When the Steelers dropped to 2-6 after a fourth quarter meltdown in New England – remember, they were within a touchdown of the lead heading into the fourth before losing 55-31 – many fans checked out on the season.
It’s understandable. They didn’t think the Steelers were going anywhere, and despite being alive heading into this weekend’s games, that’s still pretty much the case. The scenario to put the Steelers into the AFC playoffs is about as likely as Barack Obama inviting Ted Cruz over to discuss government policy over a beer.
But even if they don’t make the playoffs, the Steelers have a chance to get to .500 today with a win over the Cleveland Browns. That is significant.
Not only would they avoid a losing season, getting to 8-8 also means the Steelers went 6-2 in the second half of this season.
For a team using a number of young players at key positions out of necessity, that is a big step.
While many will look at this season simply at face value, that doesn’t tell the real story.
Pittsburgh started the season 0-4 playing its first two games without 2012 MVP Heath Miller and its first three games without running back Le’Veon Bell.
It took Miller, coming off a major knee injury suffered at the end of last season, a while to round into football shape. And Bell, after missing almost all of the preseason and the first three games, was basically learning to play running back in the NFL on the fly.
And then there is the offensive line. Everyone knew there would be growing pains with a young, inexperienced line early. That was only exasperated when Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, the line’s leader and most experienced player, was lost to a knee injury eight plays into the season.
But the line has gotten better. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, sacked 35 times in the first nine games, has gone down just six times in the last six.
Kelvin Beachum has been a revelation at left tackle, and though he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, guard David DeCastro probably deserved that recognition.
Because of the improved line play and Roethlisberger completely buying into offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s quick passing game, the quarterback will start all 16 games in a season for just the second time in his career.
Were there issues with an aging secondary? Sure. And the run defense hasn’t been its usual stout self, leading to some of those breakdowns in the secondary. It’s tougher to pressure the quarterback when he’s always in second-and-5.
But the Steelers have made progress. They are 7-point favorites to finish off their 6-2 second half today against the Browns.
They should cover that margin.
Take Pittsburgh, 27-13
Baltimore (plus 6) at Cincinnati
At least Steelers fans can take solace that Baltimore won’t be going to the playoffs. Cincinnati, which has scored 40 or more in four consecutive games at Paul Brown Stadium, completes an 8-0 season at home.
Take Cincinnati, 31-17
Kansas City (plus 9) at San Diego
Chiefs are locked in as the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs and will be resting many key starters.
Take San Diego, 30-13
New York Jets (plus 6) at Miami
The Jets are 1-6 on the road this season.
Take Miami, 20-13
Washington (plus 3 ½) at N.Y. Giants
Neither team is going anywhere. But at least the Giants appear to be trying.
Take the Giants, 27-20
San Francisco (plus 3) at Arizona
Even if the Cardinals beat the 49ers, San Francisco is in the playoffs at 11-5 and the Cardinals are out if New Orleans wins.
Take Arizona, 21-17
St. Louis (plus 10) at Seattle
The Seahawks need a win for the NFC West title. But St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher has shown he’s willing to pull out all the stops in an attempt to win. Home team should win, though.
Take Seattle, 24-13
Philadelphia (minus 7) at Dallas
Kyle Orton isn’t Tony Romo, which might be a good thing in an elimination game. But he’s also not good enough to win this one.
Take Dallas to cover in a 27-23 loss
Carolina (minus 8) at Atlanta
The Panthers can clinch the NFC South with a win.
Take Carolina, 27-17
Tampa Bay (plus 12) at New Orleans
The Saints are at home, where they’re very tough to beat.
Take New Orleans, 31-16
Buffalo (plus 9) at New England
The Patriots clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win.
Take New England, 27-14
Denver (minus 12) at Oakland
Dennis Allen’s possible going-away present as head coach of the Raiders will be one final beatdown at the hands of Peyton Manning.
Take Denver, 43-20
Jacksonville (plus 11) at Indianapolis
The Colts seem to have righted the ship after a November slumber.
Take Indianapolis, 31-17
Houston (plus 7) at Tennessee
Houston’s last win came against Tennessee all the way back in Week 2. That win put the Texans at 2-0. They’re now 2-13.
Take Tennessee, 24-13
Detroit (plus 3) at Minnesota
Both head coaches in this game are likely to be looking for work on Monday.
Take Minnesota, 24-20
Green Bay (minus 3) at Chicago
Aaron Rodgers will be back for the Packers. Given how Green Bay performed with and without him, he should be the MVP.
Take Green Bay, 27-20
Last week: 8-8 ATS, 11-5 Straight up
Overall: 97-124-7 ATS; 143-82-1 Straight up
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.