The Pittsburgh Steelers loss Sunday to the Denver Broncos could have cost them a shot at their seventh Super Bowl title.
In addition to getting beat by the Denver Broncos 24-17, the Steelers also lost their best chance of securing a top seed in the AFC playoffs. The setback dropped the Steelers, 7-3-1, from the second seed to the number four seed behind the Kansas City Chiefs, 9-2, New England Patriots, 8-3, and the Houston Texans, 8-3.
Pittsburgh Steelers Loss Comes At The Wrong Time
Schedule Gets Much Tougher
While there’s a lot of football to be played and anything can happen, the Steelers now face the possibility of having to play the Los Angeles Chargers 8-3 at home, and road games at New England, 8-3, and Kansas City, 9-2, to make the Super Bowl. Before the loss to the Broncos, the Steelers were looking at the possibility of getting a first-round bye and playing the Chiefs and/or Patriots at home.
More importantly, the Steelers could have afforded one loss and still got that number two seed. The most likely scenario now is that the Steelers will have to win out to get that number two seed.
And winning out will be very hard. The Steelers will have to beat the Chargers and the Patriots at home and the 10-1 New Orleans Saints on the road.
Surprising Twist to the Patriots Game
Here’s the kicker. If the Steelers win four of their remaining games, including that game against the Patriots but lose to the Saints, New England could still get that number two seed. That’s providing the Patriots win their other four games, which seems likely with home games against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets and road games with the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills.
Under that scenario, the Steelers would be 11-4-1 and the Patriots would have a better record at 12-4. The Steelers opening day tie with the Cleveland Browns could cost them big time. Unless something changes radically in the next couple of weeks, the Steelers will be in must-win situations the rest of the season.
There had been some hope that New Orleans would have the number one seed wrapped up before their game with the Steelers. But that seems unlikely since the Rams and Saints are tied with 10-1 records. It looks like that top seed might not be decided until after that Saints-Steelers matchup in the penultimate game of the season.
Texans Enter the Playoff Picture
It’s also possible that the Steelers could lose out to the Texans, who have entered the playoff picture in a big way. The Texans have home games against Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars and road games with the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles. If both the Texans and Steelers win out, Houston would a better record and finish ahead of Pittsburgh. If Houston and New England both finish 13-3, the Patriots would get a better seed since they beat the Texans earlier this year.
To make matters even worse for the Steelers, they have to travel to Oakland for a game with the Raiders. While the Raiders are 2-9, the Steelers have struggled there in recent years. They lost back to back games against the Raiders in 2012 (34-31) and 2013 (27-24) despite Oakland finishing 4-12 both seasons.
Turnovers Proving Costly for Steelers
Of course, if the Steelers continue to turn the ball over like they did against the Broncos, they might lose all five of their remaining games. The Steelers turned the ball over three times inside the Denver 20-yard-line, including twice inside the five-yard-line.
After throwing three interceptions in that season opener with the Browns, Ben Roethlisberger tossed only four interceptions in the next eight games. But over the last two games, he’s been intercepted five times. Overall, Roethlisberger played well Sunday, completing 41 of 56 passes for 462 yards and one touchdown. But the interceptions have to stop, especially in the Red Zone where two of his passes have been picked off in the last two games.
Offensive Balance Needed
The Steelers also need to restore some balance in their offense. Roethlisberger leads the NFL with 472 pass attempts. By comparison, the Saints’ Drew Brees has only thrown 356 passes. Running back James Conner is the key. After the Steelers opened the season by going 1-2-1, they turned to Conner. The result was four straight games where Conner finished with over 100 yards rushing. Then, he suffered a concussion against the Carolina Panthers. He hasn’t been the same since the injury, gaining 143 yards on 35 carries in his last three games.
Is it possible that Conner still isn’t 100 percent? Or the Steelers could be lightening the second-year running back’s load and save him for the stretch run? At any rate, the Steelers must get Conner back on track if they want to finish strong.
They also need to get second-round draft pick James Washington up to speed. A second-round draft, he’s been a major disappointment, catching only eight passes for 79 yards. On Sunday, Roethlisberger threw him a beautiful pass down the sideline. But instead of running under it, Washington needlessly jumped for the ball and dropped it as he landed. While Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster are having great seasons, they could use some help from Washington, especially on long passes, which was Washington’s forte as an All-American at Oklahoma State.
Defense Must Generate Turnovers
The Steelers defense also has to step up. The defense allowed touchdown drives of 75 and 79 yards by the Broncos. Phillip Lindsay ran for 110 yards against them, the first time all season they allowed a back went over the century mark. The Steelers star cornerback Joe Haden also was exposed for the first time this year, allowing Emmanuel Sanders to run by him several times, one a 38-yard pass set up the Broncos go-ahead touchdown.
But the biggest problem for the Steelers defense is the lack of turnovers it’s generating. For the season, the Steelers are minus 7 in the takeaway/giveaway category. Only six teams have more. They have seven interceptions. Only five teams have less.
The defense has been solid this year, especially after getting off to a slow start. They’re ranked 11th in points allowed, giving up an average of 22 points per game. But they must get more aggressive in trying to take the ball away either through interceptions or fumbles.
Can Pittsburgh Still Go All The Way?
It all adds up to some challenges for both the offense and defense. Can they rise to the occasion? Well, we’ll see how the next five games play out. It’s likely, though, that the Steelers will have to get red hot and go on a five-game winning streak to turn their Super Bowl dreams into reality.
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