Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mission: Impossible


Apparently, entering into the game, the Steelers offensive ranks were well improved over last year and their defense was only two places lower out of the 32 teams. Thanks to Pittsburgh-favorites Jim Nance and Phil Simms for those nuggets.

Of course, increased passing offense can be a sign of playing from behind an awful lot, and that has been the case with the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers. They even trailed against Miami late in the game in the season opener. The only game they never really had to worry about was against the Kansas City Chiefs (who have meanwhile rebounded quite nicely).

Anyone who's watched 4 combined quarters or more of Steelers football this year knows that the main problem is turnovers. After today's -5 performance, Pittsburgh may very well be bringing up the rear in that department (we'll know Tuesday). The second biggest problem is critical personal foul penalties. Now, late in today's game, Anthony Madison was called for a personal foul after a punt, but Denver was not penalized for running into Chris Gardocki (!?), but linebacker James Farrior kept a drive going by kicking Denver center Tom Nalen after a 3rd down play that should have brought on the punt team.

It's like "watching" a broken record.

Third, but no less important, missed tackles. The powers-that-be have got to start keeping this statistic. I haven't had many qualms with Dick LeBeau's defensive play calling overall. Players have largely been at home. Execution seems to be on vacation. Denver scored at least two touchdowns today on fade patterns and the defenders couldn't get their heads around to break them up.

Last week, I, along with several others, drove the final nail into the Steelers 2006 coffin. Their 4 conference losses at that point (5 now with the Denver loss) made it virtually impossible to claim the Wild Card. The AFC West, especially, looks to have at least one of the Wild Card teams in the bag already, perhaps even the 2nd, depending on how things shake out with the Jets' and the Jaguars' seperate fortunes.

Yes, it's true I buried them last week, but, Pittsburgh faithful that I am, I still hold out hope for some kind of miraculous turnaround, the likes of which we all witnessed down the stretch in 2005.

What kind of homer am I, right? I'm sure there are others like me out there who will still tune into the New Orleans game next week and root for the same team while expecting different results. We first have to realize we're just a little insane to expect the dead to rise.

Yet, if you're looking for a pathway to the playoffs now that the Steelers have fallen to 2-6 halfway through the season, the mission (should they choose to accept it) is this: Win the AFC North.

First, I'll preface by saying that I recognize, at once, that it's neither realistic, nor impossible. A lot of things have to go right.

The Steelers, even if they don't have to win out, must win all of their remaining divisional games (we have to think tiebreakers here). Just combining this with the way things stand after today, the Ravens still lead the Steelers by 2 games and the Bengals are ahead by 1 game. However, the Steelers would have at least a one game advantage in the divisional standings, which, at this point, means nothing.

Continuing on:

Of the other games remaining on the schedule, the Bengals have to reap that First Place schedule that last year's division championship gave them. They have to play Denver and Indianapolis -- on the road -- in consecutive weeks, not to mention host a rematch against the Ravens.

Best (realistic) case scenario with the Bengals: They beat the Ravens, but lose to the Broncos and Colts. Add in the theorized defeat to the Steelers, that gives the Bengals 7 losses minimum.

The Ravens, meanwhile, have games remaining against the Falcons (at Baltimore) and the Chiefs (in KC). Unfortunately, they have the Bills, Browns and Titans.

Best (realistic) case scenario with the Ravens: First, they lose the two to the Steelers as mentioned before. Then they have to drop their games to Atlanta and Kansas City. This will give the Ravens 6 losses minimum.

Now turning our eyes to where this all really has to count...

The Steelers have not been playing complete games. Ben Roethlisberger has been as unpredictable as a season of "24". There is no reason to believe they're going to defeat any quality teams the rest of the way if there isn't some fire infused into these guys post-haste. Chukki Okobi can't be giving Ben low snaps. The equipment personnel can't keep doling out gloves sprayed with "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" (see above regarding turnovers and missed tackles).

Last year, they were chasing the prize, and they performed admirably to obtain it. However, they have not performed like Champions now that they're wearing the target.

