A couple of tough games have muddled the Pittsburgh Steelers’ chances of winning an AFC North title. Their final two contests, however, could help ensure a return to the postseason.
After consecutive losses in tough matchups, the Steelers have a chance to move closer to clinching a playoff berth when they visit the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night in the first of two games with last-place teams.
Pittsburgh (9-5) lost 29-22 to Jacksonville at home Sunday, one week after losing at undefeated New England 34-13, and has dropped into a tie with Cleveland for first in the AFC North. The Steelers, however, remain in excellent position to return to the playoffs after a one-season absence, especially since they hold the tiebreaker with the Browns and are ending the regular season with matchups against St. Louis (3-11) and Baltimore (4-10).
Pittsburgh can clinch the AFC North with a win Thursday and a Cleveland loss at Cincinnati on Sunday. Even if the Browns win and the Steelers lose, Pittsburgh would secure a playoff spot if Tennessee falls to the New York Jets on Sunday.
“We don’t have time to think about all of that,” Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. “We just have to win Thursday, get in the tournament. Who cares about momentum or whatever? You just have to get in the tournament.”
Matchups with subpar teams, though, haven’t been certain wins for Pittsburgh, which has lost to three sub-.500 clubs in Arizona, Denver and the Jets. Meanwhile, the Steelers have lost two straight overall for the first time this season after facing two of the NFL’s hottest teams in back-to-back weeks.
“Do we feel good about where we are right now? Absolutely not,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, whose team led the AFC North by two games after beating Cleveland 31-28 on Nov. 11. “That’s the mental toughness of this game - you have to stay singularly focused and in the tunnel. Every team faces trials and tribulations.”
The Steelers have been clearly outplayed in their last two games, including Sunday against the Jaguars in their first home loss of the season. It was a typically physical game, leaving Pittsburgh beat up with a short week to prepare for St. Louis.
Although the Steelers remain the NFL’s top-ranked defense, they have been vulnerable over the past two games and may be short-handed as they get set to face a talented Rams offense.
Linebacker Clark Haggans (knee) and left tackle Marvel Smith (back) aren’t expected to play, and defensive end Travis Kirschke (rib) is also hurting. Kirschke is filling in for Aaron Smith (biceps), who is out for the rest of the season.
Those injuries could make it tough for a run defense that will be trying to stop St. Louis star Steven Jackson, who has rushed for 862 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games. Jackson finished with 143 yards on 24 carries - his first 100-yard game since Week 3 - in St. Louis’ 33-14 loss to Green Bay on Sunday.
Against Jacksonville, Pittsburgh gave up 224 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The Patriots, meanwhile, passed for 399 yards and four TDs versus the Steelers.
“Defensively, we can’t play no worse than we are now,” Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said.
Jackson isn’t the only big-play threat Pittsburgh will face Thursday. Marc Bulger has missed time with various injuries this season, but remains a strong downfield passer with an outstanding target in Torry Holt.
Bulger, though, struggled against the Packers, completing 20 of 39 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown while throwing two picks. St. Louis managed to stay within three points of Green Bay at the half, but was shut out the rest of the way.
That’s a pattern that has plagued St. Louis all season. The Rams have outscored their opponents 144-132 in the first half, but have been trounced 217-76 over the final two quarters.
St. Louis coach Scott Linehan has struggled to find a solution.
“Hopefully we can find out in the offseason, so we can turn this thing around,” Jackson said. “Because we have too much talent in this locker room to be losing games.”
Much of the blame can be pinned on the Rams’ defense, which is coming off another terrible game. St. Louis is ranked 27th in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 24.9 points per contest.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has the league’s eighth-ranked scoring offense, averaging 23.6 points per game. The Steelers are led by Willie Parker, who tops the NFL with 1,317 yards rushing.
This will be the first meeting between Pittsburgh and St. Louis since Oct. 26, 2003, when the Rams won 33-21 on the road.
The Steelers are also facing the Rams for the first time in St. Louis. They haven’t played there since Oct. 20, 1985, when they beat the St. Louis Cardinals 23-10.