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A Steelers' loss would spell disaster for playoff hopes

We haven't yet reached the halfway point of the season and, despite being a game ahead of last year's start, the Pittsburgh Steelers face a must-win game vs. an AFC foe in the mind of JP. A loss would mean big trouble staring the Black-and-Gold right in the eye.

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You never want to feel like your back is against the wall. Not in October and not facing a team that's just as desperate and inconsistent as yours. No, that's not the feeling you want in the pit of your stomach. Despite being at home, the Pittsburgh Steelers are at a crossroads tonight vs. the Houston Texans.

In a fine job of mimicking anything Duncan has manufactured, the Steelers' yo-yo 2014 season has been full of swings, tricks and loops. It has been one gut-punch after another, from a rousing road win against Carolina to the downright collapse at home vs. winless Tampa Bay. Last week's kick in the teeth at Cleveland was very much a signal that things are not in order.

What's certain as the Texans come to town is that this version of Mike Tomlin's Steelers is very much a rather poor work-in-progress. It's a unit that can't defend against the run and one that has issues scoring TDs in the red zone. When it comes to taking bad penalties at inopportune times, it's a team that can't even seem to get out of its own way.    

It's easy to panic, but it's even harder to admit that it's time to be very worried about where the rest of this season may drift. I use that description because it's appropriate to what the Steelers are currently facing, and that's a season spent floating on choppy waters, going in whatever direction the current takes, as it appears the ship's navigation system is in shambles.

I've always maintained that this team lives and dies by the play of it's star QB. But right now Ben Roethlisberger isn't getting it done. He has already said as much, but is Ben the primary reason they've struggled? From what I can see after six games the answer is "no." He does need to be better in the red zone, no doubt, but overall I can't say he's to blame.  

To find that answer, you would have to jump into a cauldron of issues that are mixed together better than any brew a Stygian witch could conjure. Start with a healthy dose of porous defensive-line play. Toss in some untimely penalties, a dash of no turnovers and then sprinkle-in zero scoring punch inside the 20. What you get is a 3-3 club very much in danger of sinking toward the bottom of the AFC.

Is it any wonder they sit tied for last place in the division?

There has been very little to be excited about after six games. Le'Veon Bell's play aside, what can you smile about or point toward as a solution to this mess? Perhaps some youth being injected into the lineup tonight will provide a shot in the arm. Stephon Tuitt is getting his first NFL start. Rookies including WR Martavis Bryant and DL Daniel McCullers will be activated for the first time this year and both should see the field.

At this point, what choice does Tomlin have?

Here's the bottom line on the Steelers tonight vs. Houston. They have to play their best 60 minutes of football facing a team that's in similar shoes. The Texans are second in the AFC South but, as we know, games like this really stand out when the season reaches Week 17 and playoff hopes are being decided. A win by either club means having a leg up come late December and the opportunity to grab a playoff spot.  

I'm not one for hyperbole or exaggeration, but to say tonight's game is big for either team is no understatement. A loss isn't the end but it's more than a half-step toward starting to prepare for 2015 rather than getting amped up for what would be a long push toward the playoffs.

A Steelers loss at home tonight will be one nail in this black-and-gold coffin that the Steelers can't afford.

John Phillips is a radio personality for 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh and a columnist for Behind The Steel Curtain. Check him out on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.