The expected corollary of an unfavorable outcome—say, an ugly loss against a team that is deliberately and shamelessly tanking its season—is a brief cycle of animus and exasperation followed by reckoning and, eventually, acceptance. Last Sunday, the Steelers lost to the 2-10 Raiders, who are systemically a toilet franchise, thereby tangibly shortening my lifespan. I hate this team and am so over having my heart broken by them. I blame the coaching staff—namely, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler—for abruptly ushering in this newfound era of futility. Perhaps we overrated the Steelers. Perhaps we are truly and totally alone in the universe and life itself is utterly meaningless. As go cows to the slaughter, so goes man toward inevitable doom. Existence is pain. (We knocked out animus, exasperation, reckoning, and acceptance, but threw in a lil’ nihilism as an added bonus. You’re welcome.)
It wasn’t long ago that things were fine. Four weeks ago, the Steelers destroyed the Carolina Panthers. Ben Roethlisberger was perfect, throwing for more than 325 yards and five touchdowns against only three incompletions, and the defense held Cam Newton—who, at the time, had spent the first half of the season playing some of the most electric football of his career—to something like 150 total yards and one touchdown of consequence. That night, which ended in a 52-21 victory for the Steelers, served as a deafening reminder—to a national audience, no less—of just how formidable and volcanic the Steelers could be.
The events that have transpired since that game have been illuminative, too, though they’ve been principally focused on highlighting the Steelers’ faults. Had it not been for Doug Marrone’s gutless late-stage play-calling, the Steelers might not have overcome the three horrendous interceptions thrown by Roethlisberger and therefore would’ve lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars back in Week 11. Week 12’s game in Denver was characterized by a vast and voluminous bevy of self-induced catastrophes by the Steelers on both sides of the ball, which were ultimately not survivable. A week after that, they blew a 23-7 led to the Chargers, thanks in small part to a handful of, er, questionable officiating decisions, but mostly because their specials teams unit and defense both suck mightily. The loss to the Raiders is recent enough—and acidic enough—that I shouldn’t need to recount its particulars in this space. It’s been a rough couple of weeks, and this ongoing skid, which has been marked by poor execution by the players and even worse game-planning by the coaching staff, has put the Steelers in severe danger of missing the postseason, a thought that seemed unimaginable a month ago.
With all of that said, if the season ended today, the Steelers would be in the playoffs. I mentioned this in the Stock Report, but I can’t recall there ever being such a collectively fatalistic outlook about a sitting division leader this late in the season, especially one that still has total control over its postseason destiny. Winning out would allow Pittsburgh to claim the AFC North outright, and winning two of their final three games should at least enable them to secure the second wild card. Though I realize there is vacuous, childlike naivety in blithely disregarding the manifold and blindingly evident issues imbuing the Steelers—the bad defense, the stress-inducing special teams, and the inconsistent rushing attack chief among them—and though I am very much aware of the insanely difficult upcoming schedule that’s rendered Pittsburgh’s circumstances so perilous in the first place, I could still see the Steelers doing juuuust enough to sneak into the playoffs.
The Patriots are unquestionably Pittsburgh’s daddy, and I really, really wish the Dolphins hadn’t pulled off a veritable miracle last week because A) it keeps another fringe-contender in the thick of the postseason race—the Dolphins are now 7-6, and if the Steelers ultimately miss the playoffs because of the Miami Miracle, you’re gonna regret being happy that it happened—and B) it puts New England’s losing streak at one, and Bill Belichick is 39-12 in games following a loss. That, coupled with the fact that Tom Brady has lost to the Steelers precisely one time in his career, is deeply unsettling. But! But, the Patriots don’t look quite as invincible as we’ve grown accustomed and Brady isn’t quite as imposing as he was a year ago (though it feels ridiculous to call attention to a 41-year-old failing to produce at an MVP caliber; statistically, Brady is comparable to Derek Carr—who was recently seen scorching the very earth upon which the Steelers walk—and Kirk Cousins, and his quarterback rating is actually higher than Roethlisberger’s). Also, New England’s defense is kinda meh, so as long as the Steelers can keep pace offensively, they should have a chance to win.
(As an aside to provide a bit of legitimate analysis, one very important factor this Sunday will be how well the Steelers defend Rob Gronkowski, who typically eats very well against Pittsburgh. Putting aside the fact that the Steelers have had literally no success whatsoever in defending the opposition’s best receiver over the past two weeks, Keith Butler has to know that, at this point, he’s probably coaching for his job, so perhaps in a fit of desperation he will mastermind an innovative strategy for stopping Gronkowski that doesn’t involve deploying a depth linebacker in coverage. That sure would be neat.)
I’m spitballing, but I think maybe we, as a fanbase, ought to pump the brakes on the defeatism for a second. I’ll be the first to admit that the chances of the Steelers beating the Patriots AND the Saints, who are akin to the Monstars from Space Jam, in back-to-back weeks are not great, but I didn’t think the Steelers getting to 7-2-1 after beginning the season with a 1-2-1 record was possible, either (I also didn’t think the Tune Squad had much of a shot against the Monstars, especially after the Monstars built a 66-18 first-half lead, but I was proven wrong then, too). What I’m getting at is that the Steelers have proven us wrong before; let’s at least give them a chance to do so again.