Justin K. Aller
On a day when both the Ravens and Bengals lost in dramatic fashion, the Steelers played their worst game of the 2012 season and lost 34-24 to a Chargers team that came to Heinz Field with a 4-8 record and virtually nothing to play for.
On August 19th, the Pittsburgh Pirates won a marathon 19-inning affair in St. Louis over the World Champion Cardinals. The victory put the Buccos two games ahead of St. Louis for the National League's second wild card spot, and for a young team not used to winning and not used to the white-hot intensity of August and September baseball, it certainly could have been a watershed moment that paved the way for an exciting final six weeks of the season.
Unfortunately, that exciting victory over the Cardinals on that Sunday afternoon was one of the final "feel good" moments of the summer as the Pirates, a franchise that endured 19 straight losing seasons prior to 2012, would go on to make it 20 by losing 29 of 41 from that point on--including a three-game sweep by the pretty pathetic San Diego Padres immediately after the epic 19 inning affair--to finish 79-83 and well behind St. Louis, who went on to clinch that second wild card spot and and yet another trip to the postseason.
When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they're certainly more like the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL than they are the Pirates, and after last week's epic "feel good" victory in Baltimore with third string quarterback and hometown kid Charlie Batch filling in for the injured Ben Roethlisberger, there was an infusion of optimism in Steeler Nation and a sense that "December Football" had been ushered in.
From that point on, it was just a matter of Pittsburgh continuing to play like it always does in the 12th month. If the team did that, another deep and successful playoff run was certainly a possibility.
The Steelers' Week 14 opponent was a San Diego Chargers team that came into Heinz Field on a four-game losing streak and almost helplessly out of a playoff spot at 4-8. There was talk of Norv Turner being let go as head coach at the end of the year; there was talk that the Chargers' offensive line was in more disarray than Pittsburgh's, believe it or not.
Sure, the Chargers were coming to town with a pretty respectable defense, but it's December football. The Steelers had everything in the world to play for. San Diego? Not so much.
Amazingly enough, there was even talk that an AFC North crown was still a realistic possibility: "Forget the wild card! I can see the Ravens losing the rest of their games!"
It was time for Pittsburgh to take care of business, move to 8-5 and continue on with the rest of the 2012 journey, a journey complete with a healthy Roethlisberger back under center after missing three and a half games with a sprained SC joint.
Unfortunately, the Steelers must have been tricked by the unDecember-like Western, Pa., weather on Sunday afternoon--50 degrees and rain--because they followed up on the epic Week 13 win over the Ravens with unquestionably the worst performance of the entire season in a 34-24 loss to San Diego in a game that wasn't nearly as close as that score suggests.
Sunday's pathetic performance pretty much speaks for itself, but in case you need a statistical refresher:
Just like two weeks ago against the Browns, Pittsburgh didn't run a play in Chargers' territory until there was less than a minute remaining in the first half. In fact, about halfway through the third quarter, CBS flashed a graphic that read: Number of offensive plays started in opponents territory for the Chargers: 36. Number of offensive plays started in opponents territory for the Steelers: 6.
San Diego won time of possession, 36:46 to 23:14, and ran 79 offensive plays compared to 61 for the home team.
The Chargers average starting field position was their own 37, compared to the Steelers, who started most of their drives inside their own 20.
The Chargers won the battle of turnovers, 2-0, and converted both takeaways into touchdowns.
The Steelers were supposed to be the team playing with a purpose. Yet, despite having every reason in the world to simply play out the string, it was San Diego that played some real "December Football" and took care of business for four quarters at Heinz Field.
Those out there still looking for Pittsburgh to "flip the switch," should know that Sunday's game marked the fifth time since Week 7 that the team has trailed by 10 points or more in a game.
And when you add the Chargers loss to the ones suffered earlier in the year at the hands of the Browns, Titans and Raiders, maybe what you've already seen from the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers is what you're going to get.
In this clip from 2010, Roethlisberger tells his troops: "It's December football! If you don't know what that means, find someone who does and ride with them!"
If Sunday's performance is any indication of how the Steelers are going to play the rest of the way, December will be a long and bumpy ride.