Numerous pundits have all but written off the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it's not even preseason yet. Last week, I challenged one such naysayer after he pessimistically forecasted a six-win season for the Steelers, who haven't had six wins or fewer since 2003.
Below are my predictions for the 2010 regular season. Admittedly, like in any fortune-telling, power-ranking, list-making piece of sports journalism, my methodology is imperfect. And in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I think stories like this are inherently silly.
But they're fun, too. So in the interest of minimizing some of the silliness, rather than picking a winner outright, I've assigned a percentage chance, in five-percent increments, of a Pittsburgh win. After all, any NFL team can win "any given Sunday," and I don't really know who the winners will be. With that in mind, let's get started.
September - How Many Reaction Shots Of Ben Roethlisberger Holding A Clipboard Will We Suffer Through?
Week 1 - Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are a scary team. Young quarterback Matt Ryan could make strides after a middling sophomore campaign, and the rest of the offense certainly has no shortage of firepower, with wide receiver Roddy White, tight end Tony Gonzalez, and running back Michael Turner. Many writers expect the Steelers to rely on the running game during Roethlisberger's absence, but don't be surprised if they come out passing in the season opener. Despite Atlanta's offseason acquisition of former Houston Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson, its pass defense (ranked 28th in the league last year) is still quite vulnerable. And besides defensive end John Abraham, who at 32 could be losing a step, there's no pass rusher who should scare the Steelers.
Chance to win: 60 percent
Week 2 - @ Tennessee Titans
Pittsburgh eked out a win against the Titans in last year's season opener, an ugly, defensive struggle. On an encouraging note, however, the Steelers were one of the only teams last year that made running back Chris Johnson look mortal. Moreoever, the Tennessee offensive line is vulnerable up the middle after the departure of center Kevin Mawae. Look for the Steelers defense to force erratic quarterback Vince Young -- assuming he's not serving a suspension -- into making some bad decisions. (Bad like throw-an-interception bad, not like get-into-a-fist-fight-at-a-strip-club bad.) Finally, this is a club that finished second-to-last in 2009 against the pass. I expect surprisingly big numbers from Byron Leftwich through the first two contests.
Chance to win: 65 percent
Week 3 - @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are a bad team. Like, really bad. For a while, it looked like they might go 0-16 last season until they notched a win against the Seattle Seahawks and a shocking upset of the New Orleans Saints, their only two victories of the season. Offensively, they were -- well, offensive. They averaged a mere 15.2 points per game and ranked near the bottom of the league (28th) in total yards. While second-year quarterback Josh Freeman now has some experience under his belt, he may be throwing to two rookie wide receivers (Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams) in 2010. The Bucs were the worst in the league against the run last season, so expect Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall to go hog-wild in this one.
Chance to win: 85 percent
October - Two Division Rivals And A Super Bowl Champion
Week 4 - Baltimore Ravens
Here's the one every Steelers fan will be talking about all through September. The Steelers found themselves in a similar situation late last year: In Week 12, they faced the Ravens without Roethlisberger and lost in overtime, in heartbreaking fashion. That game was in Baltimore, though, while this one will play out at Heinz Field. And in addition to being without Roethlisberger, the Steelers were without Troy Polamalu last year, as well. So why give the Steelers less than a 50 percent shot? Simple: The Ravens have had a terrific offseason. Much has been said about their questionable depth at cornerback and Ed Reed's hip injury, but the Baltimore defense is still a very good unit that will benefit from an excellent draft class. Furthermore, nearly all the key players from last year's offense are young guys (Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, Michael Oher, Ben Grubbs) who have yet to hit their ceilings. Add the acquisition of former Arizona Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin and (albeit to a much, much lesser extent) speedster Donte Stallworth, and this looks like a very scary offense indeed. If the Steelers can put a decent number of points on the board with Leftwich at the helm, this game might come down to Pittsburgh's ability to put pressure on Flacco.
