At 7-2-1, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like a candidate for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. With three weeks left, it’s far from guaranteed the Steelers will be one of the AFC’s six playoff teams.
Figuring out this Steelers season is hard. They started 1-2-1 and looked mediocre. Then for a month and a half, they looked like one of the best teams in football. When they blasted the Carolina Panthers 52-21 on Nov. 8, they looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Let’s check in on the Steelers’ four games since then …
• The Steelers spend three quarters sleepwalking against the Jaguars, and were bailed out by Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone going into a shell and letting Pittsburgh come back. It was a bad performance, but excusable because it ended in a win. They won on a Ben Roethlisberger run in the final seconds.
• At Denver, the Steelers piled up a lot of yards but turnovers were their undoing. They out-gained the Broncos 527-308. A fluky interception by Roethlisberger to a nose tackle near the goal line ended it. A loss to the Broncos wasn’t ideal, but close road losses in the NFL happen.
• Pittsburgh blew a lead of more than 14 points at home for the first time in franchise history against the Chargers. The Steelers turned a 23-7 halftime advantage into a loss. The Chargers are a good team, at least.
• The Steelers lost to the Oakland Raiders. Yeah, that happened.
It’s part of the Steelers’ DNA under coach Mike Tomlin to go on the road against a bad team, especially on the West Coast, and have an inexplicable loss. Losing to a Raiders team that was 2-10 coming in takes that to an extreme. Roethlisberger missed some of the game with a rib injury, though he came back late. Why Roethlisberger was on the sideline for a while, then returned, got really confusing afterward. Tomlin said he was able to go back in when he got back to the sideline.
“He probably could’ve come in a series or so sooner, but we were in a rhythm and flow of the game,” Tomlin said, via PennLive.com.
That’s nonsensical. It might have cost the Steelers a game they couldn’t afford to lose against one of the worst teams in football.
The Steelers are lucky the Chiefs rallied to beat the Ravens, or they’d have been in second place of the AFC North. As is, the Steelers’ half-game lead over the Ravens is tenuous. They’ve looked shaky for four weeks and face the Patriots at home and then travel to face the Saints the next two weeks. Even a 1-1 record in those games could cost them the division. If they go 0-2 — and considering the Patriots and Saints are a combined 20-6, that’s possible — they’ll be 7-7-1 going into Week 17 and could be in a tough battle for the final wild-card spot in the AFC. Nobody expected that a month ago.
What happened? Some of it is simply bad luck. They lost James Conner to an injury late against the Chargers and had no running game against Oakland (40 yards rushing, and 15 of that came from backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs). If Conner misses more games, and it sounds like he will, the running game won’t get much better. Yes, the Le’Veon Bell year-long holdout still lingers. Having Roethlisberger miss some key series cost the Steelers in the end, though a weird coaching decision to keep holding Roethlisberger out because of the “rhythm and flow of the game” seems to have contributed to that. The Steelers could have tied the Raiders at the end but kicker Chris Boswell slipped on the turf trying a game-tying field goal. Losing to the Raiders is inexcusable no matter any unfortunate luck, but it’s not the only bad beat in the streak.
The loss against the Broncos was fluky; Pittsburgh was the better team most of the game. The Chargers got some breaks too, especially a couple from the officials. There’s not an enormous difference between the best and worst teams in the NFL, and a few bad breaks here and there can turn around things in a hurry. Just a play or two in each game turns out differently, and the Steelers might be 10-2-1 instead. That’s life in the NFL.
If there’s a tangible reason for the slump, it’s the defense. When the Steelers got hot, the defense didn’t allow 300 yards for five straight games. They’ve allowed at least 300 in each loss during their three-game skid, including to the bad offenses of Denver and Oakland.
Whether it’s an organizational breakdown or simply the tide of luck turning, the Steelers suddenly find themselves in a difficult spot. They play two of the best teams in the NFL in Weeks 15 and 16, and if they can’t win one of them, they might miss the playoffs. If the Steelers go 1-2, Ravens win a couple games and a 7-6 team like the Colts or Titans wins two of three, the Steelers would be out. That’s not a crazy scenario.
One can only imagine the outrage in Pittsburgh if the Steelers go from 7-2-1 to out of the playoffs. The NFL changes fast sometimes.
Here are the power rankings after Week 14 of the NFL season:
32. Arizona Cardinals (3-10, Last Week: 30)
After watching them throw out an absolute dud at home against the Lions, one question lingers: How in the world did this team win at Lambeau Field?
31. Oakland Raiders (3-10, LW: 32)
With Reggie McKenzie fired, the Raiders’ next general manager hire is a crucial one. Jon Gruden will still have the power, but he needs a strong personnel man that he respects to guide him into a better offseason than he had in 2018. It’s especially important with five first-round picks in the next two years. If the new GM is brought in to smile and tell Gruden that it’s a great idea to keep stockpiling free agents in their 30s, this probably isn’t going to turn around very soon.
30. San Francisco 49ers (3-10, LW: 31)
George Kittle had 210 yards at halftime, four yards short of Shannon Sharpe’s single-game NFL record for a tight end. He was held without a catch in the second half. The 49ers couldn’t get him one catch after halftime to get the record?
