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Steelers defy gravity to stay in the playoff hunt

In a game where nearly every stat suggested defeat, the Pittsburgh Steelers fought the good fight and came out on top.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine a visitor from the near future telling you last Sunday morning that the Pittsburgh Steelers would compile the following stats in their clash with the Tennessee Titans:

*Score one touchdown

*Gain a total of 168 yards (35 rushing and 133 passing)

*Surrender 201 yards rushing

*Possess the ball for only half as long as Tennessee (20:52 vs. 39.08)

*Convert only two of eleven third-down opportunities

*Make only 12 first downs vs. 22 for Tennessee

Then imagine being told the Steelers would win the game 19-13.

Welcome to Week 15 of the improbable 2021 NFL season — a strange world where Taysom Hill and the New Orleans Saints shut out the defending Super Bowl champs Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs by a 9-0 score and the Arizona Cardinals get hammered 30-12 by the Detroit Lions. Not to be outdone, John “Hot Dog” Harbaugh repeats the same egregious decision that recently cost the Baltimore Ravens a chance to win in Pittsburgh — opting to attempt another unsuccessful, 2-point conversion at the end of the Ravens' game with the Green Bay Packers.

As for the Cleveland Browns, their descent back into the NFL’s woodwork continues despite their widely predicted early-season status as aspiring AFC contenders. The Browns lost a crucial, home game to the equally suspect Las Vegas Raiders on a last-minute field goal.

Teams once representing the NFL’s ceiling appear to be collapsing towards the floor these days. The overall level of play in the NFL has declined so precipitously this year that, even the Steelers — a team whose offense moves with all the suppleness of petrified wood — somehow find themselves still in the thick of the AFC playoff chase. Whether you’ve been following the Kansas City Chiefs, the Buffalo Bills or any other preseason favorite for a Super Bowl berth, it’s become increasingly evident that none of these teams is performing up to expectations. While the Chiefs currently are riding a 7-game winning streak, they started the season at 2-3. Even in victory, Patrick Mahomes rarely has looked anything like the quarterback he was during his previous NFL seasons.

And how many pundits would have pictured the Buffalo Bills sitting at 8-6 a week before Christmas, locked in a struggle for the AFC East Division title with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins? Josh Allen is a talented quarterback, but one who apparently suffers from the delusion he's also a running back.

Despite their own barely-detectable heartbeat of an offense, the Steelers’ cardiac victory over Tennessee still managed to impress on a couple of accounts. First, the victory looked like a modest resumption of the progress seen in Week 13 when Pittsburgh beat the Ravens by a single point in a dogfight. There was similar evidence in the win over Tennessee of further development among Pittsburgh’s rookies and a few other players pressed into service in recent weeks due to injuries or Covid issues.

No matter how this season ends, the Steelers already are getting a much better idea of who can help this team moving forward and who cannot. By platooning a cast of players who normally would be relegated to the bench or practice squad, Pittsburgh might gain some newfound depth or perhaps find a couple of new faces who can step in to make important contributions, not only this season, but moving forward in 2022 as well.

Secondly and equally important was the combative, no-quit attitude shown by the Steelers’ defense — holding the Titans to only 13 points while grabbing four crucial turnovers. This thrilled the Heinz Field crowd as they raucously rooted-on the Black-and-Gold throughout the game, even when hope seemed to be fading. It also left diehard Steelers fans everywhere with the upbeat feeling this team at least has begun to rediscover the organization’s traditional performance standard.

For the past 50 years, the ability to win games when hardly playing their best has been a hallmark of Steelers football. And as bad as everything else about their performance appeared this past Sunday, at least fans could appreciate the overall effort and the absolutely clutch kicking by Chris Boswell.

With only three more regular-season games remaining, the Steelers probably need to win-out to secure a playoff berth. To accomplish this feat, they’ll need to play two road games with the same kind of urgency we saw on display late in the games at Heinz Field against Baltimore and Tennessee.

For the first time during this weird, up-and-down season, the Steelers truly have their backs plastered squarely against the wall. If they hope to survive, they're compelled to play consistent football and close out the regular season on a winning streak. But they’ll need to accomplish this goal against rivals also facing must-win scenarios. Given the Black-and-Gold’s obvious shortcomings, that’s quite a tall order but — for the present at least — hope springs eternal in Steelers Nation.