As I stood there in my uncle’s living room, watching Chris Boswell prepare for a 42-yard field goal attempt in the waning moments of overtime in the Steelers’ 2018 regular-season opener against the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, I was confident I would soon wipe my brow in relief and thank the football heavens for yet another victory that could have very easily gone the other way.
After all, that was how so many of Pittsburgh’s games ended in 2017, on the way to a 13-3 record and a second-straight AFC North Division title. The Steelers and their opponents would often battle tooth-and-nail for the better part of 60 sloppy minutes, a year ago, before Boswell ended things with a game-winning field goal in the final seconds — including three booted on the final play of regulation.
Unfortunately, Boswell’s attempt sailed wide left and, moments later, the Steelers needed T.J. Watt to block a field goal just to preserve a very disappointing 21-21 tie.
And that’s when reality sunk in: the 2018 Steelers aren’t likely going to be able to get away with as much as they did in 2017. Why? That’s sports — sooner or later, the law of averages are going to catch up with you.
You can’t commit 116 yards in penalties and expect to win many games. You certainly can’t turn the football over a whopping six times — including five by the franchise quarterback—and expect to win any games, let alone walk off of the field with a tie.
But despite the less-than-ideal play — a performance that may have been excused away by the day-long downpour — I was still expecting the Steelers to pull things out.
Even after running back James Conner tarnished his otherwise great day by losing a fumble that the Browns quickly converted into a touchdown to pull to within seven points with 7:32 remaining, you just had a feeling Pittsburgh would win.
Even after quarterback Tyrod Taylor found Browns’ embattled receiver, Josh Gordon, in the end zone for a touchdown that tied the score at 21 with 1:58 remaining in the fourth quarter, I felt extremely confident someone would come along and save the Steelers’ bacon, yet again.
And when Cam Sutton picked off a Taylor pass deep in Steelers’ territory with 16 seconds left in regulation, you, every other Steelers fan, as well as all of those downtrodden faithful in Browns Nation, likely thought the inevitable outcome was going to be the Black-and-gold heading back to Pittsburgh as winners — albeit sloppy winners — once more.
Late in overtime, as Antonio Brown and Jesse James made key catches and key gains to set up Boswell’s attempt, you had the feeling that this Week-1 slop-fest wouldn’t be entirely acceptable to the coaches, players and fans, but at least the Steelers would still earn a victory while working out the bugs — and to reiterate, it did rain during the entire game.
Many people spent the offseason warning Steelers fans that their favorite football team couldn’t make a habit out of stacking wins in close contests, that a Super Bowl-contender is often more business-like than child-like.
But — darn it — the Steelers might often be a team in turmoil, but they’re also a team of character that just finds a way to win.
Sadly, after one week of the 2018 regular season, you can’t say that anymore. In many ways, this tie felt like a heartbreaking loss. But, then, when you’re up by two touchdowns midway through the fourth quarter against a team that hasn’t won a game since 2016, anything but victory is going to feel like defeat.
No, the Steelers aren’t losers after one week of regular-season action, but they’re certainly not winners either. What Pittsburgh appears to be, however, is a version similar to the 2017 squad. Unfortunately, that may not be enough to cut it in 2018.