There's no disputing that the next two games are huge for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens come to town, and everyone knows what that means: The Steelers get another crack at ending Tom Brady's dominance over them and get an opportunity to avenge a season-opening beatdown from the Ravens.
Eight weeks into the regular season, the Steel City gets to see if this year's team has championship mettle. The Steelers can prove they're a major player in the AFC by beating the Patriots. They can show who's in control of the AFC North by taking down the Ravens.
Who are the Steelers at this point? They've beaten the teams they're supposed to beat. Pittsburgh's five victories have come against Seattle, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Arizona -- teams with a combined 8-24 record (.250).
This isn't a knock against the Steelers, because the Ravens haven't been able to do the same (see the Monday night game at Jacksonville). The point is the Steelers don't have a marquee win yet. They don't have a victory that exclaims they're the team to beat. Shutting out the Seahawks and finishing off the Cardinals pads the win total but doesn't send messages.
Pittsburgh has gone against two legitimate playoff contenders (Baltimore and Houston) and lost both times. In fact, the Steelers have looked below average in both games. (Let's be clear, the adjectives "old" and "slow" were not used to describe those performances, but some people have.)
Statements can be made by the Steelers if they can knock off the AFC's top-rated quarterback and the NFL's top-ranked defense. Those are the types of victories that build confidence in the locker room as well as a playoff-caliber résumé.
In coach Mike Tomlin's Tuesday news conference, a reporter brought up the importance of securing the inside track on a playoff seed midway through the season.
"It's October," Tomlin said. "We are just trying to win week to week and keep pace with the elite and put ourselves in position to be considered in that conversation. Those things will sort themselves out. I truly believe that. We like to stay focused on things that are in our control, and that's our preparation and, ultimately, our play this week. When you start talking about playoff seedings and things of that nature, particularly at this point in the season, you are scoreboard watching. That's not going to be our bag."
Tomlin added: "We are going to see enough quality teams over the rest of this season to deal with a lot of those things firsthand, and that is really how we prefer to look at it."
That's not exactly true unless there's a different definition of the term "quality teams." After playing New England and Baltimore, Pittsburgh finishes the season with four games against Cleveland and Cincinnati as well as games against Kansas City, San Francisco and St. Louis.
The Steelers will likely be favored to win all of them. No one truly knows if the Bengals and Browns will be able to sustain solid starts. The 49ers are the best in a bad division. And the Chiefs and Rams have looked horrible at times this season.
That's why the games against New England and Baltimore aren't "must wins" in terms of the playoffs. Pittsburgh realistically could lose both and easily make the playoffs by running the table.
The problem is the Steelers might not see Heinz Field in the playoffs if they lose these games. Yes, it's October. But games in the fall count just as much as those in the winter when it comes to tiebreakers.
Some suggest that the Steelers’ game against Baltimore is more important because of the implications in the division. Tomlin acknowledged his team is more emotionally vested in the Ravens rivalry than the one on Sunday, despite the fact that the Patriots stopped Pittsburgh from going to the Super Bowl in 2001 and 2004.
"Many of our guys were not a part of this history when it started, because you are talking about 2001 and 2004,” Tomlin said. “So, it's not similar in that way. We play Baltimore twice a year, sometimes three times a year over the last three to five years. So it's different from that standpoint. I am not going to assume anything. I am going to educate our guys about this matchup and this football team because it is different in that way."
What the Steelers have proved so far is they don’t suffer letdowns (except for one half against the Jaguars) and they don’t make excuses.
Pittsburgh is sitting atop the AFC North even though it has put out different starting lineups for the offensive and defensive lines each week. The Steelers have watched a top pass-rusher (James Harrison) go down for an extended period and their most experienced wide receiver (Hines Ward) leave last Sunday’s game.
At this point, the Steelers have overcome challenges to beat the teams they’re supposed to beat. Now let’s see if they can beat the teams they need to beat.
"We are perfect by no stretch," Tomlin said. "I think we are improving and finding ways to win along the way. The arrow is pointed up, and we need to continue moving in that direction."