Tim Benz: Steelers' win over Titans even bigger than we think
The Steelers won a big game Thursday night.
And they probably won it because it really was a big game.
It might not have felt that way a few weeks ago. But it was.
The 2017 Steelers are an improved edition of a familiar model. They are yet another Steelers team with talent that can contend with anyone when they play with focus and determination.
But they are also a team that is flawed enough that it can keep even the worst of the NFL's clubs in a game if they are ill-prepared and out of focus.
For example, the 8-2 Steelers lost to 3-6 Chicago. They also won by just a field goal against 0-9 Cleveland and 3-7 Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, the Steelers have thus far been the only team to beat AFC West-leading Kansas City at home. They also won a road game against wild-card contending Detroit and are fresh off routing Tennessee, which entered Heinz Field 6-3 by a final of 40-17.
And therein lies the trend over the past few seasons.
Flashback to that AFC North duel on Christmas 2016 against the Ravens. At Kansas City or Cincinnati in the playoffs (and in the regular season). Denver at Heinz Field in December 2015. Six wins versus teams above .500 in 2014.
In recent years, the bigger the game, the better the Steelers play.
Unless it's against the Patriots.
More on them in a moment.
But as we are handing out bouquets for those who played well in that beatdown of Tennessee, let's save the biggest bushel for the Titans themselves.
Going into the bye a few weeks ago, that Titans game had the classic appearance of a matchup the Steelers would overlook. It reeked of a sleepwalking, short-week affair against a bland opponent.
Then Tennessee's improved play and standing in the AFC playoff mix prevented that from happening.
The Titans made Thursday night a big game with a recent hot stretch, and the Steelers responded as they often do.
“They had just won four straight. They were hot,” Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell said. “We went out there and made a statement.
“We were on our P's and Q's and got the job done.”
Bell is right. The Titans hadn't lost for a month. Not only did they creep into a first-place tie with Jacksonville atop the AFC South, but a victory at Heinz Field would have put them momentarily in front of the Chiefs and Steelers in the race to catch New England for AFC supremacy.
The Steelers noticed.
“We respect the Tennessee Titans,” Mike Tomlin said. “They are a division-leading, capable team.”
Yet, the Steelers' offensive explosion and defensive splash plays made the Titans decidedly incapable.
You could find preseason predictions on the Titans ranging anywhere from 7-9 to 12-4. They appeared to be a lot closer to the former Thursday. However, that doesn't dull the implications of this win.
If the Steelers had lost, they would have fallen to 7-3. As referenced earlier, the Jaguars and Titans then would have held potential tiebreakers over the Steelers in terms of playoff seeding depending on which one wins the AFC South.
A loss also would have dented the Steelers' ability to hold serve in its perpetual battle with 7-2 New England for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
Plus, seeing as how the Chiefs have just one game remaining against a team who currently boasts a winning record — the 5-4 Bills at Arrowhead next week — don't be stunned if they finish 13-3 despite some recent struggles.
So via tiebreakers and/or a potential loss to the Patriots before Christmas, that win Thursday over the Titans might have gone further than we had any right to expect between the Steelers getting the top seed in the playoffs as opposed to potentially the fourth seed.
That's a fourth seed that then would have necessitated a likely rematch against the South runner-up, with both candidates already claiming a win at Heinz Field during the regular season.
“Everybody was watching us tonight,” defensive end Cam Heyward said after the victory Thursday. “Now, we are in the clubhouse with a win. And everybody is still chasing us.”
On Sunday, the Patriots will be favored to beat Oakland. Jacksonville is at winless Cleveland. The Chiefs visit the 1-8 Giants. Therefore, you can expect whatever padding the Steelers have built going into the weekend to be gone.
So what could have been viewed as a potential “classic Steeler pitfall game” instead turned into exactly what usually constitutes a “classic Steeler kind of win.”
Late start. At home. Potential playoff opponent. Second half of the year.
Maybe that description finally can be applied to the Patriots as well this time around Dec. 17.
For a change.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.