Collier: Steelers must take it one game at a time -- or not


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Two games on two successive Sundays in the vicinity of two of your major oceans comprise the fateful football doubleheader of this 2013 Steelers season.

Don't tell me there are no doubleheaders in football.

Practically speaking, there are no doubleheaders in baseball, either.

But the predicament encircling the Steelers demands some kind of dual identifier, perhaps The Thing With Two Heads.

Go ahead if you can do better.

Two games, the first today in California and the second next Sunday in Massachusetts, are the sum of all that's necessary to know relative to where Mike Tomlin's team is ultimately headed.

"For us, it's still one game at a time," Ben Roethlisberger keeps saying. "We can't look at big pictures. We're still in that hole and we're still trying to get out."

Yeah, yeah, but know this: If you go to bed Nov. 3 and the Steelers are 4-4, all things have somehow become possible. If they are instead 2-6 that night, well, let's just say the psychological distance between 4-4 and 2-6 is greater than the 3,091 miles of great American highway between Oakland, Calif., and Foxboro, Mass.

There is a midpoint called 3-5, but it's not significantly more favorable than 2-6 in this view, which means the Steelers not only face a must win against the host Raiders at 4:05 Eastern, they face a must win against the host Patriots on the rebound.

Traditionally, football players would rather chew off their foot than admit they're looking at more than one opponent. Football coaches would rather chew off both feet. But you and I can play 'em two at a time with impunity. It's not unprecedented. Tomlin should know this. Every weekend in the fall, for example, somebody has to play his alma mater, William & Mary.

In part because they needed 43 days to get their first two wins of the season, I'm not sure the Steelers can get two more in eight days, and that's in part because I'm not sure they can get one.

The fact is the Steelers at 2-4 are depressingly similar to the Raiders at 2-4. They've allowed the exact same number of points (132). They've scored almost the exact same number of points (107 to Oakland's 105). Enlarging the picture, they've played the Raiders eight times since 2000 and gone 4-4. Last year in Oakland, they lost 34-31 despite a Roethlisberger passer rating of 123.2.

You could say there just isn't much to separate these franchises right now, except that Oakland hasn't had so much as one winning record in 10 years, a barometer of futility that is downright semi-Bucco.

So yeah, there's that.

Despite being unable to yank a victory out of the so-called Black Hole ("hole" would be sufficient for the Raiders den), the Steelers of October are perfectly capable at the moment, coming off a victory over the Baltimore Ravens in which they actually did the things they're supposed to be able to do on third down.

The offense arranged a fistful of third-and-shorts, and Ben Roethlisberger converted seven times in nine tries on third-and-6 or shorter, including a one-yard shovel pass to Heath Miller for a first-quarter touchdown. In the past two games, both victories, the Steelers went 9 for 14 on these third-and-makeables, a talent that eluded them earlier in the season. In the first two games, for example, they were 1 for 10 on third-and-6 or less.

Further, their bailing wire offensive line has finally begun to block some actual linebackers rather than just bumping around with defensive linemen, letting the 'backers free to pillage.

This kind of basic efficiency could win the first half of the doubleheader, but it won't likely impress the New England Patriots a week from today. If Oakland's been a generic house of horrors for the Steelers, Foxboro has been the House of the Seven Gables -- guilt, retribution, atonement, witchcraft, and Anthony Smith.

Then a rookie defensive back, Smith predicted a Steelers victory there in 2007, a spasm for which Tomlin dubbed him, "young and dumb."

Final: Pats 34, Steelers 13.

But it was no better the next year: Pats 33, Steelers 10. The last three trips to New England have resulted in the Steelers being thumped thrice by a combined 60 points.

The 2013 edition of the Bradyettes doesn't appear to be one of the better ones, however, witness last week's overtime loss to the New York Jets, who -- what's the word? -- stink.

According to www.maketheplayoffs.com, a site that computes each NFL team's chances of reaching the postseason after every game, Pittsburgh's chances are currently listed as 16 percent, which feels a little too promising, until you look at the further computations. There you'll find the projection that, if the Steelers win eight of their remaining 10 games, their chances of making the playoffs are 99 percent.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Right now we're just playin' 'em two at a time.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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