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9, LW: 27)
Watching the Jaguars barely try to tackle Derrick Henry, combined with the Colts winning at the Texans on Sunday … Jacksonville shutting out Indianapolis in Week 13 is just baffling.
28. Cincinnati Bengals (5-8, LW: 28)
It will be lost in the shuffle because the Chargers won and nobody was focused on that game, but the Bengals taking the Chargers to the brink on the road was an impressive effort for a team that has nothing to play for. The Bengals were playing one of the NFL’s best teams, on the road, without A.J. Green and with Jeff Driskel at quarterback. Nobody expected them to be trying a two-point conversion for the tie at the end.
27. Atlanta Falcons (4-9, LW: 23)
Is there another team that wants the season to end more than the Falcons? Being down 34-7 at Green Bay through three quarters says all you need to know.
26. Washington Redskins (6-7, LW: 22)
Not only were the Redskins down 40-0 to the Giants, it was a Giants team without Odell Beckham. The good news is this week the Redskins get to face the Jaguars, who might be the least motivated team in the NFL (other than that one strange time against the Colts in Week 13 when they tried).
25. Buffalo Bills (4-9, LW: 25)
Josh Allen has 99, 135 and 101 yards rushing the past three games. Allen, in just nine games, leads the Bills in rushing. With LeSean McCoy’s hamstring hurting, Allen might finish the season as the team’s leading rusher too. Allen was a good runner at Wyoming but not great (767 yards in 27 games), so despite his athleticism, his ability to make plays with his legs has been pretty shocking.
24. New York Jets (4-9, LW: 29)
Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s a positive for Todd Bowles to avenge the worst loss of the Jets’ season. The Jets were absolutely awful in a loss to the Bills a few weeks ago, but they pulled out a close win on Sunday.
23. Detroit Lions (5-8, LW: 24)
The Lions won, but they had 218 yards on offense. Injuries have really hurt, but it’s surprising how bad Detroit’s offense has slipped. Nobody is speaking glowingly anymore about the future of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.
22. New York Giants (5-8, LW: 26)
Odell Beckham practiced on Wednesday and Thursday before showing up on Friday’s injury report as limited, then was ruled out Saturday with a bruised quad … it just seems a little off. Or maybe it’s totally normal and it seems off because it’s Beckham, and everything with Beckham becomes a bigger story than it should be.
21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8, LW: 21)
Getting outscored 25-0 in the second half against the Saints wasn’t the best look. For the first half it looked like the Buccaneers were emerging as that “team that plays really well after their playoff hopes are dead” squad for this season.
20. Green Bay Packers (5-7-1, LW: 19)
Fair or not, if the Packers go on a tear to end the season, wouldn’t you have to hold that against Mike McCarthy if you’re another team interviewing him for a head-coaching vacancy?
19. Denver Broncos (6-7, LW: 17)
Before Sunday, it wasn’t crazy to start considering the Broncos a possible wild-card contender. Then they lost to a 49ers team that was 2-10. It’s not quite as bad as the Steelers’ loss to Oakland on Sunday, but pretty close.
18. Carolina Panthers (6-7, LW: 16)
The Panthers have had no luck in close games. Of their seven losses, six have come by a touchdown or less. In each of those games, they either led or had the ball in the final two minutes with a chance to tie or take the lead. If they could have pulled off even two of those six games — scoring from the 3-yard line against the Browns, getting a two-point conversion against the Lions, or finishing late drives in opposing territory against the Redskins, Falcons or Buccaneers — they’d be a great bet to make the playoffs. That’s how thin the margins are in the NFL.
17. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7, LW: 13)
It was a little surprising that Doug Pederson, whose calling card last season was being aggressive, didn’t go for a two-point conversion after the Eagles scored with 1:45 left. He kicked the extra point and played for overtime. It wouldn’t have been a bad call to go for the win there, given that the Eagles were underdogs on the road. “I felt at the time that we were still going to win that football game,” Pederson explained, via WIP 94. “And our defense was gaining momentum, we were beginning to put pressure on Dak [Prescott], and doing some things that way.” Instead, the Eagles tied the game, lost in overtime, and their season is on life support.
16. Minnesota Vikings (6-6-1, LW: 12)
Kirk Cousins didn’t do much in another big game. That has been an issue all season. Another issue is that offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was such a hot name last offseason, hasn’t been nearly as good as last year’s coordinator Pat Shurmur. Whoever is to blame, this is a huge disappointment.
15. Cleveland Browns (5-7-1, LW: 20)
I’ll let Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com handle the crazy scenario for the Browns can make the playoffs. I mean, it’s improbable but not impossible …
Browns make AFC playoffs if win all three for 8-7-1 and: Miami loses 2 of 3 (Min, Jax, Buf). Baltimore loses 2 of 3 (TB, Chargers, Cle). Tennessee loses 2 of 3 (NYG, Wash, Indy). Indianapolis loses 2 of 3 (Dal, NYG, Tenn). Denver loses 1 of 3 (Cle, Raiders, Chargers)
— Tony Grossi (@TonyGrossi) December 10, 2018
14. Miami Dolphins (7-6, LW: 18)
This is where I’ll point out that, yeah, the Kenyan Drake touchdown was awesome, and before that play he had six touches. Six. There aren’t many coaching decisions that have been stranger this season than the Dolphins simply refusing to give Drake a bigger part of the offense, no matter how well he plays.
