Big Ben, Steelers are Focused on Super Bowl, Not National Media's Approval
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 9-0. Since their inception in 1933, the Steelers have never been undefeated this late in the season—not even the great teams that won four Super Bowls in six years in the 1970s. And with less than a week until Thanksgiving, Pittsburgh is the lone undefeated team in the National Football League.
Yet, of everything this team has accomplished this year, they're not the darling of the national media. They're not the lead on SportsCenter after every win. They're not the lead on First Take, Undisputed, or The Herd. Nor are they the bandwagon team that fans seem to jump on this time of year. And it's no secret that Pro Football Focus' algorithms don't favor the Steelers either.
This isn't sour grapes. Some of the lack of excitement or belief that this team is undoubtedly the Super Bowl favorite is warranted. The Steelers barely squeaked out a win in Dallas. They let Philadelphia back in the game with a 17-point lead in the third quarter. They gave up 265 rushing yards in Baltimore and they were a Stephen Gostkowski field goal away from overtime in Tennessee.
However, the Steelers have managed to win every game on their schedule. In the end, that's all you can ask any team to do. The last Steelers team to win the Super Bowl (2008) went into the season with the league's most difficult schedule. That team finished 12-4, which would have seemed like a pipe dream from the outset.
But let's not pretend strength of schedule is the only factor in deciding how good a 9-0 team may or may not be. After all, the Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) are still the majority's favorite to win the AFC. However, the Chiefs' opponents are a combined 33-50 this season while the Steelers' opponents are a combined 33-47-2. Both the Steelers and Chiefs also have near identical point differentials this season, with the Chiefs holding a mere 3-point advantage over the Steelers.
So, what is it? Why are the Chiefs the overwhelming favorite if these two teams inevitably meet in the playoffs? The likely answer centers around Patrick Mahomes, the NFL's 2018 MVP.
I get it. It's hard to bet against the best quarterback in the NFL. Not only is he the best quarterback, he has multiple weapons in the passing game and a decent running game that is currently 14th in the league. Add in a 14th-ranked defense that takes the ball away to complement an elite quarterback who doesn't turn it over, and you have yourself a legitimate Super Bowl favorite.
The national media has chosen its darling team. That's okay. They're a great football team and they are the defending Super Bowl champions. Let's be honest. If the Steelers were in the same boat, fans would be clamoring for the same level of respect from the media.
However, the media doesn't decide the Super Bowl winner. And this isn't the first time the Steelers have been overlooked—fairly or unfairly.
Those great teams in the '70s? They weren't dubbed "America's Team" even though they were the dominant team in that era. Art Rooney Sr. didn't want to take on that mantle. He let his team do the talking on the field. In the end, the Steelers proved themselves to be the better team against the Dallas Cowboys—the team who did accept that title. And they did it on the largest stage in football. Twice.
9-0 is a fine accomplishment in the National Football League—no matter the strength of schedule, the weather in each stadium, or how the games were officiated. A perfect record for more than half of a season catapults the team in the Super Bowl discussion.
16-0 is nearly impossible. Only one team has run the gauntlet since the NFL increased its regular season to 16 games in 1978: the 2007 New England Patriots. And thanks to an Eli Manning scramble and David Tyree helmet-catch, even that team couldn't win the Super Bowl.
An undefeated season would be an amazing accomplishment. However, this Steelers team is not focused on 16-0.
"Personally, the goal isn't to go undefeated," Roethlisberger told the media on Wednesday. "The goal is to win the Super Bowl. We're just going one week at a time. We're not worried about anything other than this week."
This week, the Steelers travel to Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars—a team that has given Pittsburgh fits over the years, regardless of records. And if this ends up being another nail-biter or if this is where the Steelers' perfect streak comes to an end, the bloodhounds in the national media will pounce once again. Big Ben still won't be an MVP candidate. Chase Claypool still won't be a Rookie of the Year candidate. They'll find a way to twist the narrative in their direction.
It doesn't matter. This team is different. This team is special.
This team isn't special because they are perfect. They're not. On Tuesday, head coach Mike Tomlin emphasized his frustration with an anemic running game in recent weeks. No NFL team is flawless, even if they have a flawless record.
However, the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers are special because they understand what it takes to be a team. Even after being named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger immediately put his teammates first.
"Any award you can win is an honor," Roethlisberger said. "The honor shouldn't be presented to just me. It should go to our whole offense because I'm just the facilitator. The line are the ones that block for me that give me the time. I just get the ball out of my hands as fast as I can and let the playmakers make plays. Really, that's an award for this whole offense in my opinion."
We all know Ben is much more than just a facilitator. If he wasn't, the Steelers would have been better than 8-8 in 2019. However, that team-first mentality is what's going to give the Steelers a shot at a Super Bowl run. It all starts with leadership. And the Steelers' quarterback is proving it in his Zoom calls with the media and with his play on the field.
This mindset and team-first mantra is a breath of fresh air for those who knew what was actually going on with the Steelers during the well-documented fallout with Antonio Brown. We knew that Ben Roethlisberger wasn't the problem in Pittsburgh. However, the national media took the "Big Ben is the problem" narrative and ran with it. No matter how many of his teammates came to his defense, the national media somehow knew more.
Thanks to the wonderful gift of hindsight, we can now see how wrong the national media was during the "Big Ben or AB" debacle.
Is Ben Roethlisberger an MVP candidate? I'd make an argument for it. He's on pace to throw more touchdowns and less interceptions than he ever has in his Hall of Fame career. More importantly, he's utilized all of his weapons, breathing new life into a dreadful offense from a year ago. Thanks to an elite defense and superb coaching by Mike Tomlin, it was the only thing missing in 2019. That's why that team was 8-8 and this team is 9-0.
Is Chase Claypool a Rookie of the Year candidate? Absolutely. He likely wouldn't beat out Justin Herbert or Joe Burrow, but nine touchdowns in nine games is hard to ignore.
We can clamor all day and night for the national media to give their approval of Big Ben or the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. A few people in the spotlight have. Many others haven't. This is a day in age where everyone has an opinion. If they have a platform, they're going to use it.
The Steelers' platform is the gridiron. That's where they'll do their talking. And so far, they haven't lost on it. So, let the naysayers naysay.