Despite defeat to Browns, Steelers are still in thick of playoff chase
Brian Hoyer, buckle your chinstrap.
The Steelers, who are turning over the ball nearly as rapidly as they are going through offensive linemen, spent Monday watching video of their alarming 20-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns, who usually beat them only during the worst of seasons. No wonder several players tweeted it was one of the longest off days they could remember at the team's South Side offices.
The question now is whether this is about to become exactly that for the Steelers (6-5), or whether the glimmer of hope that Ben Roethlisberger could return sooner rather than later from his multiple upper body injuries might be enough to salvage their season.
Even if Roethlisberger plays Sunday in Baltimore, there is no assurance that a quarterback who was in considerable discomfort this time a week ago will be a reasonable facsimile of the NFL MVP-caliber player he was before getting hurt Nov. 12 against the Chiefs.
And if he can't play — Steelers fans already are shuddering at the thought — does coach Mike Tomlin dare try a fourth quarterback is as many weeks in Hoyer, who has thrown one pass in two seasons? Byron Leftwich (ribs) can't play, and Charlie Batch was so ineffective while throwing three interceptions in Cleveland that at least one Browns player said the Steelers looked unprepared.
“I don't think they were ready to play this week,” defensive lineman Phil Taylor said. “Baltimore kind of beat them up last week (during a 13-10 Ravens win Nov. 18), and they were down to their third-string quarterback and we just had to take advantage of what they (gave) us.”
What they gave the Browns were eight turnovers, the most by any NFL team since the Rams also had eight, against the Saints, in 2001.
“It's not shaking my confidence,” linebacker James Harrison said. “My teammates are just as strong-minded as me. I don't believe it will shake their confidence.”
Remarkably, despite their ball-control problems, injury issues (Roethlisberger, Willie Colon, Antonio Brown, Mike Adams, LaMarr Woodley) and constantly rotating quarterbacks (three in three games) and running backs (four in one game), the Steelers are in reasonably good shape playoff-wise.
Even after losing to the Raiders (3-8), Browns (3-8) and Titans (4-7), they own the tie-breaker with the Bengals for the second AFC wild-card slot, and they play Cincinnati again Dec. 23.
Only the Bengals and Dolphins (5-6) are within two games of them for that second wild-card berth, and the Steelers get to play much of their December schedule at Heinz Field, where they meet the Chargers (4-7), Bengals and Browns. Their only road game in the final four weeks is Dec. 16 at Dallas.
But history also shows that when the Steelers are 6-5 or worse after 11 games, the playoffs generally elude them.
Only once in six tries during the last 20 years — in 1993, when they also were 6-5 — did the Steelers reach the playoffs after failing to have at least seven wins through 11 games. A point of reference: They lost to the Browns in four of those seasons.
The Steelers won the Super Bowl after being 7-5 in 2005, but they were 7-4 after 11 games.
“It's about fighting and getting through this hard time,” Jonathan Dwyer said. “We need to get the win (in Baltimore) for sure.”
Only 10 days ago, the Steelers could have seized the AFC North lead by beating Baltimore. But if they lose Sunday to the Ravens (9-2), they will be eliminated from the division race.
And that would be the worst takeaway from the Steelers all season.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.