I’d like to say I’m shocked by the Steelers 24-21 loss to a Raiders team that entered Sunday’s contest at Oakland Alameda County Coliseum with a 2-10 record.
But I’m not.
I should be, of course. After all, I went on and on all last week about how Pittsburgh simply couldn’t allow history to repeat itself, that there was too much on the line to let the Raiders do it again, delivering another critical body punch to a season that already has suffered its share of knockdowns and standing eight counts.
Yet, here we are again.
And perhaps the saddest part of Sunday’s events was how everything lined up perfectly during the 1 pm games. The Texans lost. My gosh, the Patriots lost to the Dolphins on a fluke double lateral at the end of the game. But, most importantly, the Ravens lost to the Chiefs in overtime.
The Steelers not only had a chance to get to within one-half game of both Houston and New England in the race for the AFC’s second seed, they would have built a one-and-half-game lead over Baltimore in the AFC North with just three weeks to go.
A good team doesn’t allow an opportunity like that to just slip away. A good team realizes what’s on the line and takes it to its 2-10 opponent from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.
But that didn’t happen on Sunday.
Instead, the Raiders took the opening kickoff and marched right down the field to make it 7-0 before the game was even five minutes old.
But to its credit, Keith Butler’s defense did settle down and allowed only three points the rest of the half. Meanwhile, the offense began to pick up steam as the first half rolled on, and shortly after a badly-missed, 39-yard field goal by Chris Boswell, Pittsburgh finally took its first lead of the game, when receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster continued his ascent towards NFL superstardom by making a spectacular catch in the back of the end zone to make it 14-10 with 10 seconds left in the first half.
With the Steelers getting the ball to start the second half, you just got a sense the team would seize control of the game, the division and its fate as it pertained to playoff positioning.
But then we see Josh Dobbs at quarterback to start the third quarter.
In typical backup-quarterback fashion, Dobbs spent the next 25 minutes of game time assuring everyone that they will one day have the same kind of disdain for him which they once held for Landry Jones. Meanwhile, future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a rib injury late in the first half, spent most of those same 25 minutes looking as if he was simply enjoying your average preseason game as he stood on the sidelines wearing his baseball cap.
As for Keith Butler’s defense, it eventually cracked late in the fourth quarter and allowed a way too easy 73-yard drive that culminated in a three-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr to tight end Lee Smith to give Oakland a 17-14 lead with 5:20 to go.
Speaking of easy, that described the 75-yard drive engineered by Roethlisberger, who predictably rode in on his white horse—guns blazing and everything—once the Steelers finally fell behind. The drive ended when Roethlisberger found Smith-Schuster for a one-yard touchdown to make it 21-17 with 2:55 remaining.
With only one timeout at Oakland’s disposal, just one more stop was all the defense would need to take care of the business the Steelers had come to town for.
Only problem was, the game was in the fourth quarter, and if recent fourth quarters have taught us anything, it’s that this is the time when the defense likes to take its break. That’s right, for the third-straight game, the defense simply ran out of steam late, and the Raiders next scoring drive was quicker and easier than its previous one, culminating in the game-clinching touchdown pass from Carr to tight end Derek Carrier with 21 seconds remaining.
Only, the touchdown wasn’t the game-clincher. No, Boswell provided that moments later when he slipped while attempting to make the game-tying field goal AFTER Roethlisberger, James Washington and Smith-Schuster teamed up on a miraculous hook and lateral play that moved the football to the Oakland 23 with just five seconds remaining.
How can you allow this to happen yet again? How can you allow a team like the Raiders — one that came into the afternoon with few redeeming qualities — to not only hang around but find a way to win the game?
How can you lose to a team that committed 130 yards worth of penalties?
How can you fail to establish a sound running game against a defense that came into the afternoon ranked 31st in that category?
How does the one sack you allowed against a defense that came into the game with only 10 on the season result in an injury to the quarterback that forced him to miss the majority of the second half?
Why was your quarterback healthy enough to come back into the game with 5:20 left in the fourth quarter but not with 15 minutes left in the third quarter?
How does your secondary have so little ball awareness on passes that could and should be contested? How does the defense continue to get so many sacks without those sacks resulting in fumbles?
How is your kicker still around after struggling mightily through the first 12 games?
These questions are for you, Mike Tomlin. Here's another one: how can you add another chapter to your career-long story of losing to bad teams on the road?
One more question: Are the Steelers a contender?
Bonus question: do you even have to ask?