Sunday, September 24, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers faced no bigger game last season than one played in Heinz Field against Cincinnati Dec. 4. A loss likely would knock them out of the playoffs. A victory would pull them even with the Bengals atop the AFC North.
The Steelers lost, 38-31, sending them two behind the Bengals in the division with four to go. Instead of ending the season for the Steelers, it signaled the end of the beginning, an improbable eight-game winning streak that delivered them their fifth Lombardi Trophy.
That's why today's early showdown between the Steelers and Bengals at Heinz Field at 1 p.m. seems hardly a crucial contest in relative terms. A Steelers victory would leave the teams tied at 2-1. And while a Steelers loss would shove them two behind Cincinnati in the AFC North, they would have 13 games to go, not four.
Yet allowing the Bengals to take a two-game early lead is not a formula for success in Pittsburgh nor anywhere else. It is unlikely any team can pull off the unprecedented trick the Steelers performed last year to win a Super Bowl.
"No, you can't count on duplicating that," Steelers guard Alan Faneca said. "The chances of that happening again are slim or none for anybody."
The Steelers learned last season that anything can happen after they slipped to 7-5 only to win four in a row to squeeze into the playoffs as the sixth and last seed in the AFC. That they became the only team in history to win three playoff games on the road and then the NFL title is no consolation to them today.
"We didn't count on that going into it when we did make the run last year," offensive tackle Max Starks said. "We weren't expecting for that to happen. A lot of things had to happen for us to get to that point. You want to dispel that myth right there as much as possible."
A more comparable situation for the Steelers came in the sixth game at Cincinnati last season. A Bengals victory would have boosted them to 6-1 and dropped the Steelers to 3-3. Instead, the Steelers rebounded from a loss to Jacksonville to beat the Bengals for the first of four consecutive wins.
"It is a must win for us," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, "because it's a divisional game. I don't think anybody around here is panicking."
They can save the panic for tomorrow if the standings look like this: Cincinnati 3-0, Baltimore 3-0, Pittsburgh 1-2.
"If they win this week, they have a head up on everybody," guard Kendall Simmons said. "We need to try to even it out a little bit and make it a dogfight. We look at it as a long season, but you don't want to fall behind too early because of the caliber of teams in our division. There's no room for error."
It's not necessarily a good thing that the Steelers get the Bengals at home.No home team won in the series last season, with the Bengals losing twice. Visitors have won six of the past seven. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer thrives on the road. Last season, he threw 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions in eight road games.
Roethlisberger threw that many interceptions Dec. 4 against Cincinnati. That marked the only time he has lost two games in a row while posting a 27-5 record as a starter.
Both Roethlisberger and Palmer have quickly established themselves among the best young quarterbacks not only in the game today but in a generation. They are two of the five quarterbacks with the best passer ratings since 1980 for one season when they were under the age of 25. Palmer's 101.2 rating last season ranks fourth; Roethlisberger's 98.6 ranks fifth, and his 96.1 in 2004 ranks sixth, according to Stats LLC.
No matter what happens today, they will meet again on New Year's Eve in Cincinnati, perhaps to determine the outcome of the AFC North, or merely to finish out the season.
"It's not crucial now because there still would be 13 games to go," Faneca said. "But definitely it's one of the ones -- in the middle of the year or toward that last stretch -- you say we really needed that game. It's like the San Diego [win] last year. At the time, it wasn't a big game, but, toward the end of the year, it was huge to have won that game."