At 8-0, the Pittsburgh Steelers are still a bit of a mystery

PITTSBURGH -- At the midpoint of the 2020 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the lone undefeated team in the NFL and one of 28 teams in the Super Bowl era dating to 1966 to start 8-0.

But what does it mean?

Let captain Cam Heyward explain.

"It doesn't guarantee anything," the defensive end said after the Steelers held off the Dallas Cowboys 24-19 on Sunday. "All it guarantees is we can go 8-8. That's not saying a lot. We understand the job's not done, but I'm glad that we're in a position where everybody is looking at us.

"You don't have to wait for other people to do their jobs -- they've got to chase you."

Of the 27 teams to start 8-0, all made the playoffs and 15 made the Super Bowl. Eight of those teams won the whole thing. But since 2010, all nine teams that started 8-0 failed to win the Super Bowl. The last team to win a title after an 8-0 start was the 2009 Saints.

Though boasting the best start in franchise history, this Steelers team is still a mystery. They have yet to play four complete, complementary quarters, and yet, their record is unblemished. In the past two weeks, the once-stifling run defense has given up an average of 204.5 rushing yards without nose tackle Tyson Alualu, while the offensive ground game has evaporated to 47 yards per game. The Steelers are starting slow and challenging themselves with second-half rallies, grabbing a lead and clinging to it until the final play.

"I joke that I feel like I'm too old for this stuff," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Sunday. "My body gets worn down on the emotional roller coaster that are these games in the last couple weeks. But we keep winning and having fun with these guys, that's all that matters. I just want to play and win for them."

With wins against the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers defeated two of the NFL's best teams to enter Week 9 undefeated.

The next three games represented their chance to put on a dominant performance, but they failed in the first one, eking out a win against a bad Dallas team on its fourth starting quarterback.

Now they have a chance to rebound against the Cincinnati Bengals (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday, Fox) and then the Jacksonville Jaguars, two teams with a combined record of 3-12.

"We have a group that sticks together, a group that is mentally tough and is able to persevere," coach Mike Tomlin said after Sunday's win. "I'm thankful for that, but obviously we can't keep having these conversations every week, because one of these weeks, we will be doing it with an L if we are not careful."

Though head-scratching, this start isn't unprecedented in the NFL.

Last season, the New England Patriots started 8-0. Through their first eight games, the 2019 Patriots and 2020 Steelers are pretty comparable. In addition to easy schedules -- the Patriots ranked 32nd in FPI strength of schedule, while the Steelers check in at 29 -- each had steady play from a veteran, likely future Hall of Fame quarterback, complemented by an efficient defense. The Patriots' team ranked first in defensive efficiency; the Steelers rank second. Tom Brady's total QBR through those games was 62, while Roethlisberger's is 64.

But the Steelers don't want to emulate that team. The Patriots went 4-4 in the second half of the season and didn't win a playoff game, losing to the Titans in the wild-card round.

Instead, the Steelers should look to a team like the 2006 Indianapolis Colts for a road map of the rest of their season.

Like that Colts team, the Steelers have won the bulk of their games in close matches. Of their eight wins, five have been decided by one score. The only team with more one-score wins in their first eight games of an undefeated start was the 2006 Peyton Manning-led Colts, who won six games by one score.

The 2006 Colts won their first nine games before losing their 10th to the Cowboys, who had recently replaced starter Drew Bledsoe with fourth-year backup Tony Romo.

And, like the 2019 Patriots team, the 2006 Colts lost four of their last eight games.

But that's where the comparison stops. The Colts went on to win Super Bowl XLI against the Chicago Bears, giving the then-30-year-old Manning his first title.

That Colts team ranked 15th in overall efficiency, tied for the lowest with the 2015 Carolina Panthers among the 15 teams that started 8-0 in the 15 seasons of efficiency data tracked by ESPN. The Steelers rank just higher than the 2006 Colts and 2015 Panthers at 13th among the 8-0 teams.

Both the Colts and Panthers went to the Super Bowl in those seasons, though only Indianapolis won.

"It's significant as we sit here today, but once I go to work tomorrow, it will be less significant," Tomlin said Sunday of his team's 8-0 start. "We will be singularly focused on getting ready for our next AFC North opponent, and that is life. I am appreciative of it, but we are not going to dwell on it. We have big-time business coming up with AFC North ball."

With the Bengals up next, the Steelers have an opportunity to further increase their division lead and, more importantly, put together the kind of dominant win that has evaded them. Though the Bengals are 2-5-1, they're trending in the right direction under rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, and a win of any kind for the Steelers is hardly guaranteed.

"We are the Pittsburgh Steelers," Tomlin said. "Everybody knows what that means. We get everybody's best punch regardless of record. I think people respect our brand and our franchise and its history, and that has been my experience over 14 years here."