The Pittsburgh Steelers are poised to earn their second playoff appearance in as many seasons under coach Mike Tomlin.
At 5-1, Pittsburgh leads the AFC North by two games - a cushion exceeded only by the unbeaten Tennessee Titans in the AFC South. The Steelers' defense ranks as the NFL's stingiest, and Ben Roethlisberger remains a franchise quarterback.
Dominant defense and efficient offense choreographed by the young coach from Newport News: What's not to like?
Injuries and the schedule, that's what. They make Pittsburgh, for reasons beyond Tomlin's control, arguably the most vulnerable division leader in football - Arizona seems a fraud atop the NFC West, but its competition is negligible.
Sunday the Steelers host the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants, also 5-1. It's the game o' the week and the start of the most unforgiving closing stretch imaginable.
Of Pittsburgh's 10 remaining opponents, seven are conceivable Super Bowl squads: New York (Eli), Washington (Clinton Portis), Indianapolis (Peyton), San Diego (LT), New England (Coach Hoodie), Dallas (if Tony Romo's healthy) and Tennessee (who knew?).
The sole blessing for the Steelers is that four of the contests are at home.
Tomlin's brief head-coaching career has been dotted with marquee games. The most similar to this Sunday's was a late 2007 roadie against the unbeaten Patriots. Pittsburgh, 9-3 at the time, got smacked by three touchdowns, recovered to win the division but lost a first-round playoff game at home to Jacksonville.
Earlier this month, the Steelers encountered the Jaguars again and authored the highlight of their season to date, a 26-21 Sunday night road victory. Roethlisberger drove Pittsburgh 80 yards in the waning moments and threw 8 yards to Hines Ward for the winning touchdown.
The Steelers then had a bye week, which couldn't have been better-timed.
Six Pittsburgh starters have missed games with injuries, most notably running back Willie Parker, right guard Kendall Simmons and cornerback Deshea Townsend. Two of their replacements, touted rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall from Illinois and cornerback Bryant McFadden, sustained serious injuries.
Most, if not all, of the fill-ins have performed admirably. McFadden ranks third on the team in tackles and has two interceptions; Mewelde Moore rushed for 120 yards against Cincinnati and averages 5.2 yards per carry; tackle Max Starks and guard Darnell Stapleton helped the offensive line protect Roethlisberger flawlessly against the Bengals (no sacks).
"We have a variety of bumps and bruises that go along with playing football," Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "That will never be an excuse. We will put 11 guys on the field and compete against the defending world champs."
Tomlin sounded optimistic that Parker (knee), fullback Carey Davis (ankle), nose guard Casey Hampton (groin), and offensive tackle Marvel Smith (back) would return to the field Sunday.
At full strength and playing at home, the Steelers should be every part the Giants' equal. Here's why:
Pittsburgh leads the NFL with 25 sacks, 81/2 courtesy of outside linebacker James Harrison. Inside linebacker James Farrior, a University of Virginia alum, leads the team in tackles and is a solid run-stopper.
Parker and Moore could be a formidable rushing duo, and if so, Roethlisberger is a 300-yard passing threat.
Roethlisberger, the Giants' Eli Manning and the Chargers' Philip Rivers were top-15 selections in the 2004 draft. Of the trio, Rivers owns the best winning percentage and touchdown/interception ratio, Roethlisberger the highest passer rating.
Most important, Manning and Roethlisberger have Super Bowl rings.
After facing the Giants, the Steelers head south for a Monday nighter against the Redskins. Pittsburgh then gets consecutive home games against Indy, San Diego and winless Cincinnati, the only time this season Tomlin's bunch enjoys as many as two straight at home.
By homestand's end, we'll have a much clearer picture of the Steelers and how they rate according to Tomlin's standards.
"Ultimately, the quality of depth determines the quality of your football team," he said. "We all acknowledge in this business that injuries are a big part of this game. People's ability to adjust and plug people in and keep the train moving, ultimately those are the teams that are going to be successful."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun