THE STEELERS? Really? The team with the suspended starting quarterback? The one that traded away a Super Bowl MVP? The club that couldn't beat the Chiefs or the Raiders in 2009? The defensively mortal Steelers? The geezer Steelers? Green Bay in the NFC you can understand, especially after Aaron Rodgers's phenomenal preseason. But Pittsburgh? The football gods are laughing, and the karma gods are weeping.
This should be a year in which the Steelers get their comeuppance for treating alleged sexual assault more lightly than a violation of the league's substance abuse policy: Pittsburgh retained star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whom two women accused of forcing himself on them, while whacking star receiver Santonio Holmes, ignominiously traded to the Jets for a fifth-round pick after his second substance-policy violation.
But Super Bowl predictions, at least mine, have nothing to do with morality or justice. They have little to do with the previous year's form, either. The Super Bowl favorite on Labor Day is usually nowhere to be found come February. Note the last three NFL champions:
• The Giants, in the 2007 season. They were coming off an 8--8 2006 campaign in which they had lost six of their last eight and very nearly got their coach fired. As a 10--6 wild card in '07, New York beat the Bucs, the Cowboys and the Packers on the road in the playoffs and knocked off the 18--0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
• The Steelers, 2008. They'd gone 10--6 the year before but lost twice at home to Jacksonville in the last four weeks, including a playoff stinker. In '08, behind a stifling defense, Pittsburgh went 12--4 and beat Arizona in a thriller in Super Bowl XLIII.
• The Saints, 2009. They'd finished the previous season 8--8, with the league's 23rd-rated defense, but last year rode Drew Brees's arm to the franchise's first championship, beating the favored Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
Maybe you saw one of those coming. I doubt it. That's because it's impossible to forecast factors such as injuries, emerging players and the true ease or difficulty of a schedule. Regarding injury, I'd argue that the Steelers' two most valuable defensive players are strong safety Troy Polamalu, the definition of a roaming playmaker, and defensive end Aaron Smith, the most underrated player of his generation. (Ends in the 3--4 system who don't pile up sacks—Smith has just 44 in 11 seasons—get no credit, though defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will tell you that Smith's prowess against the run makes the Pittsburgh defense work.) Polamalu and Smith each were limited by injury to five games last year. There's no certainty, of course, that those two will last 16 games in 2010, but if they do, the Pittsburgh defense will be as stout as ever.
On offense the Steelers' MVP might be Roger Goodell. At press time it appeared likely the commissioner would reduce Roethlisberger's suspension from six games to four for good behavior—Roethlisberger spent the summer kissing babies and signing every autograph within miles at training camp. Byron Leftwich and/or Dennis Dixon should be able to navigate a friendly first-month schedule (Atlanta, at Tennessee, at Tampa Bay, Baltimore) and hand Roethlisberger a 3--1 team when he returns. A six-game suspension? That would be trouble, obviously.
I like three young players to emerge in Pittsburgh: versatile second-year defensive end Ziggy Hood, who was a terror in training camp; second-year man Mike Wallace, who'll replace Holmes as the big-play wideout opposite Hines Ward (wait until you see him cut and turn upfield); and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, whose speed and power should bolster a weak interior line.
One thing about picking Pittsburgh does concern me. Last year, when coach Mike Tomlin implored his players to reach inside themselves and pull out that championship something, the Steelers lost to Kansas City. Then to Baltimore. Then to Oakland and Cleveland. I worry about a coach who can't draw that sense of urgency out of his men.
But I was impressed by what I saw of the Steelers on my training-camp visit to Latrobe, Pa. One play in particular. James Harrison, the 32-year-old linebacker, positioned himself as the gunner in punt coverage. Rookie Antonio Brown from Central Michigan lined up for the return. Harrison, the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2008, is not paid to rocket past kids desperate to make the roster in the dog days of camp. But that's exactly what he did. Harrison bolted downfield and veered in, unblocked, toward Brown. Flustered, the kid juggled and then fumbled the punt. Tomlin howled with delight. "Kid got so nervous his arms wouldn't work!" the coach yelled. Later, talking about the veteran linebacker, Tomlin said, "Now that's a football player. At bed check here in camp, he'll be recopying his notes from the meetings during the day. He wants to get it perfect."
If Super Bowl picks were scientific, we'd take the defending champions every year and be right 15% of the time. (In the last 20 seasons there have been three repeat champions.) Super Bowl picks have to be made on feel. When 32-year-old former All-Pros are running 90 miles an hour on punt coverage in August, it's a good sign. In a league with so many unknowns in Week 1, Harrison's scaring the tar out of some poor kid from Central Michigan is the kind of metaphor I like. February 6 in Arlington, Texas: Pittsburgh 33, Green Bay 27.
Peter King forecasts the 2010 winners
Most Valuable Player
Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Packers
Offensive Player of the Year
Chris Johnson, Running back, Titans
Defensive Player of the Year
Justin Tuck, Defensive end, Giants
Offensive Rookie of the Year (tie)
Ryan Mathews, Running back, Chargers
Dexter McCluster, Running back, Chiefs
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Ndamukong Suh, Defensive tackle, Lions
Coach of the Year
John Fox, Panthers
Comeback Player of the Year
Wes Welker(left), Wide receiver, Patriots
I LIKED WHAT I SAW IN LATROBE. WHEN 32-YEAR-OLD ALL-PROS ARE RUNNING 90 MILES AN HOUR ON PUNT COVERAGE IN AUGUST, IT'S A GOOD SIGN.
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
BACK IN BLACK A healthy Polamalu will have the Steelers' defense humming again—just one reason to sense something special in Pittsburgh in 2010.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (WELKER)