13. Indianapolis Colts (7-6, LW: 15)
Eric Ebron has 13 touchdowns. The single-season record for a tight end is 17 by Rob Gronkowski. Ebron might not get the record but the fact it’s even a realistic conversation means this was a great value signing by the Colts (and we have to ask how the Lions never got much of anything out of Ebron).
12. Tennessee Titans (7-6, LW: 14)
It’s not like Derrick Henry didn’t have a chance to carve out a bigger role. Early in the season he had two games with 18 carries, and did little with it. Through four games, he was averaging just three yards per carry. Then he got his playing time scaled back. If Thursday night’s 238-yard explosion happens in that first month, maybe it’s an entirely different season for Henry.
11. Baltimore Ravens (7-6, LW: 11)
The most damaging loss on Sunday might have been by the Ravens. Had they gotten a stop on either fourth down on the Chiefs last drive, or put together a game-winning drive at the end of regulation or overtime, they’d be the AFC North favorite right now. The Steelers shockingly lost to the Raiders, and still have games left against the Patriots and Saints. The Ravens can still steal the division but a huge win over the Chiefs would have been a big help.
10. Seattle Seahawks (8-5, LW: 10)
Not only are the Seahawks looking good for a wild-card spot, they’ll likely be the top wild-card team in the NFC. There are a lot of great candidates for coach of the year, but Pete Carroll needs to be mentioned too.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1, LW: 8)
Antonio Brown is one of the best receivers of his era, a likely Hall of Famer. Yet this season, JuJu Smith-Schuster has more catches (91 to 86) and more yards too (1,234 to 1,063). Smith-Schuster was a grand slam draft pick by the Steelers in the late second round last year.
8. Dallas Cowboys (8-5, LW: 9)
Amari Cooper was the star, but Dak Prescott’s 455 yards against the Eagles was impressive too. He gave Cooper a chance to get two long touchdowns in the fourth quarter with some nice throws. He was great in an overtime drive. If Prescott plays like that (without the two interceptions he threw) that obviously raises Dallas’ ceiling.
7. Houston Texans (9-4, LW: 6)
A win would have been better, but a loss Sunday didn’t really hurt the Texans too much. They still have a two-game lead in the division and are still in the mix for a first-round bye thanks to the Patriots’ crazy loss. The Texans’ final three games are against the Jets, Eagles and Jaguars, and it’s easy to see them winning out. That puts a lot of pressure on the Patriots to win out as well.
6. New England Patriots (9-4, LW: 4)
Next week’s game at Pittsburgh is a big one in terms of securing a first-round bye. Lose that and the door is open for the Texans to get the second seed. Considering the Patriots are 3-4 on the road, it’s no sure thing they win at Pittsburgh, or away from Foxborough in January either. Giving up that Kenyan Drake touchdown might haunt them for a while.
5. Chicago Bears (9-4, LW: 7)
Maybe the result would be different if the teams meet in Los Angeles in January, but the Bears domination of the Rams offense was so thorough, you have to wonder if Chicago just matches up with the Rams really well. There’s no way Los Angeles wants to see the Bears defense again in the playoffs.
4. Los Angeles Chargers (10-3, LW: 5)
Sunday was a tough spot for the Chargers, coming off a huge road win over the Steelers with a massive AFC West game against the Chiefs coming on Thursday. You don’t want to have to stop a two-point conversion to avoid going to overtime at home against the Bengals, but it’s somewhat explainable. Now they get their shot on Thursday night to keep the AFC West race interesting.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-2, LW: 3)
I don’t even know what to say about Patrick Mahomes anymore. His 48-yard pass to Tyreek Hill on fourth down to keep the Chiefs alive on Sunday was as good as you’ll ever see. If he wins MVP, that throw will be one of the main reasons.
2. Los Angeles Rams (11-2, LW: 1)
The difference between the top three teams is slight. You can make a strong argument for the Saints, Rams or Chiefs in the top spot. All of them had some bad moments on Sunday. Again, that happens in the NFL. Even though it’s clear they’re the top three teams, everyone is beatable. We saw that with the Bears beatdown of the Rams on Sunday night. The playoffs might get really crazy this season.
1. New Orleans Saints (11-2, LW: 2)
It was hard to move the Saints back to the No. 1 spot considering how badly they struggled for six quarters against the Cowboys and Buccaneers. But they came alive in the second half at Tampa, they have a win over the Rams and they still seem like the most complete of the three teams vying for the top spot. Next Monday night at Carolina is a huge game for them. They finish with two home games, against the Steelers and Panthers. Those two teams are capable, but the Saints are great at home. And three more wins means they’d have home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs.
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