The Pittsburgh Steelers are the latest team that looks to have a shot at emulating the 1972 Miami Dolphins after going unbeaten through their first nine games of the season.
With Ben Roethlisberger back under center after missing almost all of the 2019 season through injury, the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders once again.
And as the weeks have gone by, it has become increasingly difficult to find a prospective loss on their remaining schedule.
No team has gone undefeated throughout the regular season and playoffs en route to Super Bowl glory since the Dolphins did so 48 years ago.
Here we look at the challenges the NFL’s lone remaining unbeaten team face in attempting to replicate that feat.
Keep Big Ben standing
Roethlisberger has played in every game this season despite suffering a knee injury in their win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9.
Any hopes of a Super Bowl triumph, never mind an unbeaten season, are contingent on Roethlisberger staying on the field.
As the 2019 campaign proved, the drop-off from Roethlisberger to Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges is a precipitous one and it is a credit to Mike Tomlin’s coaching that they still managed to finish 8-8.
The data reflects Roethlisberger’s importance. Since 2004, when he led the Steelers to a 15-1 record as a rookie, they have a winning percentage of 68.1 in games he has played. That drops to 57.9 when he is not on the field.
Additionally, the Steelers have averaged 250.2 passing yards in games with Roethlisberger and 177.6 in games where he has been absent. When Roethlisberger is involved the Steelers score at a rate of 24.3 points per game, an average that dips to 20.4 without him.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 20, 2020
Roethlisberger’s passer rating in his 227 games for the Steelers is 94.3 compared to 75.5 for backups who have filled in for him in 38 contests.
The Steelers are also unsurprisingly better in key situations with Roethlisberger under center. Pittsburgh have converted 55.5 per cent of red zone opportunities and 43.4 per cent of third downs with Roethlisberger at quarterback.
With a different signal-caller, they turn a red zone opportunity into a touchdown 44.4 per cent of the time and get the required yardage on only 31.9 per cent of third downs.
Simply put, if the Steelers are to turn their tremendous start into a seventh Lombardi Trophy, Roethlisberger cannot afford to go down.
Maintain defensive dominance
Roethlisberger has been aided by an outstanding defense that is the best in the NFL by a number of measures.
Led by pass rushers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, the Steelers are first in the NFL in sacks with 36. Their advantage in pressure rate is startling, the Steelers pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 35 per cent of drop backs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (27.4%) are the next best team.
It is a similar tale in terms of quarterback hits. The Steelers have registered 92 this season, 18 more than the Baltimore Ravens in second place.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 20, 2020
Their stingy pass defense is allowing a passer rating of 79.2, only the Indianapolis Colts are superior in that regard.
Pittsburgh’s interception percentage rate of 3.6 trails only Indianapolis and the New England Patriots while their adjusted net yards per pass attempt allowed average of 5.0 is also good for third in the league.
The Steelers are slightly more generous to opposing running games, giving up 106.8 yards per game, but that tally is still the ninth-best in the NFL.
As long as the Steelers show this level of stoutness on the defensive side, dealing them a first defeat will be an extremely tough ask.
History against them?
However, history is not necessarily on the side of the Steelers when it comes to their Super Bowl aspirations.
Twenty-eight teams in NFL history have started 9-0 and 27 have made the playoffs – the 1934 Detroit Lions the sole exception.
But, since the merger in 1970, only seven of the 20 teams with 9-0 starts have gone on to win the Super Bowl.
The 2015 Carolina Panthers, the 2009 Indianapolis Colts and, infamously, the 16-0 New England Patriots team of 2007 all tasted defeat on the grandest stage.
— NFL (@NFL) September 21, 2019
Should the Steelers replicate the Patriots’ regular-season heroics then the stakes will be raised as they bid to avoid the same ignominy.
Nobody hangs any banners for 18-1, but the Steelers have plenty of obstacles in their path before they can think about that.
The Steelers have the 20th strongest remaining schedule in the NFL, with this week’s clash with the one-win Jacksonville Jaguars and meetings with the Washington Football Team and Cincinnati Bengals expected to present the least difficulty for Pittsburgh.
But they also have four potential AFC playoff teams left on the docket.
A rematch with the Ravens is an enticing one after the teams played out a 28-24 thriller in Baltimore earlier this month.
And, with the Bengals game sandwiched by a December trip to the Buffalo Bills and contests with the Colts and Browns, the Steelers will have an extremely tricky finish negotiate before they can entertain the idea of joining the ’72 Dolphins in their exclusive club.