Playoff hopes dashed but win not moot
Entering the Chargers game, the picture was clear. Wins by Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Minnesota would clinch a wildcard berth for the Stillers. It was also clear that Minnesota would have the toughest time since there were playing at Indy without a healthy Daunte Culpepper. As it turned out, Minnesota did have a tough time and failed to hold up its end of the bargain. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh made it through a rocky game to seize a 34-21 victory from Ryan Leaf and the crew.
The game's early going was quite a ride. After receiving the opening kickoff and going 3-and-out Pittsburgh punted and San Diego started at their own 29 yard line. One play later, they struck gold on a 71 yard TD to ex-Stiller Jeff Graham. Instead of collapsing, the Stillers struck back on the very next touch when Will "Who had surgery?" Blackwell raced 98 yards for a TD. They were back in the game....at least for a minute. Two plays into the next offensive series Kordell dished out a 63 yard interception for a TD. This time, it appeared the team might collapse since the offense disappeared as Kordell looked shaken and the SD defense swarmed Bettis. That is until Poteat, who looked solid all game, shaked and baked his way for a 35 yard punt return to the Pittsburgh 48 - this sparked the first of the offense's 17 second quarter points.
Seven plays after Poteat's nifty return, Stewart hooked up with Hawkins on a 5-yard fade for a touchdown (and yes, Stewart actually threw the fade well). On the next series Brown connected on a 32 yard FG. Then the following series was capped as Stewart rushed for a 19 yard touchdown. The basically put the game beyond SD's reach although SD made a game of it in the third quarter by closing within 3 at 24-21. The Chargers never appeared to regain confidence on offense and the defense couldn't quite shutdown the Pittsburgh O.
It was almost better to see the Stillers struggle for their victory than to have SD roll over and play dead on the final game of their miserable season. For the Stillers, finishing 8-8 would have been better than most predicted but would not have been a winning record and would have been only a minor upgrade to the last couple seasons. At 9-7 though, the team finishes with a winning record which shows a lot of character despite the odds being stacked against them to start the season. On one hand, many feel that they lost too many games that should have been won (Cleveland, Tennessee (twice?) and Philly come to mind), but on the other hand, they were position to realistically win 12 games this season. At the beginning of the season, I felt 5-6 wins was a realistic prediction and felt many losses would be ugly.....but here we are at 9-7 having been within inches of 11-12 wins. The sign of a good team is one that can and does pull off close game victories - Pittsburgh is not an especially good team and they lost a few games they could have won. But, the character of this team cannot be faulted. They won a couple close games against the Ravens and Raiders and they found a way to beat some good teams in the Jets, Ravens and Raiders. They also finally beat the Jags in Jacksonville (the Jags bad season does not matter -- there was much for Pittsburgh to overcome at that point after an 0-3 start and having never won in Alltel Stadium).
To have ended the season on a solid note, with the Black 'n Gold playing as a team and in position to build off of a 9-7 season rather than another losing season provides for optimism and constructive criticism rather than chaos and negative rumors during the offseason. To this note, Kordell will be the man, good or bad, Cowher has made that clear. This may not be bad since he has shown more poise and maturity down the stretch - it's a question now of building on this season and adding consistency. Also, taking the QB position out of the offseason equation makes the offseason efforts simplified since it is a tough position to fill requiring major dollars. That being the case, the questions become... Does Bettis get resigned? What positions need filled? What positions need more depth? The latter, adding depth, is a nice position to be in since last year I there was little focus on building depth due to the plethora of voids in the roster.
So...the Stillers' offseason starts now. While they are not in the playoffs, Stillers fans need not hang their heads in shame. We can look other fans in the eye and look forward to improvement next season.