Questions: Are Steelers dead? Is Malkin loafing?


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Courtesy of the NFL, via Ed Bouchette’s Steelers blog, comes this sliver of hope for the few who cling to the notion the Steelers are not dead and they can still make the playoffs despite their 3-6 record.

Not only have four 3-6 teams gone on to make the playoffs since 1990, Washington did it just last year when it won its final seven games. This rare feat also happened in three consecutive seasons from 1994-96 with New England, Detroit and Jacksonville pulling off the seemingly impossible.

So . . . can the Steelers do it?

I admit to being being completely unprofessional in my wishy-washyness on this subject. A loss on Sunday has me believing the Steelers are done. But mid-week, I’m reconsidering.

What most goes against the Steelers at this point in the season is there’s no reason to believe they can win seven straight. There is, in fact, scant reason to believe they could go 4-3 in their final seven games. This is a team that lost to Tennessee, Minnesota and Oakland. This is a team that has scored two of its three wins against opponents that were starting rookie quarterbacks.

But there’s always this: In 2005, they were 7-5, losers of three straight and going nowhere. Except, it turns out, to the Super Bowl -- where they won.

This is not to suggest this team will win the Super Bowl. It is to suggest unusual things happen in the NFL. When Washington went on its roll last season, it was coming off three losses to teams that finished the season with a combined .500 record. No one expected it, but it happened.

It’s possible the Steelers don’t need to win their final seven games to make the playoffs. They could win six of seven to finish 9-7 and possibly take the division title. They are only two behind Cincinnati in the loss column and the Bengals have lost two straight.

The game Sunday against Detroit will go a long way toward finalizing the Steelers fate. If they lose to the Lions (6-3), it’s over. But a win would be their signature victory of the season and could indicate they are up for the rest of the schedule.

It’s a long, long shot. But it’s possible.

* * *

What’s unusual about the Penguins’ season is not that they’ve lost three in a row, not that they’ve lost six of their past 10 and not that this one-time offensive juggernaut has scored only 20 goals in the past 10 games. What’s unusual and bordering on amazing is despite these travails they still stand atop the Metropolitan Divisions. Which is to say, they’re not exactly in danger of falling out of the playoff race.

Dwarfing any story line about their recent poor play has been the performance of Evgeni Malkin. The last time Malkin played a full season, 2011-12, he scored 50 goals. He’s on pace to score 13.

In 2011-12, Malkin not only won the scoring title, he won going away with a 12-point advantage over the runnerup. This year he’s tied for 34th. Worse, in goal-scoring, his forte, he is tied for 153rd.

What has happened to the player Penguins fans like to call the second-best player in the world?

Pierre McGuire, one-time Penguins assistant coach and now an analyst for NBC, has a plausible explanation. This is what he said about Malkin to Joe Starkey of The Fan’s ‘Starkey, Mueller and Miller:’

''Well I’m really concerned about Evgeni. I didn’t like his game in New York in the 5-1

loss. I did that game with Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, and Evgeni Malkin didn’t compete hard enough. You can’t massage it, you can’t masquerade. I mean the bottom line is if you want to play in this league you got to compete every single day and every single night. And he’s a star player, he needs to compete harder, I think he knows that.”

Those are damning words, particularly in a sport that so treasures hard work.

More than likely, this is a temporary funk. It has better be. Although the Penguins could make the playoffs with a tanking Malkin, they’ll be headed for a likely early exit unless he considerably picks up his game.


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