Chance to win: 40 percent
Week 5 - Bye (earliest possible return for Roethlisberger)
Week 6 - Cleveland Browns
Let us not speak of Pittsburgh's epic meltdown in Cleveland last year. I have no explanation for it. By all measures, the Browns were a truly horrid team. They were the worst offense in the league in terms of total yards and passing yards, and second-to-last in yards allowed on defense. Assuming Roethlisberger's suspension is only four games -- and that's all it will be, trust me -- Cleveland at home looks mighty tasty coming out of the bye. This contest could give the Pittsburgh quarterback a great opportunity to shake off the rust and start his season. The main concern here is Cleveland's pass rush, which brought down Roethlisberger eight times (five times on third downs) during The Game Of Which We Shall Not Speak. That and the challenge the defense and special teams will face in containing Joshua Cribbs. If Cleveland somehow beats Pittsburgh two times in a row, it's going to have to be another ugly one.
Chance to win: 80 percent
Week 7 - @ Miami Dolphins
I love the Dolphins this year. If third-year quarterback Chad Henne can improve on his promising numbers last year -- and that has to happen now that Miami acquired elite receiver Brandon Marshall from the Denver Broncos -- this team could take home the AFC East crown. The defense has also improved, with the addition of former Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby, who is in the prime of his career. The Dolphins also have an exceptional two-headed power rushing attack, as Ronnie Brown (when healthy) and Ricky Williams can keep the chains moving from the Wildcat package. Where the 'Phins struggle is pass defense; their corners are shaky at best (24th against the pass), and Roethlisberger torched them last year.
Chance to win: 55%
Week 8 - @ New Orleans Saints (latest possible return for Roethlisberger)
It's tough to pick the Black & Gold against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, at least right now. Quarterback Drew Brees plays a very similar game to the recently retired Kurt Warner; he gets rid of the ball really fast, so even teams with an exceptional pass rush like Pittsburgh can have difficulty getting the Saints offense off the field. They're also a very underrated rushing team. Halfback Pierre Thomas (5.4 yards per carry) might have been the most criminally underused player in the league last year. The Steelers can score on a pretty average New Orleans defense, however, this unit -- led by safety Darren Sharper and linebacker Jonathan Vilma -- can really rack up the turnovers, simply because the lead they're almost always playing with affords them the opportunity to take risks by jumping routes or going for the strip.
Chance to win: 35 percent
November - Remember When The Raiders Were A Cakewalk? At Least The Bills Still Are!
Week 9 - @ Cincinnati Bengals
I'm not sure there's an NFL team that confuses me more than the Bengals. Not too long ago, it looked like Carson Palmer was poised to become the next Peyton Manning and torment the rest of the AFC North for the next decade. Flash forward three seasons and Palmer, a perennial injury risk, helms a piddling aerial attack that no longer strikes much fear in the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators. Despite inconsistent play from Palmer and his puttering offense, the Bengals won a number of close contests in grind-it-out fashion, due in large part to the sudden emergence of their defense, ranked fourth in the league in yards allowed. Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall might be the best cornerback tandem in the league, Rey Maualuga could take huge steps forward this season at linebacker, and defensive end Antwan Odom was on a tear (eight sacks in five games) before an Achilles injury ended his 2009 campaign. I think the Steelers will win this game -- especially by using tight end Heath Miller to exploit Cincinnati's weakness at safety -- because I think they're ultimately the more talented team, but I'm willing to call this one a coin flip due to Cincinnati's sweeping the Steelers last season, the tiny perk of home field advantage, and the potential emergence of road-grading right tackle Andre Smith in what is already a pretty potent power rushing attack (ranked ninth in the league).
