BY BILLY WITZ, Columnist
Article Last Updated: 12/18/2006 10:46:58 PM PST
The pundits of pro football may as well have been armed with magnifying glasses, trench coats and Sherlock Holmes' deerstalking hats the way they've been scouring the NFL in recent weeks in search of the team that could be this year's Pittsburgh Steelers.
Last year's Steelers, as you'll recall, got healthy and got better over the final month of the season, snatched the last spot in the AFC playoffs, and then became the first team in NFL history to win three games on the road en route to a Super Bowl title.
Now, we're told, the trail leads to Cincinnati, where after four straight wins entering Monday night, law-enforcement officials are no longer the only ones proclaiming the Bengals a dangerous bunch. Or is it Jacksonville, where it's noted that the Jaguars have beaten four teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today and the upside there is they wouldn't have to face teams that have given them fits - Washington and Houston (twice)?
Over in the NFC, Philadelphia is being sized up as a contender, a notion that not so long ago was as ridiculous as the latest Rocky script. In New York, there's no shaking the possibility that They Might Be Giants - no matter how many times they play like The Pretenders.
And in Atlanta, if Jim Mora can get his team in the playoffs, he promises to give it the old college try.
The curious thing is that for all this canvassing to find this year's Steelers, few seem to be considering a rather obvious candidate: This year's Steelers.
For the first time since the third week of September, the Steelers are back at .500, crawling there with a third straight victory. While 7-7 only puts Pittsburgh at the fringe of the playoff chase in the AFC, you can bet the fourdivision winners don't want to see the Steelers rolling into town.
Pittsburgh is starting to conjure up the ghosts of playoffs past, allowing 13points in the past three weeks, routing Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Carolina. And while beating quarterbacks named Bruce Gradkowski, Derek Anderson and Chris Weinke is no reason to start a parade, what may cause a few shivers around the league is that the Steelers' offense is now a problem for somebody besides the Steelers.
Three weeks ago, the Steelers led the NFL with 30 turnovers - the main reason they lost to Atlanta, Denver, Cincinnati and Oakland despite outganing those teams by a combined 721 yards.
In the past three weeks, they've turned the ball over twice.
The strong defense, good housekeeping and improved special teams - a blocked punt and one that was returned for a touchdown by Santonio Holmes against Carolina - has allowed the Steelers to revert to the offensive game plan that's been near foolproof for the past three years: run, run, run, pass.
Willie Parker followed up a career-high 223-yard effort with 132 yards against Carolina, making life considerably easier for Ben Roethlisberger, now fully recovered from an offseason motorcycle accident and an early September appendectomy.
Roethlisberger completed 11 of 18 passes, but made good use of them - hitting Hines Ward on a key third-down pass to get the Steelers rolling, and running and throwing for their first two touchdowns.
In three seasons, the Steelers are 26-2 when Roethlisberger throws 25 or fewer passes.
The formula for the Steelers reaching the playoffs involves many more variables than that. It begins Christmas eve at home against Baltimore, which pummeled Roethlisberger in a 27-0 win on Nov. 26 - the Steelers' only loss in the past six weeks. Next, the Steelers have to win at Cincinnati, where they've won five in a row - including last year's playoffs.
Then the Steelers need help. Lots of it.
Of the four teams (Cincinnati, Denver, New York and Jacksonville) that sit at 8-6, the Steelers would win head-to-head tie breakers with only the Jets. So they need Cincinnati to lose at Denver (or have the Broncos lose to the Bengals and the 49ers the following week), Jacksonville to lose to New England and at Kansas City, and the Jets to trip up against either Miami or Oakland.
If Tennessee or Buffalo (who play each other this week) and Kansas City - the other 7-7 teams - also win out, then check with someone at Cal Tech....