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The weirdest thing in all sports coverage is the overreaction to “guarantees.” In Mike Tomlin’s case, he didn’t even guarantee anything.
Here’s what the Pittsburgh Steelers’ coach said on NBC before Sunday night’s game, and if this upsets you in any way, you’re wound way too tight:
“Oh, we can win it all. We should win it all,” Tomlin told NBC, via the Steelers’ web site. “I sense that about the group. In terms of talent, in terms of having enough competition, depth, I think we check all those boxes. But checking the boxes doesn’t run the race.”
Here’s your headline: Coach of a two-loss NFL team thinks his team can and should win it all. Commence outrage.
What bothered some people is that Tomlin made the unforgivable mistake of not saying he was just looking forward to the next game, but he referenced the Steelers’ game against the New England Patriots on Dec. 17. It seems like a foregone conclusion that game will determine the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
“I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room,” Tomlin said, when asked about it by NBC’s Tony Dungy. “There’s going to be fireworks. But it’s probably going to be part one.
“You’ll burn more fuel trying to pretend like that doesn’t exist than just to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Man, that’s going to be a big game. But probably if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to do, the second one is really going to be big, and what happens in the first is going to set up the second one. It’s going to determine the location of the second one. You know?”
If Tomlin didn’t acknowledge that game, and the ramifications for the playoffs, he’d be the only one. We all know. That game is enormous for both teams.
Nobody should be bothered by any of that. Mostly because the Steelers are an obvious Super Bowl contender, just as Tomlin said.
The Steelers are prone to playing down to the competition, as they did Sunday in a too-close win against the Green Bay Packers, but they’re 9-2. It’s hard to complain. The makeup of the Steelers is exciting, too.
Pittsburgh’s offense wasn’t what we expected the first half of the season. That’s starting to turn around. If you eliminate a weird “play down to the competition” game at Indianapolis, the Steelers are averaging 30 points and 405.8 yards per game since Week 7. Antonio Brown is red hot. Le’Veon Bell is a very productive workhorse back. Ben Roethlisberger is playing better. It’s starting to click.
The defense is the real reason for optimism. We assumed the offense would be among the NFL’s best. The Steelers had room for improvement on defense — they hadn’t finished better than 10th in yards allowed per game or points allowed per game since 2012 — and that has come along. Thanks to some good drafts, including first-round pick T.J. Watt this year, the Steelers are fourth in the NFL in yards and points allowed. If you prefer advanced stats, they entered Week 12 ranked third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. They’re tied for seventh in yards per play allowed. They’re second in the NFL with 38 sacks, sixth in passer rating allowed, tied for fifth with 12 interceptions … it’s a fantastic defense in just about any measure. That makes the Steelers scary.
That brings us to Tomlin’s second point. There is an elephant in the room, and it’s the Patriots. New England has the best offense in the NFL and the defense has played much better since a stunning early-season slump. The Steelers have lost eight of their last 10 to the Patriots. New England still rules the AFC until proven otherwise. Maybe this is the Steelers team that could go on the road and beat the Patriots, but it would be tough. Winning on Dec. 17 and getting home-field advantage over the Patriots seems to be crucial. Tomlin knows that, because everyone knows it. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.
It will be the biggest game this NFL regular season. While teams can get hot and pull some upsets in January, as it stands now the AFC has only two legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The Chiefs have dropped off that list. Jacksonville’s quarterback situation limits its potential. Nobody else in the AFC seems like much of a threat at the moment. It’s the Steelers and Patriots. Tomlin knows. So does everyone else.
Here are the power rankings following Week 12 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-11, Last week: 32)
Josh Gordon is slated to return this week, and Hue Jackson said he’ll play a lot on Sunday. We’ll see how much Gordon can handle. His last game was Dec. 21, 2014. But it’s one of the more interesting stories to track over the remainder of the season.
31. San Francisco 49ers (1-10, LW: 31)
Well, if the 49ers don’t play Jimmy Garoppolo now then it’ll get really weird. Kyle Shanahan said last week that C.J. Beathard deserved another start after playing well against the Giants. Beathard didn’t play well Sunday. Garoppolo threw two passes in the final minute and made more happen than Beathard did in 59 minutes. If the 49ers rush Beathard back from what was termed a bruised lower leg to start this week, then that will add to the speculation the 49ers have some secret Garoppolo plan (like another trade) in mind.
30. New York Giants (2-9, LW: 30)
The Giants had seven first downs last week. Wow. Eli Manning has little to work with, but he’s also not the same quarterback he was. I just don’t know how it would fit the Giants’ rebuilding project — and make no mistake, a full rebuild should be coming — to keep Manning in 2018.
29. Houston Texans (4-7, LW: 28)
In a lost season, Jadeveon Clowney continues to emerge as a star. He was unblockable at times on Monday night.
28. Chicago Bears (3-8, LW: 26)
If the Bears don’t go 4-1 the rest of the way, John Fox is on his way to a third straight 10-loss season. Most coaches don’t even get a chance for three straight double-digit loss seasons, much less a shot at four. A change would probably be for the best anyway. The Bears need a coaching staff that is better equipped to handle Mitch Trubisky’s development.
