If the Pittsburgh Steelers fail to earn a shot to defend their Super Bowl title, they won’t have a problem pinpointing exactly when their season began to crumble.
The Steelers have followed their stunning five-game losing streak with consecutive wins, but they’ll need some help along with a road victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday to avoid following another championship by failing to qualify for the playoffs.
Pittsburgh (8-7) dropped two of its first three before embarking on a five-game winning streak, but just as it seemed the Steelers were rediscovering the play-making that led them to a record sixth Super Bowl title, they fell apart. Pittsburgh’s first five-game slide since 2003 included loses to AFC lightweights Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland.
If the Steelers have played to the level of their competition, though, they’ve been fortunate to face playoff contenders the past two weeks. Ben Roethlisberger(notes) set a franchise record with 503 passing yards in a 37-36 win over Green Bay on Dec. 20, then Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore 23-20 last Sunday.
Even with those wins, the five-game skid may prove to be too much to overcome. Unless two of three teams among Baltimore, Houston and the New York Jets stumble along with Pittsburgh beating Miami (7-8), it’ll be spending the playoffs the same way it did after Super Bowl wins in 1980 and 2006 - at home.
If Houston wins, the Steelers need the Broncos - who host Kansas City - to lose or tie along with the Ravens and Jets.
“This is our bed. We’re going to lay in it,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “… We’re not going to cry over spilled milk. If there’s any level of disappointment in terms of how this thing unfolds, it’s going to be on us.”
The Texans and Jets face New England and Cincinnati, respectively, and those teams have little to play for knowing they’re locked into either the AFC’s third or fourth seed. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley(notes), last week’s AFC defensive player of the week, was critical of the possibility that the Patriots and Bengals may opt to rest key starters, claiming the real reason is because “no one wants to see Pittsburgh in it.”
“I think when you say that (teams will lay down), it calls into question the character of the players on their team. And I think all those guys are character football players and competitors,” Clark said. “Now if it were last year’s (Steelers team), yeah, they probably wouldn’t want to play us. But this year’s team, I don’t think strikes fear in anyone.”
A defense without All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu(notes) is certainly less intimidating, and that’s the reality Pittsburgh has faced the past six weeks as it’s allowed 23.8 points and 242.3 passing yards per game. The Steelers have intercepted one pass in that stretch, and a cornerback hasn’t picked one off all season.
Polamalu, who originally targeted Sunday to return from his knee injury, practiced in a limited role for the first time in seven weeks Wednesday, although it seems unlikely he will play in Miami.
Miami won four of five from Nov. 15-Dec. 13 while the Steelers were in the midst of their losing streak, but awful first-half performances the past two weeks may keep the Dolphins from a second straight playoff appearance.
They fell behind 24-6 at Tennessee on Dec. 20, and although they rallied to send the game to overtime, lost 27-24. The first 30 minutes were even worse last week at home, when Houston jumped out to a 27-0 lead en route to a 27-20 victory.
To make the postseason, Miami must win and have Jacksonville, Baltimore, Houston and the Jets lose. All except the Jaguars are heavy favorites.
“A lot of things have got to happen,” coach Tony Sparano said. “You just worry about winning the game instead of anything else. … After what happened out there Sunday, I would hope it’s not very hard to regroup and bounce back.”
Miami won’t have linebacker Channing Crowder(notes), who suffered a foot injury against Houston and was placed on injured reserve. It hopes to have running back Ricky Williams(notes), who missed last Sunday’s second half with a shoulder injury and is listed as questionable.
The Steelers last beat the Dolphins 3-0 in monsoon-like conditions in Pittsburgh on Nov. 26, 2007. The Steelers haven’t visited Miami since a 13-3 win Sept. 26, 2004 - Roethlisberger’s first NFL start.