Tim Benz: Sunday's Steelers game is even bigger than you think
Think Sunday’s Steelers game against the Chiefs is a pretty big deal? After a season-opening tie against Cleveland, I’m sure you do.
It’s probably even bigger than you think, especially if you envisioned the Steelers as a true Super Bowl contender. If the Steelers drop to 0-1-1, good luck with that.
Last year, 13-3 wasn’t even good enough to get homefield advantage over the Patriots. And there’s no indication New England has slipped off its perch as perennial AFC favorite, or even that it’ll lose more than four games this season to jeopardize earning the top seed in the conference.
The specter of going to New England and winning the AFC championship game is no less daunting in 2018 than it was in 2017, and we spent the entire 2017 season in Pittsburgh fretting about that potential.
That was until “surviving the ground” became part of our collective vocabulary in mid-December.
The point is, the margin for error when chasing the Patriots is scant, regardless of what year it is. Or what time of year it is. That’s an augmented reality when you have to play them later in the season, as the Steelers do Dec. 16.
The Steelers had a screw-up loss in Chicago last year. That proved fatal when trying to avoid a tiebreaker with the Pats. Might that tie in Cleveland leave them a half-game back in 2018?
The Patriots have won at least 12 games per season since the start of the 2010 campaign. Winning 12 of 16 games over one year is hard enough, although Mike Tomlin teams have done it three times in that stretch. Winning 12 of 14 to close out a year wouldn’t be unprecedented, but it would be rare.
It was done by the Steelers in 1979, 2001 and ‘04.
Barring a dominant run like that, though, if the Steelers don’t win Sunday, they will be forcing themselves to go the hard way through the playoffs. The hard way, as usual, likely would be up Route 1 through Foxborough.
So let’s adjust the goals. Forget the big-picture discussion of keeping pace with the Patriots and homefield advantage. What if you were someone like me who had more modest goals for the Steelers. For instance, maybe a prediction like mine of winning 10 to 11 games, grabbing the AFC North title and perhaps a first-round bye.
Now, even that sliding scale comes into doubt. Those who cover the NFL love to throw around the stat that NFL teams losing their first two games are roughly 90 percent likely to miss the playoffs . Those numbers can be misleading. The Saints made the postseason despite an 0-2 start in 2017. Then again, good teams that make the postseason often don’t lose back-to-back weeks at all.
Since there is significantly less data on teams starting 0-1-1 — that tie in Cleveland was the first season-opening tie since 1971 — we’ll just have to go with the premise of being winless to start the first two weeks for a point of comparison.
To that end, the last time the Steelers failed to win either of their first two games was 2013, and they missed the playoffs, starting 0-4 and finishing 8-8.
The last time they made the playoffs after starting 0-2 was 2002. That team finished 10-5-1 and won the division.
“It is upsetting,” tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. “When you come up with a performance like Sunday, and you don’t get that win against a team you thought you could potentially beat (with a lead) going into the fourth quarter.”
Should the Steelers lose or tie again Sunday, the more critical points would be these:
• They would’ve failed to get a victory in two very winnable games against the worst team in football the last two years, and a quarterback making his second start.
• They would have come up empty in two conference games.
• The Steelers schedule gets significantly more difficult after September. If you had a prediction of 11 wins or more, you probably figured three of them would come in the first three weeks.
“You never overreact after one game,” Villanueva said. “It’s very early in the season. It’s common NFL knowledge that you want to play your best football towards the end of the year.”
True. But is there such a thing as “must win” in Week 2?
No. There isn’t. For the Steelers, though, this is pretty close.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.