27. Indianapolis Colts (3-8, LW: 29)
In five of the Colts’ last six games, T.Y. Hilton has two or fewer catches and 27 or fewer yards. That’s bad coaching. Find ways to get the 2016 NFL receiving yards champion the ball.
26. Miami Dolphins (4-7, LW: 27)
You don’t want to see anyone get injured, but Damien Williams’ shoulder injury will presumably force the Dolphins to use Kenyan Drake more. I don’t know that Drake can be a good high-volume back, but unlike the Dolphins the past few weeks, I’m interested to find out. Drake has good talent, though he has to cut out the fumbling (he lost his second of the season on Sunday).
25. Denver Broncos (3-8, LW: 25)
The Broncos are going back to Trevor Siemian this week, mostly because they have to. Paxton Lynch has a high ankle sprain. The Broncos presumably want to see more out of Lynch before they hit an important offseason, though after watching him struggle again Sunday, they might have their answer.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7, LW: 23)
In each of his last two games, rookie tight end O.J. Howard has an identical three-catch, 52-yard stat line. On Sunday he played a season high 74.3 percent of the Bucs’ snaps. It’s good to see his role expanding and that he’s taking advantage of it.
23. New York Jets (4-7, LW: 21)
Josh McCown probably has clinched a job as the Jets’ starting quarterback to start the 2018 season. He has 2,549 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 95.3 passer rating. He has been one of the best stories in the NFL this season and has been a top-15 quarterback, as crazy as that sounds. He’ll be 39 years old next season and the Jets surely have to look for a quarterback of the future, but McCown deserves to start until that young quarterback is ready.
22. Green Bay Packers (5-6, LW: 24)
Brett Hundley has a 59.1 passer rating at home (zero touchdowns, four interceptions). On the road it’s 90.1 (five TDs, three INTs). I have no idea how to rationally explain that.
21. Arizona Cardinals (5-6, LW: 22)
Have the Cardinals unearthed a gem in Ricky Seals-Jones? Seals-Jones was a big-time wide receiver recruit to Texas A&M but didn’t do much there. He never had more than 560 yards in a season. As a senior he had 333 yards and one touchdown. But he switched to tight end with the Cardinals after not being drafted, and after starting the season on the practice squad and not catching a pass before Week 11, Seals-Jones has 128 yards and three touchdowns the last two weeks. He has a great size-speed combination (6-foot-5, 243 pounds, ran a 4.69-second 40-yard dash at the combine) and we might be seeing the start of a really fun breakout.
20. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6, LW: 20)
Rookie running back Joe Mixon finally had a big game, with 114 yards rushing, 51 yards receiving and a touchdown. Yes it came against the Browns, but the Browns have a solid defense. Mixon could provide a nice boost for the Bengals, who aren’t out of the wild-card race yet, down the stretch.
19. Oakland Raiders (5-6, LW: 19)
The Raiders’ season looked dead, but the AFC wild-card race is crazy. And so is the Chiefs’ collapse. Oakland finds itself one game out of the last wild-card spot and one game out of first place in the AFC West. I’m not sure the Raiders have the defense to get it done (they won’t play Paxton Lynch every week), but they’re alive.
18. Buffalo Bills (6-5, LW: 18)
The biggest difference for the Bills on Sunday (aside from having a starting quarterback who wouldn’t throw five interceptions in a half) was the run defense. The Bills allowed 212.7 rushing yards per game over their previous three games, then just 55 against the Chiefs. Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt had 17 yards on 11 carries. Maybe that was due to the Chiefs’ problems rather than a sudden improvement from the Bills, but it was still a promising performance.
16. Dallas Cowboys (5-6, LW: 13)
I’m not down on Dak Prescott. I am down on the group he’s throwing to. I kept expecting the Cowboys to take some shots downfield against the Chargers, but who do they have that can beat a defense deep? Dez Bryant isn’t getting that type of separation anymore; he’s doing most of his work on contested catches. Tight end Jason Witten has had a great career but he’s not stretching the defense. Dallas needs to significantly upgrade its receivers this offseason.
15. Washington Redskins (5-6, LW: 15)
Samaje Perine wasn’t very good early in the season, fell out of the rotation (two carries in a three-game stretch from Weeks 7-9) but got another shot due to injury. In the last two games he has 217 yards on 47 carries and looks capable of contributing in the passing game too. It’s a nice rebound for the rookie back.
14. Tennessee Titans (7-4, LW: 16)
The Titans have won five of six. The teams they beat: Colts, Browns, Ravens, Bengals, Colts again. The last four wins have been by 14 points combined. This isn’t a good football team, but they sit at 7-4. Their next four games are vs. Houston, at Arizona, at San Francisco and vs. the Rams. If they go 3-1 in those games they’re guaranteed to at least be playing for a division title in Week 17.
13. Detroit Lions (6-5, LW: 12)
The Lions’ hopes of a division title are practically done, and their chances at a wild card probably rest on their ability to win on the road. They still have road games against the Ravens, Buccaneers and Bengals. All of those games are winnable, but none of them are gimmes either.
