Below is Part 2 of my response to the Steelers-Titans contest from Week 15. The first set were mostly located around the actual game this weekend.
The observations below are more about the bigger-picture. Let’s just get to it:
1 – Next week will be the Steelers’ 7th game against a team that has held the conference’s No. 1 seed at some point this year.
Their record is 3-3 so far, with wins against the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, and Tennessee Titans, and losses to the Green Bay Packers and twice to the Cincinnati Bengals. They’ve also played possible playoff teams in the Chargers, Broncos, Vikings, and Browns. Their record in those games is 2-2, and was VERY close to being 4-0.
This is a team that is battle-tested.
2 – On that note, I want to reiterate something not enough people talked about last week: the Steelers came one catch (and PAT) from the biggest regular season comeback in NFL history against Minnesota.
This is even more remarkable because the game was on the road, on a Thursday night, just four days after that emotional and physical gut-check of beating the Ravens on the game’s last play. Those Ravens games always hurt the following week (as Ryan Clark and Bart Scott agreed last season). In fact, Baltimore followed the loss to the Steelers by losing to the reeling Browns after trailing 24-6 at halftime. That means Pittsburgh and Baltimore both lost the week after their most recent tilt, after being outscored by a combined 53-6 in the early-going. You’d almost think that both sides really suffer in the immediate aftermath of a Steelers/Ravens game. And then the Steelers had to do it on a short week.
And yet, all I heard all week was about Chase Claypool’s immaturity, the Steelers terrible run defense, and how “Ben Roethlisberger can’t move very well anymore.” (Thanks for that last insight, Peter King. Dr. Z would be proud.) The first two of those observations are worth discussing, but how about that insane comeback? I can’t help but think that if Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, or Aaron Rodgers had quarterbacked that huge second half, even if it came up short, the headlines would ALL be about “the heroic effort of this once-in-a-generation quarterback talent… you’re never out of a game as long as he’s on the field…”
This team never gets its due. But these guys are resilient as hell.
3 – The Steelers season comes down to second quarters and fourth quarters.
I’m seeing a lot of talk about how the Steelers are broken because of how badly they start games. And there’s a point in there – you can’t make a living on ridiculous comebacks. But if you look at the last six weeks, the first and third quarters are largely uneventful. The money gets made in quarters two and four. Steelers get demolished in quarter number two, and they absolutely own the fourth. Here’s some numbers:
The last six weeks, their record is 2-3-1. They’ve been outscored 101-29 in the first halves, and outscored their opponents 101-65 in the second halves. But let’s break that down further.
The Steelers have been outscored in first quarters over the last six games by about three points per game. For all the talk about the Steelers starting games slow, they aren’t usually in bad shape out of the gate. Meanwhile, in third quarters, they’ve been outscored by about two points per game. It’s not great to get outscored, but these are each within a field goal, on average.
But then there’s those decisive quarters. In the second quarters alone, the Steelers are outscored by an average of nearly nine points (68 to 16, or an average of 11.3 to 2.7). Then in the fourth, they come roaring back, outscoring their opponents by over eight points themselves (84 to 37, or an average of 14.0 to 6.2).
I don’t have an explanation for this. Maybe it’s a function of Ben Roethlisberger digging deep and finding something at the end of games, like a closing sprint at the end of a marathon. That’s the only thing I’ve got. But one way or another, their second quarter performance is abysmal, and their fourth is outstanding.
(Quick side note: The loss to the Bengals a few weeks ago throws a lot of numbers off. Over the last six games, the Steelers are outscored by an average of 27.7 to 21.7 overall. But if you call the Bengals game a mulligan, we’re talking about 25.0 to 24.0, which sounds a lot more representative of the Steelers season to me.)
4 – When it comes to late-season seeding, Steelers are in the strangest position I’ve ever heard of.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ESPN Playoff Predictor Machine, it’s a shorthand “what if” site that does all the tie-breaker math for you during the last month of the season. Here’s the LINK. (Try not to waste your whole afternoon playing different scenarios...)
I’ve been messing with possibilities, and I can’t believe this is true, but the Steelers could still wind up with the AFC’s #1 seed, or with the 8th pick in the draft. While neither of those scenarios are hugely likely, they’re still mathematically possible 14 games deep. I don’t think that wild of a range has ever existed with only three games to play. This season is insane.
5 – It actually gets weirder. Here’s one more (theoretically) possible situation:
Let’s say that the Steelers lose to K.C., but beat Cleveland and Baltimore, and that their three divisional opponents pick each other off in the next couple weeks (there’s essentially an AFCN round-robin in the last two weeks). The Steelers win the division in that scenario, and wind up with the AFC’s 4th seed at 9-7-1, hosting a playoff game against the conference’s #5 seed.
The AFC wildcard teams could very easily wind up being some combination of Indianapolis, the Chargers, and let’s say Buffalo. That would likely mean that the #1 through #3 seeds are K.C., Tennessee, and New England. Could Indy, the Chargers, or the Bills go on the road and defeat K.C., the Titans, or the Pats? Sure. It wouldn’t even be a huge surprise. If #6 and #7 beat #2 and #3 — and the Steelers (#4) beat #5 — Pittsburgh would go on to host a Divisional Round game against #6. If #7 (L.A. maybe) beats #1 (let’s say K.C.) in that round, and the Steelers topped #6, then the #4 Steelers would host L.A. in the conference title game.
In other words, it’s not that strange to imagine the Steelers sneaking into the postseason at 9-7-1, then getting a home-field advantage through the playoffs through the back door. Honestly, the most implausible part of that is the Steelers being there.
Week 17’s game against the Browns is being billed as Ben Roethlisberger’s final home start in Pittsburgh. How unbelievably strange that he could wind up starting three playoff games there too, without any outlandish upsets. (Hell, even Pittsburgh shooting through the playoffs wouldn’t be that outlandish. Remember, the Steelers have already beaten Tennessee and Buffalo, and nearly beat the Chargers. Those could be their three playoff opponents…)
I thought last season (with no fans, and all those COVID opt-outs) was supposed to be the year where nothing made sense. But nothing means anything in 2021.