The Steelers are favored by 7 1/2 points in their road game Sunday at Soldier Field, which may be a positive development only to fans of betting the underdog — and to fans of the Bears, of course.
Although it would seem playing bad teams would be good news for a team as successful recently as the Steelers, it is one of two departments in which they’ve consistently been deficient.
(The other is anything to do with the Patriots.)
Pittsburgh is chasing its fourth consecutive playoff berth, and sixth this decade, despite a persistent, nagging struggle to deal with broken opponents. In their past 17 games on the road against opponents with sub-.500 records, the Steelers are 5-12. Since Mike Tomlin became head coach in 2007, the Steelers are 21-15 when favored by three or more points in road games, one of the poorest such records in the NFL.
This is a phenomenon that has defied expectation. Are they a poor road team generally? Nope. The Steelers won road playoff games each of the past two seasons and posted winning road records two of the past three years. Their road record under Tomlin is 45-36, a mark that compares well with the 50-38 of Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, his closest peer in terms of longevity and success.
Like a running back using his vision to find the most inviting gap in the defense, Tomlin came into his Tuesday press conference anticipating the Steelers’ issues in this department could become a theme for the week. So he brought it up without being asked.
"I’ve been 0-2. I know the urgency associated with that in this business," Tomlin said. "And I'm sure that they feel it. And I'm sure we're going to get their best effort because of it.
"We're getting prepared with an edge. We're too fragile — we're too new in this team development process, in terms of searching for consistency and acceptable level of play, to take any other approach."
In fact, Tomlin even seemed intent on pointing out the dubious nature of that 5-12 statistic in pointing out that "0-2 doesn't define you at this juncture of the season." Because included in those 12 losses were defeats against a 1-5 Chiefs team that has a 24-4 record in regular-season games since and a 1-4 Dolphins team that won nine of its final 11 games in 2016.
Tomlin maybe pushed his argument a bit too aggressively by suggesting the Bears were not as bad as 0-2, that their two defeats and the overwhelming margin of their loss at Tampa Bay could be the product of “statistics” such as turnovers, of which Chicago committed four against the Bucs.
Some of those "statistics" can be the product of being not very good. Some can be bad luck. Many who follow the Bears already have concluded the source of their calamity is quarterback Mike Glennon, who has two touchdown passes and two interceptions to date. Those two defeats dropped his NFL career record as a starting QB to 5-15.
One of those victories, though, came in September of 2014 against the Steelers at Heinz Field, with Pittsburgh on the way to an AFC North championship and the Bucs on the way to 2-14.
The Steelers ought to recognize by now that although "playing down to the competition" isn't such a far trip in the NFL — with even the league’s poorest teams lining up some elite players and rosters full of professionals — their competition in the division is routinely ferocious and for playoff advantages is supreme.
The Steelers won last season's AFC North by a matter of inches, when Antonio Brown extended the football over the goal line while being smothered by three Ravens. And they haven't won in New England since 2008, when they beat the Patriots with Tom Brady out injured. They would do well to avoid a return trip should both be successful enough to reach the 2017 playoffs.
That won’t happen if Pittsburgh does not beat the teams it is supposed to beat, even if beating them is not as easy as it seems. This could not be clearer.
Tomlin was asked about his "fragile" comment, that particular word seeming incongruous coming from a football coach. But he was direct in his response.
"Because everybody in the National Football League ought to have that mentality," Tomlin said. "Shame on them if they don't."