As of two weeks ago, the Steelers were seemingly on the verge of making a serious run at the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl title. After a rousing victory over bitter rival Baltimore with third-string quarterback Charlie Batch in command, Pittsburgh was 7-5 and in control of its own future in regards to qualifying for an AFC wild-card berth.
Now, after back-to-back defeats to San Diego and Dallas, the Steelers almost certainly must win their final two games against Cincinnati and Cleveland to make the playoffs.
Barring another injury to Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers will be favored in both remaining games. But while it still feels likely that this team will win out and move on into January, evidence is mounting to support the contrary view.
Fumbles, of all things, have short-circuited the Steelers’ efforts in three of their last four games. While they were able to overcome Emmanuel Sanders’ key turnover in their Dec. 2 defeat of the Ravens, five lost fumbles kept Pittsburgh from taking an exceedingly winnable game in Cleveland on Nov. 25 and the Cowboys’ fourth-quarter strip of Antonio Brown looks glaringly like the ultimate turning point of Sunday’s OT loss.
While statistical studies indicate that recovering fumbles is more luck than skill, the initial act of losing the ball is preventable via technique adjustments and increased awareness. Turnovers kill in the NFL, and the Steelers have lost the turnover battle in five straight games, a stretch in which they’ve gone 1-4 to drop out of playoff position.
Lost fumbles in high-leverage situations have prevented this team from capturing a vulnerable AFC North, as the Ravens have dropped three straight but still lead the division at 9-5. Moreover, if mistakes continue to curtail a team whose best days are probably behind it, 2012 could be looked upon as a tremendous wasted opportunity.
Focusing on fumbles seems a bit minimalist, though, especially in the aftermath of a game that featured numerous missed tackles by an injury-ravaged defense and the most impactful interception thrown by a Steelers quarterback since the 2004 AFC Championship.
Still, Roethlisberger was largely effective in Dallas, continuing his second-half groove from the previous week’s otherwise-desultory loss to the tepid Chargers. Ben and Mike Wallace connected on a long bomb, tight end Heath Miller was in strong form and Brown looked like his usual playmaking self for much of the afternoon.
In other words, the Steelers showed just enough to remind a national TV audience how dangerous they could be if they just made the playoffs. Yes, the defense isn’t as explosive as it used to be, the running attack is mostly non-existent and the offensive line is just as inconsistent as ever.
However, with a top-five quarterback in his prime and enough talent around him, the Steelers are one of few teams who are perpetually a play or two away from seizing control of a game. In a one-and-done tournament like the NFL postseason, nothing’s more scary than seeing Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, a Manning brother or Roethlisberger on the other side of the line.
Pittsburgh still has time to conjure championship dreams, but the time is nigh for a flawed team to demonstrate that its good qualities outshine its blemishes.