Chance to win: 50 percent
Week 10 - New England Patriots
The Patriots were a good but not great team last year. They held on just enough to win their division, then were promptly handled by the Ravens en route to a first-round playoff exit. The Pats' overall statistics are very good (third in yardage offensively, fifth in scoring defense), but when you consider that they may be without standout guard Logan Mankins (trade request) and possession receiver Wes Welker (injury), the team looks a lot less formidable. The loss of Richard Seymour up front last season turned New England's previously unmovable front seven into a unit teams can actually run on. Defensively, the key to beating Tom Brady and company -- as we all saw when the Giants completely undressed New England's pass protection and spoiled their perfect season -- is relentless pressure. Few teams are as equipped to bring that as the Steelers, who should win a close one in Week 10.
Chance to win: 60 percent
Week 11 - Oakland Raiders
The Raiders might be the most improved team in the league. (Baltimore is certainly in that discussion, too.) Yes, their 29 total wins over the last seven seasons is a truly ghastly number. But the few times I've been able to watch an Oakland game -- being an East Coast kid -- I've been struck by how easily they could aspire to mediocrity if they only had an even remotely competent quarterback. Enter Jason Campbell, a league-average quarterback who has yet to hit his statistical ceiling. The Raiders have long been an effective running team -- and if head coach Tom Cable has any sense at all, he'll give Michael Bush (4.8 ypc) and not Darren McFadden (3.4 ypc) the majority of the carries this year -- but now they can pass, too. On defense, there are some legitimate heavy hitters: cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, oldie-but-goodie Richard Seymour at defensive end, and (I'm calling it early, I know!) rookie Rolando McClain in at middle linebacker to replace the great Kirk Morrison. What I'm getting at is that Oakland definitely has some talent. With a quarterback not named JaMarcus Russell, they can remain competitive against anyone, as Steelers fans know all too well from last year.
Chance to win: 65 percent
Week 12 - @ Buffalo Bills
The Bills might be the worst team in football next season. Their offensive line is porous, and my three-year-old nephew could run for four yards per carry against their front seven. You know things are really bad when your "quarterback controversy" is Trent Edwards v. Ryan Fitzpatrick v. Brian Brohm. Ugh -- I just threw up in my mouth a little. Despite all their deficiencies, the Bills have great depth at running back, so it was perplexing to see Buffalo take C.J. Spiller (who could turn out to be a great player, don't get me wrong) with the ninth pick in the draft. About the only thing the Bills do well is defend the pass (they were second in the league in yards allowed through the air and among the best in interceptions), so expect Mendenhall to have a huge game, leading Pittsburgh to an easy win.
Chance to win: 95 percent
December -Three 2009 Playoff Teams In As Many Weeks
Week 13 - @ Baltimore Ravens
There's no question that this matchup should have serious implications in terms of who takes home the AFC North crown. I'm not shy about saying I think by this point in the season, the two teams in the running will be Pittsburgh and Baltimore. (Sorry, Cincy fans -- but not really.) Although the Steelers will have Roethlisberger at their disposal, a luxury they won't enjoy during the Ravens' Week 3 clash at Heinz Field, I still give Baltimore the edge on their home field. Typically, the Baltimore/Pittsburgh jaunts are billed as defensive struggles (even if they often aren't; check the game logs), this may be the first year that analysts predict a shootout between the two squads. I can't say that would surprise me, especially if the young players on the Ravens offense take the next steps in their development. Nonetheless, if Roethlisberger gets hot and takes care of the football, there's obviously no reason Pittsburgh can't steal this one away from Baltimore.
Chance to win: 45 percent
Week 14 - Cincinnati Bengals
I see the Cincinnati as being the odd team out in the AFC North. Their sweep of Pittsburgh could prove difficult to repeat if the Steelers special teams learn to tackle and Roethlisberger simply plays better against the Bengals. What's more, Mendenhall had yet to emerge in the teams' first meeting. What I'm getting at is that while I concede that Cincinnati was the better team the two times they met the Steelers in 2009, I'm still convinced that Pittsburgh is the better team -- that its best football, when it plays it, is better than Cincy's. Of course, a healthy Polamalu in the box, stuffing the Bengals' rushing attack and cutting offensive drives short, goes a long way. Both contests should be close, but when all is said and done, I bet Cincinnati finds itself on the other side of the broom in 2010.
