Today, the Pittsburgh Steelers wake up in the same position the Miami Dolphins were in last week. That being a team staring at a road game against an opponent it defeated handily at home earlier in the season. In that way, the hunter has become the hunted, and because this is all playing out in an NFL postseason, the Steelers are about to learn if they have what it takes.
Game action from the AFC Wild Card game against the Miami Dolphins.
Yesterday at Heinz Field, the Steelers were presented with the opportunity for some payback, and they took care of that business joyfully and thoroughly. They made Jay Ajayi pay for rushing for 204 yards against them back on Oct. 16, and they unleashed their big guns on offense to reduce to rubble a defense that had dominated them the very same October afternoon.
It ended 30-12 in their favor, an almost perfect numerical answer to their 30-15 loss almost three months ago. And because their victory came in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, the Steelers advance to the Divisional Round for a game in Kansas City against the Chiefs next Sunday, while the Dolphins' season has come to an end. In the payback category, it doesn't get much better than that.
But because this is the single-elimination phase of the process, it's all about what's next, and so the Steelers have little time to bathe in the feel-good of what they did yesterday at Heinz Field, because if they more than dip their toes there they themselves quickly will join the Dolphins as yesterday's news in these NFL playoffs.
"I think we can be better," said Ben Roethlisberger during the game's postmortem. "I think it is a little bit of a false positive, if you will because you start out so well. We went down and scored the first three series, I think, and we were kind of doing whatever we wanted to. And that is a really good defense, especially their front seven. I don't know what it was, but it will be addressed this week. I wouldn't say 'addressed' because that sounds so harsh, but we will talk about it. It's just the little things. I mentioned before this game, the 'my bads' are usually not good. You can't usually correct 'my bads.' You can't have them. It's just the way it is in the postseason, and I think in the second half we had a little bit too much of that."
The highlights will tell a different story, of course, but they cannot allow themselves to be seduced by what's going to prove to be a false narrative. The highlights will throw bouquets at Antonio Brown for his five catches for 124 yards, including two magnificent plays that turned into touchdowns of 50 and 62 yards. But Brown also dropped two passes, maybe three after the video is graded.
For his part, Roethlisberger completed his first 11 pass attempts for 188 yards and two touchdowns, but then he threw an interception that gave the Dolphins a chance to make it a one-score game even after being dominated for nearly two full quarters, and then a second interception with a little more than four minutes remaining in the game was a poor, needlessly aggressive decision in a situation where he also exposed himself to an unnecessary hit.
There were other examples of "my bads," and Brown's and Roethlisberger's are cited only because they happened in the open for everyone to see, and because as stars more is expected from them. But there were other "my bads," too many others given the situation that awaits them in Kansas City. There, the Chiefs will be smarting from the 43-14 spanking the Steelers administered back in late September at Heinz Field, and Andy Reid figures to use the video from that embarrassment the same way Mike Tomlin last week used Oct. 16 to get his team's attention for yesterday's rematch.
The Steelers have to stay ahead of the curve. They have to remain, in Tomlin's words "a legitimately humble, hard-working, blue-collar group," and it will fall to the team's leaders because this is one of those things that has to be conveyed player-to-player to have maximum impact. And "convey" doesn't necessarily mean "tell." It can mean "show."
This morning, Monday, before it got light outside, William Gay was in the weight room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex beginning the process of getting his body ready for what's next. That's the same James Harrison who came to the rescue yesterday with a sack/strip of Matt Moore late in a first half that was looking like it would end with the Steelers leading by only 20-13 despite controlling the flow and tempo of the action for most of the 30 minutes. And when a team controls the flow and tempo of the action for long stretches but doesn't have sufficient evidence of that on the scoreboard, well, bad things have a way of happening.
Of Harrison's sack/strip, Tomlin said, "It was just a good disguise. That's just the savviness of a guy like James. He showed coverage and rolled down late and came off the edge, and was unblocked because of it."
Harrison's diligence in preparing himself physically, then doing the homework to learn the opponent and the game plan devised to attack the opponent, then practicing on the field what he learned in the classroom, all of that is what led to the sack/strip against the Dolphins, and continuing to be diligent even as outsiders are shouting hosannas is what it's going to take for the Steelers to continue on in these playoffs.
They find themselves in an exciting place, but one that is also dangerous. After handling the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers have announced their presence and alerted each of the eight teams still in this with them that they are a legitimate threat. They have targeted themselves, and their reality is that any subsequent step they attempt to take is going to be more difficult than the previous one.
Oh, and that whole payback thing is going to be working against them now, too.