, then the Black and Gold will be in prime position for first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.
Thus, the Steelers are again a strong Super Bowl contender, although due to matchup problems, the team will likely need to luck out in not facing the Patriots’ Tom Brady (6-1 career record against Pittsburgh) to reach the Super Bowl, a break the Steelers enjoyed in all three of their Super Bowl campaigns over the past seven seasons.
While the Steelers could absorb losses to numerous key players, there are three stars who the team cannot lose for any extended period of time and must be healthy in the playoffs. Obviously the most important is reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu.
The Steelers’ collapses of 2006 and 2009 can be directly attributed to injuries to Polamalu. While No. 3 safety Ryan Mundy was probably the most improved Pittsburgh player from 2009 to 2010, the franchise has an 18-5 overall record over the past two seasons when Polamalu plays but is 8-7 when he has missed entire games due to injuries.
Almost as important is Roethlisberger. The team would remain competitive with either Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon in relief of an injured Roethlisberger, as shown by those two combining to post a 3-1 record in 2010 afer Roethlisberger was absurdly and unilaterally suspended by Roger Goodell to begin the season despite never being arrested or charged with any crime.
But to win big games in the postseason or in the fourth quarter, the Steelers need the best clutch quarterback in the NFL. Roethlisberger, who has only played seven seasons, already ranks in the top 10 of quarterbacks for most fourth-quarter comeback wins in NFL history.
The one player, though, often overlooked who the Steelers cannot afford to lose to injury is No. 1 corner Ike Taylor, who fortunately was re-signed to a 4-year deal this off-season as a free agent. In 2010, Steelers’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau moved Taylor all over the field to shadow the opposition’s No. 1 receiver more than ever before, and the 6-2, 195-pound Taylor has grown so confident in his skills and athleticism that he plays most top receivers in press coverage.
Taylor has played at a Pro-Bowl level for at least three of the previous five seasons, but has yet to officially earn that honor due to hands of stone (11 career interceptions in eight career seasons), marquee superstar depth at corner in the AFC in recent years, and some shaftings, such as Champ Bailey getting the nod last season based on reputation even though Taylor clearly had the better year for the superior team.
If Taylor were lost due to injury, any decent opposing quarterback would be able to regularly pick apart a Steelers’ defense that would have to play soft zone all game due to a lack of talent at any cornerback spot. Fortunately the veteran Taylor is in top physical condition and has not missed a game due to injury over the past six seasons.
(5) Jets over (4) Chargers
(6) Ravens over (3) Texans
(3) Eagles over (6) Giants
(5) Falcons over (4) 49ers
(1) Pats over (6) Ravens
(2) Steelers over (5) Jets
(1) Packers over (5) Falcons
(2) Saints over (3) Eagles
Conference Championship Games
(1) Pats over (2) Steelers
(1) Packers over (2) Saints
Patriots over Packers