Chance to win: 55 percent
Week 15 - New York Jets
I think I'm the only person alive who expects the Jets to fall back down to earth after 2009, a season that saw their new head coach claim they were out of the playoffs, only to land one game short of the Super Bowl. No team ran the ball more than the Jets last year, and while former Pittsburgh guard Alan Faneca had lost a step in pass protection, losing him to the Arizona Cardinals could jeopardize the effectiveness of New York's ground game, despite the presence of center Nick Mangold and tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Of course, the defense was terrific last year (first in scoring, yards allowed, and against the pass), but I'm not convinced the Jets can do it again with a glaring weakness at free safety and the potential for aging nose tackle Kris Jenkins to fall to injury. Even if the Jets spend the first 14 weeks of the season proving me wrong and tearing it up on defense, the Steelers should fare well enough against them. Keep in mind that Rex Ryan's schemes are old hat to Pittsburgh, thanks to Ryan's days in Baltimore. Their zone-blitzing 3-4 isn't much different than the unit that lines up against Roethlisberger on the practice field. Expect LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison to make Mark Sanchez's life difficult and force the young quarterback to turn the ball over.
Chance to win: 60%
Week 16 - Carolina Panthers
I'm rooting for Matt Moore to retain the Panthers' starting quarterback position this season -- and beyond, if he can build on his promising five-game stretch at the end of 2009. The undrafted QB was basically the anti-Delhomme, throwing for eight touchdowns, two interceptions, and an impressive quarterback rating of 98.5. However, Steelers fans will be rooting for a Jimmy Clausen sighting, as it would be a joy to see Dick LeBeau's defense tee off on a rookie quarterback as the season draws to a close and scenarios for a potential playoff berth become more and more clear. No matter who is under center, the Panthers have one of the best young offensive lines in the league and an amazing one-two punch on the ground with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Nonetheless, their defense is unremarkable beyond tackling machine Jon Beason and cornerback Chris Gamble. After the departure of Julius Peppers to Chicago, the Panthers' front four could be ripe for a Mendenhall mauling when Week 15 rolls around.
Chance to win: 80 percent
January - Like LeBron James, The Steelers Will Leave Cleveland In Tears... Hopefully For The Playoffs
Week 17 - @ Cleveland Browns
Pittsburgh fans would love to see their team close out the season with a win over a division "rival." (Despite last year's Game Of Which We Shall Not Speak, I still use that term charitably.) Barring injuries -- and, I suppose, a potential late-season audition for Cleveland rookie quarterback Colt McCoy if turnover-factory Jake Delhomme does what turnover factories do best -- nothing much should change from the Steelers/Browns clash in Week 6. The weather could be a factor in December, but that doesn't necessarily favor either squad, since neither team minds playing ugly football if necessary. (The only difference being that Cleveland often doesn't play that way by choice!) Assuming Roethlisberger can evade the Browns pass rush in October, he should be fine for this contest, too.
Chance to win: 80 percent
Let's do some math:
0.60 + 0.65 + 0.85 + 0.40 + 0.80 + 0.55 + 0.35 + 0.50 + 0.60 + 0.65 + 0.95 + 0.45 + 0.55 + 0.60 + 0.80 + 0.80 =
Total wins: 10.1
Now, I'm willing to knock a game off this total to account for my bias as a Steelers fan and for the absurd nature of predicting a league as wild as the NFL. Either way, the naysayers are way off. I fully expect the Steelers to win nine or ten games, despite their horrendous offseason.
Come December, the Steelers will be in the playoff discussion. Whether they can snag the crown in a very tough division or sneak into the postseason with a wild-card berth, well, I'm less confident about all of that. But for now, Steelers fans can only kick back and play the waiting game.