I’ve said several times in the past eight weeks that this is quickly becoming the season of what might have been for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In some ways, they only have themselves to blame, as the team appeared completely unprepared in their Week 1 loss to the New England Patriots, and had no business blowing the lead late against the Baltimore Ravens. In other ways, injuries have taken their toll and prevented an incredibly talented team from recognizing their true potential, especially on offense.
As an analyst, I’m ready to move on to the next game just a day or two after a loss. But the fan in me rises up occasionally, and it becomes difficult to not think about what might have been already this season for Pittsburgh.
Do the Steelers lose to New England is the defense is not wholly unprepared, leaving receivers uncovered and blowing assignments? If Todd Haley doesn’t dial up that bizarre wide receiver pass on the Steelers previously dominant first drive of the game? If the Steelers don’t elect to run the ball on 3rd-and-goal from the 5? After all, the defense still managed to hold New England to their lowest point total of the season, despite looking lost for much of the game.
How badly does Pittsburgh blow out a hapless Baltimore team in Week 4 if Ben Roethlisberger isn’t hurt and Martavis Bryant is in the lineup? If Haley trusts Le’Veon Bell instead of his now-third string quarterback on two of the games biggest plays? If Mike Vick could throw a simple out-route on target? If Josh Scobee wasn’t a train wreck? Of all the moments to look back on this season and simply shake your head, the Steelers 23-20 loss to the Ravens is loaded with them.
The questions can obviously continue for the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and to the Cincinnati Bengals, two games the Steelers absolutely should have won. We’ve become accustomed to seeing Pittsburgh lose a few games every year that they should win based on talent and personnel advantages, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating to see happen time and time again.
Unfortunately, the time to reminisce about blown opportunities and costly losses must remain brief. At 4-4 in a dismal AFC, the Steelers are still very much in the playoff hunt heading into Week 9. While the division title seems like a long shot sitting behind the 7-0 Bengals, only two teams sit ahead of Pittsburgh in the wild card race, and one of them comes to town this Sunday for a 1 pm showdown.
Make no mistake about it, the 4-3 Oakland Raiders are a tough football team, led by second-year quarterback Derek Carr and a vastly improved offensive line. They’ve scored 34+ points in both of their last two games, and in three of their seven contests this season. And Oakland always seems to give Pittsburgh problems, with the Steelers going 1-3 against the Raiders since 2007.
A host of other teams sit a game or two behind the Steelers, which is why the next two weeks are must-win games for Pittsburgh. Lose to either the Raiders or the Browns, and the team’s playoff hopes take a massive hit. Lose to both, and you can forget about the postseason. Win both, and you give yourself the slightest amount of breathing room for the stretch run after the Week 11 bye.
The Steelers stretch run is still very tough, but the slate does appear more doable each day. Seattle is struggling mightily on both sides of the ball, and will be coming off back-to-back divisional games. Indianapolis in Week 13 could be a battle for a wild card spot, but the Colts are a bad football team right now at 3-5, losers of three in a row with games against Denver and Atlanta on the horizon.
Following those two games, Pittsburgh travels to Cincinnati to try and split the season series with the Bengals, before returning home to host Denver and the best defense in the NFL. Road dates against Baltimore and Cleveland close out the season, neither of which will be gimmes regardless of either team’s record at that point in time.
So yes, while the Steelers season has been cursed with injury and untimely moments, all is not lost yet. In a parity-stricken AFC, the team’s wild card hopes remain alive and well at the midway point of the season. Lose either of the next two games however, and a season that began with such promise will quickly begin to slip towards a season of what might have been after all.