12. Kansas City Chiefs (6-5, LW: 9)
If your main (or only) argument for keeping Alex Smith at quarterback is that the Chiefs still lead the AFC West, that’s not good enough. If you don’t think the Chiefs have any shot of making a Super Bowl with Smith this season, there’s no good case for keeping Smith as the starter (I wrote Sunday night that I thought it was time for the Chiefs to try Patrick Mahomes). But this is important to note: The Chiefs have an easy schedule the rest of the way. They play at Jets, vs. Raiders, vs. Chargers, vs. Miami, at Denver. If the Chiefs win the two home games in Weeks 14 and 15 against their AFC West rivals, they’re very likely to win the division. It just doesn’t look like a team anymore that can make a playoff run.
11. Los Angeles Chargers (5-6, LW: 14)
Since starting 0-4, the Chargers’ only losses were an eight-point loss at New England and a crazy overtime loss at Jacksonville. After their destruction of the Cowboys, it’s pretty clear this is the best team in the AFC West. The only problem is they’re still digging out of an 0-4 hole.
10. Seattle Seahawks (7-4, LW: 11)
The Seahawks defense rebounded nicely from a tough night against the Falcons. The 49ers offense isn’t very good, but the Seahawks held them without a touchdown until the final play. I still have a hard time believing Seattle can be true championship contenders with all their defensive injuries, but Sunday was a good step for them.
9. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-3, LW: 12)
The good news for the Jaguars is they will win the tiebreaker over the Titans as long as they beat the Colts and Texans over the next three weeks, and then beat the Titans in Week 17. If the Jaguars beat the Titans in the finale, they’ll split the season series, which is the first tiebreaker. If the Jaguars also beat the Colts and Texans they’ll finish 5-1 in division games, which is the second tiebreaker, and if the Titans lose to the Jaguars in Week 17 they’ll have at least two AFC South losses.
8. Atlanta Falcons (7-4, LW: 8)
I don’t believe there’s a cause and effect here, but Devonta Freeman has missed practically all of the last three games with a concussion, and the Falcons have had three of their best offensive games of the season without him. I’m still of the thought that Freeman will help a hot offense when he returns, but it’s an interesting dynamic.
7. Carolina Panthers (8-3, LW: 7)
The Panthers have a huge NFC South showdown at New Orleans this week, and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s health is of the utmost importance. The Panthers only have one viable option at receiver, and that’s Devin Funchess. If Lattimore is close to 100 percent and can limit Funchess, I’m not sure where else the Panthers passing offense would turn, especially if tight end Greg Olsen’s foot injury is still an issue.
6. New Orleans Saints (8-3, LW: 3)
I’m not holding it against the Saints that they went into Los Angeles and lost to a good Rams team, especially considering New Orleans was without its top two cornerbacks. What is worth mentioning is that rookie running back Alvin Kamara is the third rookie in NFL history to have 500 scrimmage yards, three rushing touchdowns and three receiving touchdowns in a calendar month, according to NFL spokesman Randall Liu. The other two rookies to accomplish that are Hall of Famers Gale Sayers and Charley Taylor. Kamara might be your NFL offensive rookie of the year.
5. Los Angeles Rams (8-3, LW: 6)
The strategy of the Rams rushing to the line, allowing Sean McVay to relay audibles to Jared Goff before the helmet communication turns off at 15 seconds, is fascinating. Not that McVay needs even more praise, but that’s the kind of “why didn’t we think of that first?” strategy you expect from New England.
4. Minnesota Vikings (9-2, LW: 5)
If the NFL voted for MVP like Major League Baseball and the ballot included 10 names (NFL MVP voters only vote for a winner, not for second or third place), wouldn’t Case Keenum have to be on a 10-man ballot? Keenum has played very well for a team that lost quarterback Sam Bradford after Week 1 and didn’t get Teddy Bridgewater back until recent weeks. Quarterbacks always get too much credit or blame, but it’s hard to deny that Keenum has been a big part of a team that would get a first-round bye if the season ended today.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-2, LW: 4)
Inside linebackers rarely get NFL defensive player of the year consideration anymore, but Ryan Shazier should. His 87 tackles are 29 more than anyone else on the Steelers’ defense. His 10 passes defensed lead the team. He has three interceptions. He covers more ground from the inside linebacker position than anyone other than Luke Kuechly. He won’t get many sacks, a number that draws voters in, but Shazier has been remarkable.
2. New England Patriots (9-2, LW: 2)
Since Chris Hogan injured his shoulder, the Patriots’ offense has scored 41, 33 and 35 points. And yes, New England’s offense is better with Hogan in the lineup. The Patriots won’t tell anyone when Hogan will be back, but it’ll be a nice boost when he returns.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-1, LW: 1)
The Jay Ajayi trade looks peculiar three weeks into it. Ajayi has just 22 total touches in three games. He had just six touches on Sunday. It seems that rookie Corey Clement could have handled the role Ajayi has and it wouldn’t have cost the Eagles a draft pick. However, Philadelphia will be playing deep into January, and perhaps Ajayi becomes more of a factor later in the season.
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