Nevertheless, continuing the Impossible Dream in which the Steelers not only have to topple the tougher-than-expected Ravens (twice) and the chip-on-our-shoulders Bengals (in Cincinnati where there are likely to be playoff implications for them, if not for the Black and Gold), they have to travel to Carolina. If everything above plays out well into this December 17 match up, we, as fans, will have to find ourselves extremely fortunate to have had something to root for this long.

Best Case Scenario for the Steelers (this one not so realistic): Obviously, win out. If the other best (realistic) case scenarios work out, the Steelers win the division at 10-6, relegating the Ravens to finish in at least 2nd place by virtue of head-to-head. Should the Bengals win one of the tough matchups against the Colts or Broncos, they'd also be at 10-6, but bumped down a notch due to their 4-2 divisional record vs. the Steelers 5-1.

Each out-of-division loss that the Steelers suffer from this point, must also be matched by a loss by Baltimore and Cincinnati. If the Steelers lose to Baltimore or Cincinnati, the utopian door I open here is closed for good.

Everybody got that?

Even I realize how much would have to go right, but if the Steelers lose one more game, especially sooner rather than later, all that will be left to do is root against the New England Patriots.

Hell, I hope after Thanksgiving I'm able to report that we still have something to root FOR, not just against.

---Worst To First?---

The 2005-2006 Penguins, after 11 games, had a record of 1-5-5, good for 7 points. They ended up winning a total of 22 games.

The 2006-2007 edition is 7-4, good for 14 points and have almost one-third of the win total of the previous squad.

I watched the second half of the Pens/Sharks game last night. It was evident that the Sharks were more polished, yet it was a tight game. The Penguins are mighty fast, though, and their penalty killing is much easier to watch.

Last year, under Eddie Olczyk, penalty killers would shift around in the zone to keep opponents from getting too near the slot, making them shoot from a distance. This still allowed the opponent to cycle the puck and create a favorable shot when they could catch a PK'er out of position and maybe catch the goalie napping. This year, coach Michel Therrien has his unit pursuing the puck, giving the opponent less time to think about what he's going to do with the puck, rushing his decision to shoot or pass, creating turnovers and allowing Pittsburgh to clear.

The result: 11 PP goals this year surrendered by the Penguins (out of 30 overall) vs. 20PP goals over the same span last year (out of 53 total, shootout-loss "goal" to Carolina included).

Despite being 2nd in Goals-per game (3.55, 2nd to Buffalo's 4.23), they still surrender, on average, the 2nd most shots-on-goal per game (33.5, worst is Washington at 36.5). The addition of Evgeni Malkin may be what has been offsetting my fear that having a poor differential in the SOG for and SOG against makes for an early exit from playoff contention.

If the players are still learning to play together and haven't yet developed true chemistry, then happy days may be here sooner rather than later.

I'll be at the Igloo for the Pens/Lightning game on Wednesday. Hopefully the C-level seats will afford me a better view of what's happening behind the play and give me a better sense of which way this team's going to go.

They currently stand only one point back of the Devils and Rangers, and they're tied with the Islanders. However, the Penguins have at least two games in hand over each of these teams, so they still control their own destiny. Stay tuned. A playoff run for this team seems far more likely than any other team currently operating in Steeltown.

Whether they can turn all the way around and be one of the more elite teams in the league just one year after being one of the worst, obviously, remains to be seen.

---Toilet Bowl Bound?---

First of all, am I the only one who thinks the Pitt Panthers logo looks more canine than feline?

Rabid Dog-----------------------------Pissed-off Panther

In any event, Tyler Palko and Co. failed to deliver in a game that they really needed to have in order to keep from wondering which low-budget, no-one's-gonna-watch-this Bowl Game they might have a chance to be selected for. Even a win over Connecticut on Saturday will not wow the committee.

Pitt fans may have to hope for an old stand-by, the former "Continental Tire Bowl", which is now the "Meineke Car Care Bowl." There was some hearsay that a suggested motto for the new corporate sponsors was, "I'm not gonna pay a lot for this Bowl Game."

(edit: No chance for that one. Navy has accepted an invitation to play, and will face an opponent from the ACC)

Only strong showings (or, heaven forbid, a win or two) against West Virginia and Louisville may get them into a mid-level Bowl Game at this point. Cue the M:I music...


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