CINCINNATI – It's right there, close to the top of the list of Steelers commandments, those dictums the franchise has used to guide it to more Super Bowl championships than any other of the NFL's teams. It comes right after "Thou shalt build thy team through the draft" and "Thou shalt use free agency only to patch holes created by free agency."
"Thou shalt win thy division."
Winning a division championship in the NFL these days comes with a nifty cap and T-shirt that you get to wear at the postgame interrogatories and then rarely afterward, but there is no trophy presentation, there is no imminent ring fitting. But the Steelers believe it is the winning of a division championship that provides the clearest path to trophies and rings.
Entering Paul Brown Stadium as they did last Sunday night with a 2-3 record, these Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to have few of the credentials necessary to add to their hat and T-shirt collection, but to twist an old saying to fit today's NFL: the other man's grass is just as brown and overrun by weeds as yours.
Today, after beating the Bengals, 24-17, to raise their record at Paul Brown Stadium to 12-2, the Steelers are at .500, which puts them well within reach of being able to obey their third commandment. The Bengals, after a 3-1 start, have lost three in a row to fall to 3-4, which is good for third place in the four-team AFC North, while the first-place Ravens – at 5-2 – are but one game in the loss column ahead of the Steelers and still in the process of figuring out life without Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb.
That the Steelers can be part of any straight-faced discussion of winning a division championship after showing the rare ability to lose to both the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans within weeks of the same season speaks to the rampant parity/mediocrity gripping professional football in 2012. As the weekend's games were set to begin, there were but two teams in the AFC with winning records – the Houston Texans and the aforementioned Ravens – and both of those outfits had weeds infesting their lawns as well.
The perception of the Steelers up until their trip here cast them as an outfit with a defense incapable of holding onto fourth quarter leads through some combination of age, bad pass defense, injuries, predictability, lack of consistent pressure, with just a pinch of tip-of-the-hat to the opposing group of highly paid professionals mixed in, begrudgingly of course.
Coach Mike Tomlin saw it another way. In the manner of the doctor who when told by a patient, "It hurts when I do this," answered the patient with, "Well then, don't do that," Tomlin's approach was the football version of the doctor's advice.
"For us, it's that we're not performing definitively enough where the game doesn't come down to which team has the ball last. We've been in those kinds of games the last three times we've played. Obviously, we had the ball last one of those times and in the other two we didn't. We need to perform better over the course of 60 minutes so those games don't come down to the last possession."
For the Steelers, their task is to do what the doctor ordered. Through efficient play early, seek to avoid games that come down to the last possession, particularly those in which the other team has the ball, because it would be playing to your weaknesses. In the meantime, maybe some of the injured heal and some of the recently-returned get in a groove, and the weaknesses aren't as weak anymore.
The Steelers are 3-3 now, and the win over the Bengals speaks well of them as competitors and professionals. It also should have proved to them the benefits of following the doctor's orders. And the pain likely to result if they don't.
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