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What to Watch For
1. Who Will Watch a Meaningless Game?
As Steelers fans, we have been fortunate. The Steelers have been in playoff contention for most of the past decade. In the last ten years they have only posted one season with a record below .500, which was the 6-10 year of 2003 that enabled them to draft Ben Roethlisberger in the spring of 2004. Even in that abysmal year, the Steelers still had an outside opportunity to win the division entering Week 15. After a loss in Week 15 to a terrible Jets team, the Steelers were eliminated from playoff contention and played two meaningless games against San Diego and Baltimore. In 2006, Bill Cowher lost his penultimate game to Baltimore, eliminating the Steelers from playoff contention and dropping their record to 7-8. The Steelers rallied for Cowher and beat Cincinnati in overtime to end the 2006 season. That was the last time the Steelers played a regular season game in which they were already eliminated from playoff contention. That was six years ago. In the last ten years we have only played 3 meaningless games. That is quite the feat for any franchise. Complain all you want about the issues the Steelers have this season, but don't forget how blessed we are as fans to be able to watch a contender year in and year out.
2. Who Will Play?
The Steelers made a series of personnel moves this week, placing Ike Taylor, Heath Miller, Mike Adams, Curtis Brown and Mike Wallace on the Injured Reserve list. On the other side, the Browns have ruled out quarterbacks Brandon Weedon and Colt McCoy as well as running back Trent Richardson. Two teams will play on Sunday at Heinz Field, but both teams will be a shell of their former selves as there is literally nothing to play for. As much as it pains me to say it, this may resemble more of an exhibition game than a regular season game.
3. Who Will Be Back?
For the second year in a row, the Steelers are staring down a hellacious salary cap situation entering next year. Last offseason, the team made some moves than angered many fans by cutting veterans such as Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith. This offseason, the team will face a similar dilemma and with aging players like James Harrison slated to make over $6 million next season, this could be the last game in black and gold for a host of players, including Harrison, Max Starks, Rashard Mendenhall, Casey Hampton, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, and Larry Foote. Other guys with questionable futures include Mike Wallace and Willie Colon, who are both on the Injured Reserve list.
4. Game Theory
Game Theory is the study in mathematics of outcomes that have varying degrees of positive impacts on one's future. The Steelers enter Week 17 in an interesting situation. If the season ended right now, they would have the 14th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Due to Strength of Schedule, the Steelers would currently pick ahead of the two other 7-8 teams (Miami and New Orleans). If the Steelers, Dolphins and Saints end the season with the same record, the Steelers will pick ahead of them. The intriguing part of the scenario enters in when you consider that the Steelers could potentially pick ahead of three more teams as well. If the Steelers lose to Cleveland and Tampa beats Atlanta, Carolina beats New Orleans and/or the Jets beat Buffalo, the Steelers draft position will improve. Despite the head-to-head loss, the Steelers can not pick ahead of the Chargers due to Strength of Schedule tiebreakers. If the Steelers lose and Tampa, Carolina and the Jets all win, the Steelers would pick 11th in the Draft. The other side of the equation if the Steelers win and everyone else around them loses (specifically St Louis, Miami and New Orleans) the Steelers could drop from the 14th pick to the 17th pick. I would never advocate losing a game, especially to a division opponent, but it is important to keep an eye on these other games to see how it will determine the Steelers draft position in April.
Obviously, you never want to lose, especially to the Browns. The Steelers actually have a bit of history riding on this game. For starters, the Browns have not swept the Steelers since 1988. Ben Roethlisberger has never had a losing season. His freshman and sophomore years in college he went 7-5 and his worst professional season was 2006 when the Steelers were 8-8. The Steelers need a win this week to avoid their first losing season since 2003.